Edsel Agonistes

5 minute read
Dan Neil

Edsel was a first name before it was ever a car name. But it was never a very popular thing to call a child: according to the Social Security Administration–which has time for this sort of thing–the name Edsel has ranked only as high as 400th on the top 1,000 names for boys, and that was in 1927. More popular names that year included the soaring Kermit, Buford and Elvin.

After Sept. 4, 1957–“E-day,” the day 50 years ago when Ford Motor Co. unveiled its taco-faced disaster, the Edsel–the name dropped off the list altogether, never to return. A quick check of demographic records suggests that a convention of Americans first-named Edsel could be held in a hotel linen closet.

Of course, you never hear anyone say, “This is our son Hindenburg,” either.

The Edsel was one of the cruelest tributes ever paid a man. Named after Henry Ford’s son and the longtime company president–who died at age 49 in 1943–the Edsel was not just a car but a whole division within Ford, created to compete head-to-head with General Motors’ Oldsmobile. It was a sales disaster. Two years later, future Ford president Robert McNamara persuaded the board to pull the plug on the Edsel. That’s the same McNamara who became President Johnson’s Secretary of Defense and refused to recommend withdrawing from Vietnam, even though he knew a lemon when he saw one.

The Edsel fiasco has been autopsied many times–it is the stuff of books and business-school case studies–and yet I can’t help reaching for the rib spreader one more time. Here was an early and definitive illustration of message revenge, the kind of fierce consumer blowback that can occur in markets when a product or service (or military occupation) fails to live up to its hype. Consumers, it turns out, regard their passive absorption of mass advertising as an investment of psychic space; to the extent that they allow themselves to become aroused with anticipation, they consider their credulity as something like a down payment.

The Edsel had been frantically ballyhooed for months ahead of its arrival with a new kind of highly scientific marketing, an alchemical blend of psychology, mass media and old-fashioned hucksterism. Call it the iEdsel. By the time the silk was pulled off the Edsel in hundreds of showrooms around the country, people were panting to see their automotive deliverance, the plutonium-powered, pancake-making supercar they’d been promised. What they saw was a large, relatively expensive, curiously styled Mercury–curious insofar as the vertical grille looked like a midwife’s view of labor and delivery.

And they were not happy.

The same hype that made the Edsel a breathless, everywhere-at-once cultural phenomenon turned it into a national punch line. It was such an easy target that even the widely unloved Richard Nixon could get off a zinger. The Vice President was riding in a convertible Edsel in Lima, Peru, in 1958 when his motorcade was pelted with eggs. “They were throwing eggs at the car, not me,” Nixon later quipped.

Fifty years on, the name Edsel remains shorthand for hubris and collapse, a mal mot of capitalism, right up there with New Coke, Betamax and Pets.com Except that Edsel was a real person and a pretty good one at that. On this, the anniversary of his maligning, it feels like somebody ought to say so.

Edsel Ford was a cultured man, a collector and an arts benefactor, in a town and time where culture equaled “pie-eating contest.” He supported expeditions to the polar ice caps. His philanthropic legacy lives on in the Ford Foundation.

The Ford family opposed calling the new car Edsel. This was only a few years after Edsel had died, and his son, Henry Ford II–also known as the Deuce–thought it was undignified to have his dad’s name spinning around on hubcaps. Ford execs commissioned extensive semantic studies to find a name for the project, even going so far as to solicit suggestions from the poet Marianne Moore, who offered, among others, Mongoose Civique, Intelligent Whale and Utopian Turtletop. Clearly, naming a car wasn’t as easy as it seemed.

In the end, Ford execs decided to trash all the highfalutin marketing research, overrule the family and honor their fallen president. Quel dommage.

“The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers,” wrote Marshall McLuhan, and in Edsel Ford’s case, never really means never. As soon as it became clear that the car wasn’t selling, company researchers fanned out to discover why. One theory blamed the name itself, with its unpleasant homophonic associations with diesel and dead cell (as in batteries). It just wasn’t a pretty word, though it seems to have served Mr. Ford well enough.

I propose we rehabilitate the name. Fifty years from now, Edsel–derived from the Old German Adal, meaning “noble”–should bring to mind not the failed car but the decent man whose legacy fell under the huge chrome wheels of consumer culture on its first reckless laps.

Neil is a Pulitzer prizewinning automotive critic for the Los Angeles Times

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