By on June 12, 2015

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When I noticed Michael Beschloss did a piece on the failure of the Edsel, I thought it was pretty cool that a historian of his reputation would write about cars. Beschloss is better known for writing about U.S. presidents than automobiles.

After reading his piece in the New York Times, Hubris, and Sputnik, Doomed the Edsel, I’m less impressed with his reputation.

 

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Note the push-button automatic transmission controls in the steering wheel hub.

As you can tell from the headline at the NYT, Beschloss’ thesis is that the USSR’s Oct. 4, 1957 launch of the Sputnik satellite, exactly one month after Ford’s more terrestrial “E Day” launch of the Edsel brand, doomed the new car line by making its gimmicky features seem frivolous in a more serious age.

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Far be it from a mere automotive scrivener like your humble servant to challenge a noted presidential historian, but not only do I think Beschloss’ point about the Soviet satellite is way overstated, he doesn’t even credit the Ford marketing executive who first attributed the Edsel’s failure to Sputnik’s success. Instead, he rather unfairly uses that same executive as an object lesson on the domestic auto industry’s hubris.

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To his credit, Beschloss does refer to other factors that contributed to the Edsel’s market failure and Ford Motor Company’s decision to shutter the brand after only three model years.

The car was introduced just as the United States was entering a deep recession, one that would coincidentally be aggravated by a long strike at General Motors by the United Auto Workers. The styling of the Edsel was odd enough to be the butt of jokes. Initial quality was abysmal, with poorly fitted body panels and problems with the push-button automatic transmission controls located on the steering wheel hub. The Edsel became enmeshed in a power struggle at Ford, long considered a bit of a vipers’ pit of office politics. Once the car went on sale, industry, enthusiast and consumer publications were highly critical.

 

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The 1959 Edsels had less controversial styling.

The basic idea of the Edsel, when it was conceived in 1955, was to carve out space in the mid-priced segment to allow Mercury to go upmarket. What Beschloss doesn’t say is, by the middle of 1957, Ford knew the mid-priced segment had declined 40% since 1955’s banner sales year, against a 16% overall decline in the market for new cars in general. Even before the Edsel went on sale, people within Ford questioned its potential for success.

 

By the 1960 model year, Edsel styling had been considerably toned down...

By the 1960 model year, Edsel styling had been considerably toned down…

Just prior to the Edsel’s launch, Ford put on a gala dinner dance in Dearborn for the various teams involved in the Edsel project to celebrate, including their ad agency – Foote, Cone & Belding. At the dinner was Robert S. McNamara, later to be U.S. Defense Secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, then general manager for Ford’s car and truck divisions. Beschloss, citing Thomas E. Bonsall’s book Disaster in Dearborn, relates how McNamara, gestured at the guests from FCB, and

told Fairfax M. Cone, “Of course, you realize you’re going to have to let all of these people go,” adding that he was planning to “phase out” the Edsel.

Those quotation marks around “phase out” are a little bit troubling. The actual quote in Bonsall’s book makes it clear that McNamara’s wording was slightly different and was a bit more emphatic:

“Of course, you realize you’re going to have to let all of these people go. We’ve decided to discontinue the Edsel.”

The Edsel was actually doomed before either it or the Sputnik was launched.

... at least on the front end. Ford saved plenty of weird for the '60 Edsel rear end.

… at least on the front end. Ford saved plenty of weird for the ’60 Edsel rear end.

Those quotation marks aren’t the only problem I have with Beschloss’ article. Beschloss uses a 1960 quote by David Wallace, then Ford’s planning director for special projects market research, to show that lessons weren’t learned from the Edsel’s failure.

Mr. Wallace went on, “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.”

Even in hindsight, Mr. Wallace seems not to have learned the overwhelming lesson of the Edsel fiasco: While consumers of the time may have been momentarily intrigued by the car’s much ballyhooed “personality,” they were shrewd enough, especially as Cold War and economic anxieties descended, to quickly see through Ford’s claims that the Edsel was something “entirely new.”

It’s interesting, and perhaps a bit unfair, that Beschloss uses Wallace as an object lesson in failing to learn lessons from failure, because it seems likely to me that the historian got his Sputnik thesis from the very same David Wallace, though without attributing it to him.

From page 143 of Thomas Bonsall’s book on the Edsel imbroglio (emphasis added):

After the fact, in their personal postmortems, Edsel Division executives were widely divergent in recalling when they decided the Edsel was in trouble. Warnock [C. Gayle Warnock, Ford PR chief] claimed to have sensed it as early as a couple of weeks after E-Day. Krafve [Richard E. Krafve, General Manager of the Edsel Division], got cold feet toward the end of October, while Doyle [J. C. (Larry) Doyle, General Sales and Marketing Manager Edsel Division] held out until mid-November. Wallace insisted years later that the turning point was October 4th – the day the Soviet Sputnik space craft went into orbit, and Americans suddenly began to question the validity of the American Dream itself.

The date of September 5th – the day of McNamara’s ascension – stands out, though. It would be unfair to say he hated the Edsel per se, for it went deeper than that. He hated complexity…

In light of the fact that Beschloss thought Wallace’s blaming of the Edsel’s failure on the Sputnik was worthy enough to repeat, albeit without crediting the source, one might think he’d consider that the Ford executive’s comments on consumers’ irrationality and cars’ personalities were also well informed, even if the Edsel is indeed a synonym for hubris and failure.

Photos by the author.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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76 Comments on “Did Sputnik Doom the Edsel?...”


  • avatar
    TrailerTrash

    The thought that a consumer’s final purchase of a car is based largely on unknown, irrational thought has some basis in fact.
    I know from great experience that folks will research and test drive…then somehow come home with a car based upon its having a cool color or design.
    I myself have walked away from great cars because they were missing “something”.

    AND…I somehow LIKE the looks of the Edsel! I dunno why. It just had that look…unlike so many others.

    I was happy to see how these HUGE designs eventually became the awesome smaller looks starting in 1960.

    God how I love the Golden Years of car design..the early 60s!

    The 60 Ford and those wonderfully smaller sedans like the Fivehundred or then there was the 63 Impala SS, Malibu or smaller Dodge Dart, Fury or even the Maverick. Then the sedans became large like the 64-65 Fords or 63 Monterey. The Chryslers became big again. Yes..I think in 64 things began getting large again.
    Or maybe they really never left some of the models. Was there a smaller Mercury?

    But the smaller sedans, many which became the early muscle cars, were really great.

    Those early sixties were really beautifully. Damn the regs!!!!

    • 0 avatar
      wumpus

      It isn’t the regs so much as the laws of physics. Differences off the top of my head:

      Safety: Just because Ralph Nader is paranoid doesn’t mean the car industry didn’t insist on being unsafe. Cars needed to be rebuilt with crumple zones to keep the 30k/yr from mushrooming to 300k/yr (compare traffic then vs. now and consider the phrase “target rich enviornment”
      Aero: Going 70+ mph tends to make aerodynamics a huge factor in efficiency. Sure there are oddballs like the dodge charger daytona, but in general it was pretty bad (still is. It used to be that if it looked fast it probably was, with modern cars the reverse is more often true).
      Pedestrian regs: A better “fix” would be yanking the license on a redlight violation. Can’t expect governments to give up the income.

      Telsa can make (at least one) car that does all this and looks good (they have the best CoD of any care made, and second only to the EV1). Not sure why the big boys fail so badly. Then again, my memories don’t go back to before the first OPEC shutdown and I never thought much of those cars (but loved the X1/9. Maybe I should show myself out.)

    • 0 avatar
      jhefner

      “I was happy to see how these HUGE designs eventually became the awesome smaller looks starting in 1960.”

      Ford’s main product range such as the Country Squire station wagon/Galaxie 500 and the Thunderbird stayed pretty much the same size, although the Lincoln Continental went through a major downsize in 1961.

      The rise of both import cars and woman drivers forced Detriot into also offering smaller cars. They were never intended to replace the larger cars, but to serve as second cars for the wife to drive. Ford initailly introduced the Falcon; it then went on to spawn the second generation Ranchero, first generation Econoline van, and of course the Mustang. But the main Ford line stayed large until forced to downsize starting in 1977.

  • avatar
    jmo

    “Today, Ford or any other wise manufacturer would not dream of releasing a mass product without monumental market research.”

    1. New Coke was supported by the biggest market research effort ever.

    2. Steve Jobs didn’t believe in market research.

    Market research isn’t’ nearly as foolproof as the author seems to imply.

    • 0 avatar
      wumpus

      Like any consultant, there are two choices:
      1: Try to figure out the truth and deliver it.
      2: Tell the customer what he wants to hear.

      The second is far easier and pays better. God help you if you are right in the first case and the customer is wrong.

    • 0 avatar
      DeeDub

      That’s hardly a current comparison. New Coke’s release was closer to the release of the Edsel than to today. Time flies, doesn’t it?

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      The New Coke research was fatally flawed. It was based on small sips of New Coke vs. Pepsi, and in small sips the greater sweetness is appealing. However, that same sweetness in a whole glassful becomes cloying. That research also failed to investigate people’s resistance to change. Much of the backlash was over the Coca-Cola corp changing something without “permission”.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    Great detailed info, Ronnie. This period of automotive history is most intriguing to me. It was a period of transition and consolidation, it’s interesting to know what was going through the heads of the people in charge.

    As for the Edsel, it was the wrong car at the wrong time. Poor forecasting led to that decision. The styling was off-putting, but that was an era when designers had to be bold. Could you imagine a ’59 Eldo’s fins on a car today?

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      In all fairness, the 1958 Edsel isn’t any uglier than the 1958 Buick or Oldsmobile. The latter is ugly even by the standards of the day. Interestingly, however, the 1958 Oldsmobile was the medium-price car that suffered the LEAST in that year’s sharp recession. That is probably because Oldsmobile was one of the few medium-price cars that hadn’t suffered serious quality problems during the 1955-57 timeframe.

      I believe it was Thomas Bonsall who noted, that, if Ford had taken into account the shrinkage of the medium price market between 1955 and 1958, and then adjusted the Edsel’s initial sales target accordingly, the car came very close to meeting its sales target.

      • 0 avatar

        The late 1950s was a nadir in American car design. Overstyled and ugly. Ford was probably guiltiest, just look at the ’59 Lincoln with the slanted headlights.

        • 0 avatar
          danio3834

          Other abominations of the era IMO are the ’59 Chevy and ’58 “Box” Thunderbird.

          • 0 avatar

            I once went up to a very cute old couple in a ’59 or ’60 squarebird at a car show and told them, “I don’t like your car. I think it’s ugly. I do, however, love how you love your car.”

            Even though the ’59 Impala is weird and has the Buick Centurion Motorama concept’s winged rear fenders, the design works for me. Love the bubble roof.

          • 0 avatar
            danio3834

            “Even though the ’59 Impala is weird and has the Buick Centurion Motorama concept’s winged rear fenders, the design works for me. Love the bubble roof.”

            I too like the bubble roof, but the rear just kills it for me. The ’61s are absolutely fantasic.

          • 0 avatar
            Skink

            Ronnie, the comments you made to that cute old couple were cruel, unkind, and grtutious, masquerading as admiration. You insult their taste in having the car. Not sure why you tell this story on yourself.

            If I was to say to you, you’re ugly, but I’m sure your parents love you anyway, how would that make you feel,flattered, or insulted?

            Nice story on the Sputnik vs Edsel book btw.

          • 0 avatar
            jhefner

            Three thoughts:

            * This is actually my favorite. One of my favorite models growing up was a Monogram red 1958 Thunderbird convertible; I thought and still think it looks stunning. I also had a picture of a pink one hanging in my room.

            * The market did not agree with you; the 1958 outsold the previous model year by well over 16,000 units; and managed to retain that momentum; breaking sales records yet again with 92,843 in 1960.

            * Ford actually re-incorporated some “square bird” design elements from the ’58-’60 model into the ’64-66 model; namely in the shape of the rear quarter (sans tail fins) and the arrangement of the headlight and grill elements.

          • 0 avatar
            danio3834

            ” The market did not agree with you”

            As a classic T-bird owner, I’m aware of the sales increase of the box birds. The surge in sales was mostly due to the fact that it went from being a 2 seater to a 4 seater. Of course that opened up the market quite a bit for the nameplate, but nearly no one would disagree that the ’57 was a much more attractive car.

          • 0 avatar
            jhefner

            In all honesty add me to the “nearly.” I also had a black ’56 Bird in my model collection, and I love how the 2002-2005 T-Bird echoed the ’56 so well while being a totally different car (I also appear to be in the minority there.) But I still liked the “box bird” better.

          • 0 avatar
            Dave M.

            I’d toss in the ’69 Buick and ’59 Cadillac. Over the top excessive.

        • 0 avatar
          DeeDub

          The 2010’s were a nadir in American car design. Overstyled and ugly.

          FTFY :)

          • 0 avatar
            Ogre Backwash

            I once went up to a very cute old couple in a ’59 or ’60 squarebird at a car show and told them, “I don’t like your car. I think it’s ugly. I do, however, love how you love your car.”

            You are really full of yourself. I hope they gave you the proper beatdown you deserve.

        • 0 avatar
          jhefner

          So very strongly disagree; I think the 1959 Chrysler Imperials with their standalone headlights and Jetson tail lights were the goofiest things I have ever seen. There was a black one in my hometown when I was growing up in the 1970s, and I still remember thinking “what the heck!” when I saw it for the first time.

          • 0 avatar
            geeber

            The free-standing headlights didn’t appear on the Imperial until the 1961 model year. The 1959 model was a mildly face-lifted version of the 1957-58 car.

        • 0 avatar

          I actually like that Lincoln a lot. It reminds me of a nice bar. I walk up to one of those, and I feel like a bartender is going to come over with my bourbon.

          And I think the ’59 Ford was a great looking car. And the ’59 Imperial. The real nadir: what DeeDub said.

          I can well imagine Sputnik putting a major damper on peoples’ willingness to spend dough on cars. I was in the market for a car at the time of the ’04 election. I’d looked at a used Boxster on the Sunday before the election, but the dealership wanted too much. They called me back wednesday morning to give me a considerably lower offer, but I was so depressed by the election’s outcome that after that, there was no way I was going to spend well north of 20k on a car.

          And although my own photos make that first Edsel look pretty damn good (go to motorlegends.com), it was a really funny looking car, and the name was terrible. And of course, there was the bad quality control.

          • 0 avatar
            geeber

            The launch of Sputnik didn’t help national morale, but the real problem was the serious recession that began in the summer of 1957.

            It didn’t help that the new-car market was largely saturated, thanks to record sales in 1955 and strong sales in 1957.

            Plus, too many people had overextended themselves to buy brand-new cars in 1955, and those particular chickens were coming home to roost when the 1958 model year began.

        • 0 avatar
          geeber

          Chrysler Corporation, in my opinion, was the worst offender, but its really ugly cars didn’t appear until 1960, with the debut of that year’s Plymouth, Imperial and Valiant.

          The entire 1961 Chrysler Corporation line-up was downright bizarre, from the Valiant to the Imperial. The 1962 line-up was just as strange, although that year’s Chrysler benefitted from the removal of its tailfins.

        • 0 avatar
          NoGoYo

          After seeing a 1960 Continental “Mark V” in person, I gave up on hating them and instead fell in love.

  • avatar
    bball40dtw

    The Edsel looks like it was designed by Edvard Munch.

    BTW, this is another great piece Ronnie. You seem to have excellent history pieces posted weekly around here.

  • avatar
    geeber

    And 4 1/2 years after David Wallace made that quote, customers went nuts over a re-bodied Falcon with a long hood, short deck and bucket seats. Perhaps customers do respond to a car’s personality…as long as it has an appealing one.

    Interestingly, the 1960 1/2 Comet was originally supposed to be the EDSEL Comet. (The first Comet was not badged as a Mercury, although it was sold only through Lincoln-Mercury dealers.) The Comet’s taillights bear Edsel parts numbers. That car was big success, selling over 100,000 units for the 1960 model year, despite debuting in the spring of 1960. One wonders whether the Edsel marque would have survived if the first Comets had been sold as Edsel Comets.

  • avatar
    tonyola

    From what I understand, Ford’s build-up to the release of the Edsel promised that the new car would be something revolutionary. When people saw that it was just another medium-priced car with slightly odd styling, they simply turned away. Schreiber’s point that a deep recession was beginning at the time of the Edsel’s introduction is also a key factor – Mercury, a well-established brand, had a pretty bad year in 1958 as did many of the medium-priced cars.

  • avatar
    Edsel Maserati

    Good points. But let’s not move too fast past the issue of its design. The Americans of the 1950s might have been bombarded by a lotta comical design but they knew enough to recognize how over-the-top silly the Edsel was. The wisecracks came fast — my favorite being that the grill resembled a toilet seat.

    I was just a kid then but I do remember how the comic strips of the day (and especially Mad Magazine) constantly lampooned the grotesque tail-fin monstrosities out of Detroit. People might have gone to buy a Ford for no other reason than “I’m a Ford man,” but there was no way people were going to identify themselves as “an Edsel man.”

    Now, the DeSoto. There’s a car I miss.

    • 0 avatar
      TrailerTrash

      I agree on the DeSoto.
      Our 59 had that push button tarns. The swivel seats!!! Has anybody else ever had swivel buckets???

      I have a promotional ad featuring Rock Hudson selling the Desoto.

      Brother took out the engine…rebuilt it with dual carbs, racing cam and painted the engine gold. Was a site to see it lowered into the bay.

      But the look of the Edsel, as geeber noted above…there were plenty other horrible designs that sold.
      And I agree strongly with jmo as well as the writer himself states…the psychology involved in the purchase of a new car is NOT a science. He starts off the story telling us this.

      • 0 avatar
        tonyola

        GM had optional swivel buckets in its mid-70s intermediates and personal luxury cars. I remember a friend’s ’77 Monte Carlo having them.

      • 0 avatar
        Jeff S

        Yes the 73-77 Monte Carlos had swivel bucket seats. I had a 77 Monte with swivel bucket seats.

        The big winner of the 1958 Recession was American Motor’s Rambler American (compact car) which led to GM, Ford, and Chrysler introducing their own compact cars for MY 1960. Chevy Corvair, Pontiac Tempest, Buick Special, Olds F-85, Ford Falcon, Mercury Comet, Valiant, and Dodge Lancer. The Pontiac Tempest became the GTO/Lemans, the Old F-85 became the Cutlass, the Buick Special became the Skylark, and the Falcon became a platform for the Mustang. Chevy introduced the Chevy II MY 1962 which then became simply a Nova which was originally the higher trim level of Chevy II as the Cutlass was the higher trim level of the F-85. Originally the GTO was a special high performance Tempest.

    • 0 avatar
      Firestorm 500

      Edsel: Oldsmobile sucking a lemon.

  • avatar
    thornmark

    I’m sure some of the history of Edsel has been corrupted by the fact that Ford had other people investing in a new brand (stores) while some at the company were apparently planning for the division’s demise.

    My grandfather always bought Hudsons and his Hudson dealer became an Edsel dealer so GF bought a 1958 Edsel Citation in turquoise and white. It was striking, powerful and loaded but not the best from a reliability standpoint due to indifferent assembly by the Mercury division. In a marketing anomaly, the Citation was actually MORE expensive than all but one Mercury model.

    GF switched to Chrysler, first a Newport then a 1965 New Yorker – which was sublime and a keeper.

  • avatar

    Great points especially showing how the author was selective in what they quoted. If Sputnik had such a large effect than nobody would be able to sell cars today if they were compared to some of the aircraft or spacecraft that’s out now

  • avatar
    Edsel Maserati

    The Sputnik launch did affect the country very seriously in another area: Education. There was a huge national panic over American children not getting the education that little “Ivan” was getting.

    • 0 avatar
      wstarvingteacher

      @ Edsel Maserti: I remember that but who got the most German POW rocket scientists was probably more important. I was about to start High School and math and science got a big shot in the arm IIRC.

      • 0 avatar
        VCplayer

        It was a good thing to emphasize math and science, but in retrospect it was just dumb panic. Everyone involved in the moon landing had just about finished their high school education by the time Sputnik happened.

        A lot gets made of the education improvements in the wake of Sputnik, but I’d be really interested in seeing some facts on the actual impact.

    • 0 avatar
      Felis Concolor

      I’ll put my money on the greater influence of artist Chesley Bonestell: it was his outstanding realistic portrayal of starships and planetscapes which inspired a generation of students into pursuing careers in engineering, physics and space programs.

      Check bonestell.org for a sample of his illustrations.

    • 0 avatar
      carguy67

      Long ago read a long article about the beginnings of the Space Race. IIRC, we could have put a satellite in orbit before the USSR, but there were some politics and infighting between the USAF (Navy?) and NASA and two competing rockets (Redstone vs. Vanguard?), and we weren’t in a particular hurry. Sputnik was a simple radio beacon, our first was actually an honest telecomm satellite, but the real scare came when we realized they could put a nuke on a rocket (we were obsessed with big bombers).

      Also, the Russians ‘cheated’ on the first manned orbital flight; Gagarin punched-out at 10,000(?) feet instead of landing–on hard ground–in his capsule. This technically disqualified the flight for some records because the pilot is supposed to launch and return in his craft.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        That’s interesting about Gagarin but would you in his place trust a Soviet capsule on a hard Earth landing or prefer to eject and take your chances in a parachute you control?

        • 0 avatar
          carguy67

          According to Wikipedia–finally did my research–the ejection was planned, and happened at 23,000 ft (not 10,000 as I stated). The entire mission was ‘flown’ from the ground.

          Many interesting factoids here:
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vostok_1

    • 0 avatar
      Ogre Backwash

      You are correct sir.

  • avatar
    55_wrench

    There was more trouble than just marketing. In 1975 I spent an afternoon with a local Edsel collector who related that the camshafts were wearing abnormally in the early production cars. According to him, after not being able to find the root cause, Ford shipped a brand new Edsel engine to every dealership in the country and advised that it was now their problem to solve.

    Joe Kerley Lincoln-Mercury in San Jose found that by replacing the cams and valve gear with Mercury components, the problem went away. This was relayed back to Headquarters and that problem was solved.

    I stumbled on this site that backs up the possibility of the story being true.. this site:

    http://www.edsel.com/pages/edsel58.htm

    mentions in a roundabout way that Edsel and Mercury valve gear would interchange.

    And the there was the Teletouch..the servo that took commands from the steering wheel hub and changed the gears in the tranny often went out. Owners would have this servo ($425.00 in 1958 money) replaced with a standard Ford-issue column shift setup. By ’59 Teletouch was gone.

    The day I saw him, we started up a ’58 that hadn’t moved in several years, the tranny having been stuck in reverse. The driver had to back all the way from Hayward to San Leandro on 14th street (now International Boulevard) to get his date home.

    • 0 avatar

      that $425 in 1958 is $3479 in 2015

    • 0 avatar
      carguy67

      Joe Kerley! Just down San Tomas from me. Used to get my Ranger serviced there; I miss ’em.

    • 0 avatar
      VolandoBajo

      My father got a great deal on a 58 Edsel, having learned of the changeover to the Mercury parts, and especially, as I recall, from mechanical to hydraulic lifters, which were new enough at the time to be suspect.

      Got a great deal on a low-miler, with no problems for two or three years, before he traded it in on a new Sunliner, for better mileage. And that was a car that definitely did not tend to understeer, from first hand experience.

      But there was market research done after the introduction of the Edsel that showed that adult males subconsciously were repelled by the brownish stains around the through the bumper exhaust, which was identified subconsciously as being like a rectum.

      And it was the same McNamara, disliking ANY complexity, that caused the removal of the chrome bore lining from Stoner’s design of the M-16/AR-15, leading to the loss of many US soldiers’ lives in Vietnam, and leading to them being named Jamming Jennies.

      Saved about five dollars per rifle, a savings that was quickly wiped out when it was proven that the same jamming problems disappeared when Stoner’s chrome bore lining was reinstated.

      And don’t get me started, it was the same McNamara who didn’t want to have to come up with new tactics and new equipment to fight riverene ops in Nam…so he called up a USMC Reserve Amtrak unit on the West Coast and sent it into swampland. After all, it ran on land and it ran on water, so (faulty) logic dictated that it could be run on marshland.

      That one shortcut, false illusion complexity reduction lead to the death of over 90% of the unit’s members, and the rapid redeployment of their east coast brethren, of which I was one.

      So McNamara’s dislike of complexity was certainly nothing to brag about.

      Though it did lead to my getting decontamination training before I separated. Came in handy in reducing radiation exposure in my brownstone in Brooklyn during the Three Mile Island incident.

      Probably his reign at both Ford and the DoD were largely unmitigated disasters. I have not seen or read anything to indicate otherwise.

      Admittedly I have an axe to grind, but it is an axe that deserves sharpening.

      And I say all of what I have said with a full appreciation of the value of proper cost accounting and cost-benefit calculation. But the key word is proper, taking into account all costs.

  • avatar
    alexndr333

    An interesting take on one of the stranger chapters of post-war American automobile history. I hope Ronnie takes a look at the next chapter in Ford’s attempt to pry market share from GM’s tight grip: The Ford Falcon. It may be an over-simplification, but the Falcon was a different form of differentiation that ultimately led to GM’s defeat: Instead of a strategy of same-car-different-flavors (Ford / Edsel / Mercury / Lincoln to match Chevrolet / Pontiac / Oldsmobile / Buick / Cadillac) the Falcon was same-flavor-different-(smaller)-car. From there, came the Mustang and all the subsequent segments. As GM attempted to respond with all five of its divisions, even it couldn’t handle the complexity. Once the Japanese arrived with their quality levels and the Feds with smog controls, GM was doomed to fight a three-front war it couldn’t win.

    • 0 avatar
      jhefner

      As I mentioned above, it was the rise of imports and woman drivers that lead to Ford offering the Falcon. GM’s response was the less conventional, more controversal, and hence less successful Corvair; both spun off van and other versions; with the Falcon eventually leading to the Mustang. Chrysler also offered the Dodge Dart.

      They recognized that many homes were moving from one car to two car homes; and the smaller cars were meant to be the second smaller, more economical car that was also easier for the wife to drive. It was only meant to be the main car for those families that were shopping the imports; they still expected everyone else to continue to buy the larger models as their primary car.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff S

      GM was not defeated by the introduction of the Ford Falcon, they were just sent back to the drawing board to come back with a simpler less innovative car than the Corvair which was the Chevy II. The Chevy II sold very well and if anything the Camaro was derived from the Chevy II. True GM came after Ford but GM caught up. If you want to attribute the popularity of American compact cars give the credit to the Rambler American which came out just in time for the 1958 Recession.

      The 1973 Arab Oil Embargo is what contributed to the rise in Japanese cars and that is what was the beginning of the end of Detroit’s dominance. Once people bought Toyotas, Hondas,and Datsuns and discovered they were more reliable and efficient there was no going back to Detroit’s version of a small car (Vega and Pinto).

      The Falcon was McNamara’s idea and it was his answer to the Rambler American. McNamara wanted Ford to go back to a simple basic car that anyone could afford which was Ford’s answer to the success of the Rambler American which brought the newly created American Motors ( formerly Nash/Rambler), under the leadership of George Romney, back. It took two years for Ford, GM, and Chrysler to come out with a competitive compact to compete with the Rambler American.

  • avatar
    Joss

    More little Ivan could jump the US in the space race. Blew the fedoras clean off fifties heads. Sputnik wasn’t particularly sophisticated and the Edsel doesn’t look too radical a departure from the rest of the jukebox junk. You can tell I’m not one for nostalgia.

    Korea & Vietnam are enigmas to me. How could the US not see the SU was bleeding off their best in wars they sent no troops to?

    • 0 avatar
      VolandoBajo

      Because the DoD under McNamara knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing?

      Which led to falsely and truly elevated body counts that turned more Vietnamese against the US and with the VC.

      McNamara tried to control the cost per kill by increasing the number of kills. The VC succeeded in both controlling the cost per kill (by lowering the cost of a kill) and by dominating the ratio of US cost per kill to the VC cost per kill. It was a war of attrition rather than a war of pure might, and while we were dominating on the might front with carpet bombing and Agent Orange, the VC were dominating in bleeding off our resources at a frightening rate compared to the rate of their resource attrition, whether it be lives, fuel or weaponry.

      The dumbest war in American history, from the American perspective, though the Indian Wars are no gleaming achievement either.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Styling killed the Edsel.

    Any association with Sputnik is mere coincidence. Besides, the US space program’s accomplishments lagged the Soviets’ until the late 60s – 10 years later – during the Gemini program. In fact, as late as 1969, there was worry the Soviets might land a man on the moon first using their N1 booster, but it proved to be unfounded concern.

    So in the intervening decade of 57-67 or so, you’d be hard-pressed to ascribe the failure of a particular car to Soviet space success, without also explaining why so many other cars succeeded.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      Their Germans were better than our Germans, at least for awhile till Kennedy kicked it up a notch.

      • 0 avatar
        jhefner

        Fear of getting sent to Siberia or shot does wonders for your work output….

        The Soviets tried hard. But when one (maybe two, can’t remember) of their N1s blew up on the launch pad at Star City; it also blew up any chance of the Soviets beating the Americans.

        • 0 avatar
          alexndr333

          Trivia question: How many N-1 rockets blew up? Answer: All of them. The two space programs offer a fascinating look at the underlying differences between the two societies. The Soviets had a single decision-making system, very top-down. Their leading engineer was brilliant, but he had total control. When he died on the operating table, the Soviets were direction-less. The Americans had design committees, and private-sector contractors and sub-contractors competing at design and manufacturing. Which one succeeded? The messy, chaotic, overlapping, multiple solutions, open-to-anyone Americans.

          • 0 avatar
            jhefner

            “Trivia question: How many N-1 rockets blew up? Answer: All of them.”

            While it is true all four N1 rockets blew up; not all the rocket motors themselves did.

            After posting my comment, I searched for videos of the N1 explosions. What I found was a documentary called “the engine that came in from the cold.” I highly recommend anyone who is interested in the space race to watch it; it will change some of the stereotypes we Americans have had of the Soviet space program, and it’s relative success/failure.

          • 0 avatar
            VolandoBajo

            The decision to follow the pilot/airplane model, rather than the machine/passengers model of space flight, as documented in The Right Stuff and elsewhere, also went a long way towards steering the program in a positive direction on a continuing basis.

  • avatar
    haroldingpatrick

    If Edsel Ford lived a normal lifespan, I’m certain these automobiles would not be named Edsel, nor would they have a vagina as a styling element of their front end. Perhaps they should have tried a “Rosebud” edition. Georgia O’Keefe could illustrate the print ads, Orson Welles could direct and narrate the commercials – wait, he didn’t make overtly dirty movies so they couldn’t show the car. Sputnik my rear end.

    To me, they blend in with the ridiculous extroverted styling of most cars of the time period. The periods before and after were lovely IMHO. I read a comment by a fellow on another site that he was going to buy a new VW or Subaru because they are the only two companies that have nice clean styling across their line these days. I agree, but then I’m a Quaker at heart and prefer plain things that are functional.

    • 0 avatar
      VolandoBajo

      No, they could have waited until they had done some trial marketing, to see what a control group thought about the design, before doing a restyling followed by a full rollout.

      In the meantime, Orson Welles could have done ads making the point that “we will sell no Fords before their time.”

      You had to be there.

  • avatar
    RideHeight

    Love that ’59 wagon, especially in those colors

    Here’s a period concept sketch that looks like it came from John Kricfalusi:

    http://tinyurl.com/np7edcw

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Bonsall actually wrote one of my favorite books, I wasn’t aware he wrote so much on the auto industry as well.

    http://www.amazon.com/Great-Shipwrecks-Century-Thomas-Bonsall/dp/0831777818/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1434174577&sr=8-1&keywords=thomas+bonsall+shipwreck

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I use to have an AMT model car kit of the 1960 Edsel Ranger 2 door just like the one pictured above. The design of the 1960 Edsel is the same as the 1960 Ford Galaxie with a different grill and taillights. That was the last Edsel and my favorite of all Edsels.

    • 0 avatar
      RideHeight

      The ’60 Ford’s styling was elegant simplicity, especially the rear end. Sadly amazing how Edsel could clunk that up with just a couple strategic defacements like the front turn signals and the rear lights.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    60 Edsel was still better than the 58 and 59. I do prefer the 60 Ford Galaxy.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I prefer the 60 Galaxy styling to the styling before and after. I do like the 63 Galaxy XL 500 the one with the creases in the top to look like a convertible–it came in a 2 & 4 door versions with bucket seats. Never cared much for the 73 through 78 LTD very bulky looking especially the 75 and 78 big bulky bumpers and clumsy handling. I worked for an oil company in the late 70’s that had a fleet of them. I liked the early 60’s Thunderbirds from 61 through 66. The Lincoln Continentals with the suicide doors are a classic–Ford got those right.

  • avatar
    VolandoBajo

    What was the Ford that came in multiple colors (on the same car), had a hardtop convertible, and made a teenage boy in the late fifties or early sixties go ga-ga every time the beautiful blonde college age friend of his best friend’s older sister drove by in one?

    For this aging car enthusiast, that was the original definition of sex on wheels.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Ford Skyliner 1957-59 had the retractable hardtop. A very desirable collectors car. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Fairlane_500_Skyliner

    • 0 avatar
      RideHeight

      When I was a kid a guy way down the street had a ’58. It would have been about 8 years old at the time (’66-ish). It still mesmerized us to watch him demo the retracting top and the car overall had the style and flair of Hollywood. Hollywood still being an admirable thing in those days.

      If he had the car out of the garage word would spread and we’d all hop our bikes and tear on down there to bug him to demo it again. I’ll always love the big Fords of that era. My family owning a succession of them probably factors.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Several years ago there was someone around where I live that had a 59 Ford Skyliner that was turquoise and white. Absolutely cherry.

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