On September 4, 1957–“E-Day,” according to its advertising campaign–the Ford Motor Company unveils the Edsel, the first new automobile brand produced by one of the Big Three car companies since 1938. (Although many people call it the “Ford Edsel,” in fact Edsel was a division all its own, like Lincoln or Mercury.) Thirteen hundred independent Edsel dealers offered four models for sale: the smaller Pacer and Ranger and the larger Citation and Corsair.
To many people, the Edsel serves as a symbol of corporate hubris at its worst: it was an over-hyped, over-sized, over-designed monstrosity. Other people believe the car was simply a victim of bad timing. When Ford executives began planning for the company’s new brand, the economy was booming and people were snapping up enormous gas-guzzlers as fast as automakers could build them. By the time the Edsel hit showrooms, however, the economic outlook was bad and getting worse. People didn’t want big, glitzy fin cars anymore; they wanted small, efficient ones instead. The Edsel was just ostentatious and expensive enough to give buyers pause.
At the same time, there is probably no car in the world that could have lived up to the Edsel’s hype. For months, the company had been running ads that simply pictured the car’s hood ornament and the line “The Edsel Is Coming.” Everything else about the car was top-secret: If dealers failed to keep their Edsels hidden, they’d lose their franchise. For the great E-Day unveiling, promotions and prizes–like a giveaway of 1,000 ponies–lured shoppers to showrooms.
When they got there, they found a car that had a distinctive look indeed–but not necessarily in a good way. Thanks to the big impact ring or “horse collar” in the middle of its front grille, it looked (one reporter said) like “a Pontiac pushing a toilet seat.” (Another called it “an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon.”) And its problems were more than cosmetic. Drivers changed gears by pushing buttons on the steering wheel, a system that was not easy to figure out. In addition, at highway speeds that famous hood ornament had a tendency to fly off and into the windshield.
In its first year, Edsel sold just 64,000 cars and lost $250 million ($2.5 billion today). After the 1960 model year, the company folded.