The Edsel was named after Edsel Ford, the son of Henry, of course, but only after a long, convoluted, and expensive chain of experiments, arguments, marketing research, and trial and error.
And after all that, the adventuresome car for the upwardly mobile family was branded with an old-fashioned, grandfatherly name, scarcely well suited for a stylish new car, with its horse-collar-shaped radiator grille, wide wings on the rear, and steering wheel bedecked with push buttons—epitomizing right there the spirit of a new era.
While the initial idea for a brand-new medium-priced car dates to 1948, when Henry Ford II suggested it to Ernest R. Breech, executive vice-president, a firm decision to launch such a car was not made until 1955. And in that year car manufacturers had no cause for trepidation.
The American public, now fully recovered from the Korean War, discovered unprecedented prosperity and the big car became an outward symbol for that affluence. Chevrolets and Plymouths were getting bigger and more varied. They were being equipped with power steering, power brakes, pushbutton-controlled windows, and the competition was on for increasingly higher engine power. Everyone wanted a car and a buying record-7 million units—was set that year.
As head of the special products division at Ford, R. E. Krafve oversaw the birth of the new car. For a long time it was referred to as the E-Car, E standing for experimental, though quite early on Krafve suggested it be called the Edsel. Edsel’s three sons—Henry II, Benson, and William Clay—thought otherwise, however, rejecting out of hand the blatant commercialization of their late father’s name. Little more was said as Roy A. Brown, put in charge of design, went to work in celebrated secrecy, with security guards at the doors 24 hours a day. Brown had no guiding flashes of intuition, but plodded along, part by part.
Meanwhile, David Wallace, director of planning for market research, set out to determine just what image the public was after and and just what name would encapsulate it. “. . . Cars are the means to a sort of dream fulfillment,” said Wallace.
“There’s some irrational factor in people that makes them want one kind of car rather than another, something that has nothing to do with the mechanism at all but with the car’s personality, as the customer imagines it.” What was to be the personality of the new car?
From interviews of 800 recent car buyers in Peoria, Illinois, and 800 more in San Bernardino, California, Wallace learned that Ford’s only medium-priced car, the Mercury, was considered virtually a hot rod, something young, fast, and male—and for the low-income bracket, though in reality it was not. Thus as people moved to higher incomes, they turned to a non-Ford car for something more respectable. The E-Car had to catch the eye of people on the rise, not too old or too young, and not exclusively male, though the car’s appearance should in no way be feminine. Wallace outlined the desired image as follows:
The most advantageous personality for the E-Car might well be THE SMART CAR FOR THE YOUNGER EXECUTIVE OR PROFESSIONAL FAMILY ON ITS WAY UP.
Smart car: recognition by others of the owner’s good style and taste.
Younger: appealing to the spirited but responsible adventurers.
Executive or professional: millions pretend to this status, whether they can attain it or not.
Family: not exclusively masculine; a wholesome “good” role.
On Its Way Up: “The E-Car has faith in you, son; we’ll help you make it!”
Wallace then sent researchers out onto the streets of Chicago, New York, and Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan. Armed with 2,000 potential names for the car, the interviewers asked people not only what they thought of the name, but what free associations each evoked, and what they considered the opposite to be. The research accumulated masses of material, but nothing conclusive.
Day after day, Krafve and other Ford executives sat in a dark room reacting to flash cards with such suggested names as Altair, Ariel, Dart, Mars, Jupiter, and Phoenix. But no agreement could be reached.
There followed one of the most unusual twists in the history of commercial marketing. The wife of one of Ford’s junior assistants had recently graduated from Mount Holyoke College, where she had heard and been duly impressed by the poet Marianne Moore. The young graduate suggested that Wallace ask Miss Moore what she would call the car and Wallace took her up on it. “We should like this name,” wrote Wallace to the distinguished poet, “. . . to convey, through association or other conjuration, some visceral feeling of elegance, fleetness, advanced features and design.” Moore responded with such lofty titles as Intelligent Bullet, Andante con Moto, Utopian Turtletop, Pastelogram, and Bullet Cloisonné. Somehow, Ford didn’t bite.
Next, the prominent Madison Avenue advertising agency Foote, Cone, and Belding was hired to solve the problem. They conducted a competition in their New York, London, and Chicago offices to name the car, inciting their employees with the prospect of winning a car.
The agency soon had a dizzying list of 18,000 names, which they cut by two thirds before presenting it to Ford. But the irate executives at Ford did not wish to cope with 6,000, they wanted only 1, and asked Foote, Cone to cut the list to 10. During a crash program over one weekend, the New York and Chicago offices of Foote, Cone independently trimmed the list and amazingly enough came up with four of the same names on their lists of ten: Corsair was the leading contender, followed by Citation, Pacer, and Ranger. Wallace liked Corsair, too, and noted that it had rated high on the street interviews, sparking such free-spirited associations as “pirate” and “swashbuckler.
The Ford executive committee met to make the final choice. All three brothers were away. Ernest Breech took one look at the top ten and announced he didn’t like any of them. The group turned to some of the past rejects and the brusque, impatient Breech lighted on Edsel. That was the one he wanted and he got a majority to agree, with Corsair and the other three favorites on hand as subnames for variations of the E-Car. Breech called Henry II down in Nassau and obtained his approval of the choice, and he in turn got his brothers to concede.
Whether because of its name, the recession of 1958, the crowded market of middle-priced cars, the time gap between the car’s design and its presentation to the public, or its “lemon-sucking” grille, the Edsel was a disaster. It was launched in 1957 to the accompaniment of unprecedented advertising and publicity campaigns.
Two years later only 100,000 cars had been sold. Ford discontinued the line in November 1959 having lost, reported John Brooks in The New Yorker, a staggering $350 million.