Edsels weren’t always ugly.
Or at least, it wasn’t always the popular consensus that Edsels were ugly. Before the name became synonymous with failure and before Time magazine wrote that it resembled “an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon,” people—some of them at least—kind-of, sort-of liked the Edsel look. Of course, Time published its death sentence just two months after the cars’ debut and Edsel’s reputation was cemented soon after, so any societal goodwill toward the four-wheeled Quasimodo was short-lived.
It was an ironic story line for a program that was deeply funded, painstakingly researched, and endlessly promoted in an attempt to right the company. Ford had been slow to move beyond the Model T mentality of basic, cheap, commoditized transportation, and Alfred P. Sloan’s Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick—a trail of increasingly expensive bread crumbs leading increasingly affluent Americans from Chevrolet to Cadillac—were eating the Blue Oval’s lunch. The midpriced Edsel brand was the first and largest move in an effort to even out the steps between Ford and Continental.
General Motors took notice of Ford’s counterattack and dispatched numerous spies to major dealerships around the country during the Edsel launch festivities of September 4–7, 1957. As more than three million Americans turned out for a glimpse of Ford’s highly anticipated “E-car” (for experimental, not Edsel), GM’s eyes and ears recorded the reaction. If the final report wasn’t cause for alarm at GM, neither did it predict a total flop. “Prevalent attitude at this time seems to be: ‘It’s not a bad-looking car; I’m not sure that I like the front end, but it’s something I may get used to. In the meantime, I can’t say that I particularly dislike it,’ ” the brief concluded. In Motor Trend’s December 1957 road test, William Carroll took a more confident position, writing, “I believe it’s the sharpest car of 1958.”
To understand the curious world of modern Edsel collectors is to accept that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Fifty-five years on, what was once ungainly is now distinctive, and notoriety has its own charm, yet it’s rare to find an owner who holds on to these cars (“Most of us own more than one”) for the novelty of its history. Most admit to having a genuine attraction to the Edsel, just like those first buyers in the late ’50s.
Then and now, Ron Nickels admired the Edsel. He has owned the 1959 Corsair convertible on these pages since April 30, 1959, when he signed the original $3092.35 bill of sale. Although the document has faded over the years, Nickels’ enthusiasm for Edsel hasn’t. On the day I meet him, he’s wearing a T-shirt that reads, “The thrill starts with the grille,” and he proudly shows off a pennant in the trunk of his car that proclaims “Edsel: Ford’s better idea.” When I ask what attracted him to such an unattractive vehicle, Nickels cocks his head as if he’s never had to answer that question, then defends his second-year model: “Well, have you seen a 1958 Edsel?”
It was Robert Jones who sketched the first vertical grilles for the Edsel, inspired by the 1956 Packard Predictor concept he had worked on just a couple of years earlier. Jones envisioned a “closed blade floating in its opening,” but engineering later demanded more air for cooling and his shield became a ring. Then, meddling chairman Ernest Breech (who picked the unpopular Edsel moniker despite the Ford family’s reluctance to name a car after Henry Ford’s only child, who had died in 1943) ordered designers to make the opening wider, taller, and infinitely more likely to become the subject of a thousand jokes.
The company boasted that Edsel sales in the first five months exceeded those of any previous brand launch, but the triviality of that claim indicated only how desperate things really were. The midpriced market was being hammered by a rising recession, and sales rates were sinking fast enough that Edsel would miss its original target by well more than half. Vice president and consummate bean counter Robert McNamara, who had been angling to extinguish Edsel since before the brand launched, had the ammunition to make his case just months after the cars went on sale. Before the executive committee would grant his wish, though, McNamara was directed to salvage what he could. He ordered a dealer buy-back program of 5000 cars in mid-1959. Bodies were repainted, power assists were installed, automatics replaced manual transmissions, and the Edsels were shipped off to more successful dealers.
That makes Nickels’s Corsair a rare machine. With the optional 361-cubic-inch V-8 (a 410 was dropped after 1958), a three-on-the-tree manual, and unassisted steering and brakes, the red droptop is equipped more like an enthusiast’s toy than the top model of a near-luxury brand. A year earlier, Edsel had offered seven nameplates covering ten body styles and eighteen models. For 1959, the Corsair was reduced to trim differences over the Ranger with which it now shared a body.
The big engine in Nickels’s Edsel gives it classic American appeal. Ample, lazy torque (the 390-lb-ft peak is available at 2900 rpm) pushes the seventeen-and-a-half-foot sled up to speed effortlessly. Nickels claims a personal best of 110 mph on a 1965 trip to California with his wife sleeping in the passenger’s seat. In the glove box, two small notebooks have tracked the engine’s faithful performance by way of fuel economy. Since the first fill-up to the more than 189,000 miles showing on the odometer today, the thirsty eight has always returned tankfuls between 10 and 14 mpg.
Midcentury Detroit chassis tuning means potholes and cracks are truly imperceptible, while dips set the hood bobbing like a rocking horse. No matter how slowly you corner, the Corsair lists precariously, and at 5.3 turns lock-to-lock, it’s not a bad idea to start winding the unassisted tiller a full city block before your intended turn.
Unfortunately for the marque, no amount of effort from engineering, marketing, or design could correct Edsel’s course. As a few within Ford held out hope for saving the brand, market research conducted clinics in which consumers were shown advance photos of a redesigned car. When shown the photos without the Edsel name, the subjects responded favorably, but the ratings plummeted when the brand name was added to the pictures. The swan-song cars of 1960 abandoned the vertical grille in favor of an anonymous front end, but this was a cost-saving move more than a last-ditch attempt to kick-start sales. The Edsel name was toxic.
Back in 1958, Ford sought to reassure potential buyers who had already sniffed out Edsel’s dire position. One such effort was an advertisement that promised “Dramatic Edsel styling is here to stay.” Although the brand didn’t live long enough to see its third birthday, neither was the ad untrue. Edsel styling has earned its permanent place in automotive history.
5.4L (332 cu in) OHV V-8, 225 hp, 325 lb-ft
5.9L (361 cu in) OHV V-8, 303 hp, 390 lb-ft
2- or 3-speed automatic
Control arms, coil springs
Live axle, leaf springs
8653, of which 1343 were convertibles
You’ll never have to explain what it is (although you might have to justify why you bought it). The rarity of 1960 models can push prices to six figures, but we believe a proper Edsel has a vertical grille like the ’58 and ’59. Buying an Edsel these days is more about the backstory and controversy surrounding the car than it is the driving experience, but with a memorable and significant role in automotive history, these cars deserve to be preserved. Or maybe you just like the way they look.