MCG Car Spotter’s Guide to the 1958 to 1960 Edsel

Metaphor for corporate failure or fairly decent automobile? Both. Mac’s Motor City Garage explores the three years of Edsel.

 

 

The Edsel might not be the biggest blunder in Motor City history, but it is the most celebrated. Formed as a new division of Ford Motor Company, the Edsel brand began on a grand scale with a separate dealer network and four model lines for 1958: Ranger, Pacer, Corsair, and Citation.

On these four models were 18 separate body styles, including two and four-door sedans and hardtops, convertibles, and station wagons (Villager and Bermuda) in two-door and four-door, six and nine-passenger versions. It was an ambitious product lineup, especially for a startup.

The junior series Pacer and Ranger rode on a 118-inch wheelbase, sharing the Ford platform, while the Corsair and Citation senior models were based on the big 124-inch Mercury chassis. Intended to slot in between Ford and Mercury in price and prestige, the Edsel actually overlapped the two existing nameplates.

The Ranger was priced in the $2,500 bracket, Ford Fairlane territory, while the Corsair and Citation went head-to-head with the Mercury Montclair at $3,300. And there it is: one of several problems with Edsel’s core business strategy. In reality, there was no market segment between Ford and Mercury. It was a mirage.

 

With no true market segment of its own, one way Edsel sought to distinguish itself was with bold, distinctive styling: a vertical horse-collar grille at the front and boomerang taillamps at the rear. In the mid-1950s, all the automakers toyed with vertical grilles in their styling studios, most notably Packard. However, only Edsel was brave enough to bring the look to market.

 

Edsel also tried to set itself apart with unique operating features, including an automatic chassis lubrication system and a push-button automatic transmission with the controls in the steering wheel hub. Unlike Chrysler’s push-button automatic, the Edsel’s shifter was electrically operated.

 

Loads of extra side trim and Mercury-style greenhouse identify this two-door hardtop as the top-of-the-line Citation model. The first-year ’58 models were the purest, so to speak, in presenting the signature Edsel look. In the two years that followed, styling was toned down considerably.

 

The junior Ranger model is plainer and cleaner, sharing much with its ’58 Ford sibling, including doors, glass, and roofline. Their common structure has permitted home builders to create some interesting hybrids over the years, including Edsel Rancheros and Edsel Skyliner retractable convertibles—models the factory never offered.

 

When the 1959 models were introduced, the writing was already on the wall for Edsel. First year sales were barely 68,000 units, a fraction of the the division’s projection of 200,000. The four model lines were slashed to two, Ranger and Corsair, both based on Ford chassis, and the unique, expensive, and troublesome mechanical features such as Teletouch were discontinued. The Edsel was now essentially a reskinned Ford, and company VP Robert McNamara was working to pull the plug altogether.

 

The horse-collar vertical grille motif was retained for 1959, but the aggressive headlamp pods were scrapped and the lamps relocated down in the horizontal grille elements.  At the rear, the taillamp housings now carried three round lamps each instead of the wild boomerang lenses. So while the 1958 and 1959 Edsels are similar in overall theme, each is a one-year design and they are easy to distinguish from one another. Parked side-by-side, they’re different cars.

 

But for the vertical grille up front, the ’59 Edsel (Corsair convertible shown) is relatively boxy and squarish, and more conservative than the gimmicky ’59 Ford line, even. Sales sank further to 47,000 units, and the Edsel division was absorbed into the new Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln (MEL) organization in January of 1959. Edsel dealers were dualed with Lincoln-Mercury and Ford of England franchises to boost their sales volume.

 

For 1960 the Edsel was nothing more than a Ford with a different grille and taillamp treatment. The grille is split into two elements, creating a decidedly Pontiac-like effect. There was now but one model, the Ranger, with the station wagon version wearing Villager emblems.

 

At the rear, the ’60 Edsel got a slightly different bumper than the Ford, and vertical mini-fins with paired taillamp and backup lamp housings. The 1960 is the rarest of the three Edsel years with only 2,846 units built.

 

The only Edsel body style for 1960 not directly lifted from Ford was the Ranger four-door pillarless hardtop. Only around 135 were produced. On November 18, 1959, Ford announced the end of the Edsel brand and production was wound up by the end of the month. After a $350 million investment and only 118,000 units produced, the Edsel saga was ended.

 

9 thoughts on “MCG Car Spotter’s Guide to the 1958 to 1960 Edsel

    • Thanks for the kind words. We didn’t want a “why Edsel failed” or “how Edsel sucks” story. Tried to stay on the Spotter’s Guide theme and show the differences in years and models.

  1. Controversial styling, poor quality control, a Ford or Mercury from the beltline down, introduced at the start of a recession all lead to the Edsel’s demise. The car was nothing new and it was nothing more than a tricked up Ford or Mercury.

  2. It amazes me that a company as big as Ford could miss the mark so bad with this car. First the styling, then the poor quality control, then bringing a car out in a market segment that was already dropping in sales volume with established nameplates. The market analysts are as responsible for the Edsel’s failure as much as the designer’s were.

    • Spot on as usual, Jim. Henry II admired his father Edsel very much and was reluctant to name the car after him for all the reasons you cite. When things came out badly it changed his view of the car business – hardened him. .

  3. Oh, and one other minor item: The “multiple lubricator” automatic chassis lubrication system wasn’t an Edsel-unique accessory. It was also available on Lincoln and Mercury from 1955 through 1960, although only as a dealer-added accessory for 1959 and 1960 Mercury and Edsel.

  4. Supposedly this was the first car styled by a computer using focus groups. It was McNamara’s way of taking the fallible humans out of the design process. He used the same techniques to prove we were winning in Viet Nam.

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