Abandoned History: The Life and Times of Edsel, a Ford Alternative by Ford (Part I)
Edsel received an honorary mention a couple of weeks ago, in our current Rare Rides Icons series on the Lincoln Mark cars. Then it was mentioned again the other day in Abandoned History’s coverage of the Cruise-O-Matic transmissions. It’s a sign. We need to talk about Edsel.
The Edsel brand itself was intrinsically linked with the likes of the Continental Division, and Ford’s IPO in January of 1956. The management ideas that lead to the launch of upscale Continental also generated the middle-but-upmarket brand that was Edsel.
Of course, that’s an oversimplification. The IPO meant Ford was no longer under the complete control of Henry Ford’s descendants, and the company’s product could have a bit more leeway to chase automotive segments. What management determined via research was that Ford did not have direct product competition with the likes of General Motors and its portfolio of brands, nor was it fully competitive with Chrysler. That led to the decision to create Continental to go against Cadillac and Imperial and another new brand for the middle market.
Lincoln’s offerings circa the mid-Fifties were seen as competition for the likes of DeSoto from Chrysler, and Oldsmobile and Buick at General Motors. The plan was to set up Continental as a halo vehicle and then move Lincoln into the luxury end of the market to compete against Chrysler and lower-level models at Cadillac.
Ford’s management determined the movement of Lincoln left a space in Ford’s product range for premium vehicles that were mid-size (or intermediate in Fifties terms). The cars were to be very different from Mercury models and differentiated by styling and their higher level of equipment. The new company would be direct competition for Oldsmobile, Buick, and DeSoto.
The new brand project got underway shortly before Ford’s IPO, during 1955. The secret work was initially called “E Car,” which stood for Experimental Car. In short order, the E became Edsel: The brand was named after Edsel Ford. Edsel was the son of company founder Henry Ford and the man who served as the president of Ford from 1919 until 1943. Upon Edsel’s death, Henry Ford ran the company for a short while, until the reigns were given to Henry Ford II (Edsel’s son). He managed the company from 1945 through 1960.
The brand’s name was a nice tribute to Edsel, a company leader continually overruled by a father who was stuck in the past, only wanted to produce the Model T, and continually humiliated his own son in public. Henry Ford II reportedly did not want the company named after his father but lost that battle.
Ford spent a lot of money on the research and development process for Edsel. They were determined to have a better product than Oldsmobile, Buick, and DeSoto, and they felt the new Edsels would be widely praised for their styling and desirable level of equipment. By the time the research and development were finished, it was the latter portion of 1956, and Ford had been publicly traded for around 10 months.
The big Edsel moment came in November of 1956 when the Edsel Division was formed as a new branch of Ford, separate from Lincoln-Mercury. By that time the Continental Division was already deceased. Ford did not start out small with Edsel but rather established 1,187 dealers immediately. That brought its total company representation across the United States to about 10,000 dealers.
And while that sounds like a large number of dealerships, Chrysler already had over 10,000 dealers in 1956, and GM had around 16,000 dealers and a total of six brands, versus three at Ford. Things have changed since, as Ford has just 3,000 total dealers across the nation in 2022. Edsel preparations continued after the company was founded through the remainder of 1956, and most of 1957. And then it was time for the big reveal.
Ford called it E Day, a triumphant event name. The debut received a generous amount of publicity and marketing effort and then was followed by a prime-time show on CBS in October. It’s hard to imagine such an event taking place on television today: A big-budget, hour-long special that featured a number of big Hollywood stars.
The Edsel Show aired on October 13th, 1957, and was intended to entertain and (mostly) promote the Edsel brand. It was 58 minutes and was notably broadcast live. Besides the considerable effort such a show required, it was also a first in television: The Edsel show was the very first CBS program that was recorded on tape so it could be broadcast to the Western portion of the nation. Though recorded in Los Angeles, the live show was presented on East Coast time. The videotape is presently the oldest known video in existence and is presented here from YouTube.
A musical, The Edsel Show was headlined by Bing Crosby, and also starred Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby’s son Lindsay, as well as special surprise guest Bob Hope, and the quartet called The Four Preps. The voiceover was provided by Warren Hall, one of the most popular action actors of his time.
The show was produced by Gonzaga University, which Bing Crosby arranged so his alma mater could net the profits of the show’s distribution. Not an inconsiderable sum, the show net the college around $250,000 ($2,647,608 adj.). Not some corny marketing presentation, The Edsel Show won an award for Best Musical Show from Look magazine and was nominated for an Emmy Award. It was simultaneously praised by magazines like Variety, which considered Crosby and Sinatra to be at the top of their game.
The show opened with “Now You Has Jazz” from the 1956 Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby movie High Society. Through the end of the 58-minute run, people were introduced to Edsel and the courageous styling of its cars. It wasn’t all about advertising though, as Edsels appeared only at 24 minutes in, 44 minutes in, and then at the closing credits. The show ended with the 1930 classic “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”
The show aired on a Sunday, at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time where it replaced The Ed Sullivan Show. It was widely considered one of the most popular shows of the 1957-1958 television season. And The Edsel Show was later considered an important moment for Bing Crosby’s step from the movie screen into television. Though CBS didn’t bite, ABC was interested in recreating the success of The Edsel Show and used it as the template for Crosby’s television specials, which would air twice per year under his new ABC contract.
Less impressed with the Edsel’s performance was Rosemary Clooney. Decades later she recounted in her autobiography the excitement of the Edsel brand during the recording of the show. Ford promised the Edsel was “A new vista of motoring pleasure, unlike any other car you’ve ever seen.” But the reality was less than pleasurable.
Ford provided Clooney with an Edsel to use while she was rehearsing for the show. The first time she saw an Edsel in person was the purple example on loan to her, parked outside of the CBS studio. As she went to leave, Henry Ford II stood nearby, watching the star interact with the product. But when Clooney pulled the Edsel’s handle, it fell off in her hand. She turned to Ford and said, “About your car…”
That personal anecdote would turn out to encapsulate the American public’s experience and enjoyment of the Edsel cars; it was all downhill after the splashy television debut. And that’s where we’ll pick up next time.
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