The Ill-fated Ford Edsel Lives On as its Designer Passes On

by J-Mirabelli

Roy Abbott Brown Jr. drove his own Edsel well into his 90s.

“I’m proud of the car. There is not a bad line on the car.” - Roy Brown.

Roy Abbott Brown Jr., chief designer of the 1957 Ford Edsel loved the car so much that he drove one well into his 90s. He died on Feb. 24, 2013 at the age of 96.

He was born Oct. 30, 1916, in Hamilton, Ontario, moving to the Detroit area when he was a teenager. His father was a Chrysler engineer, so he was around cars from the beginning. Despite a long and successful career with Ford, Brown is best remembered for the Ford Edsel. The ill-fated car became known as one of the biggest automotive flops ever, making it to Time magazine’s list of the “50 Worst Cars of All Time.”

After the Edsel’s failure, Brown and other designers involved in the project were moved by Ford to different parts of the world. As head of design in Dagenham, England, Roy Brown was able to redeem himself by designing the Ford Consul, as well as the 1962 Ford Cortina. The Cortina went on to become the most commercially successful car in Britain. Roy returned to the United States in the late 1960s and designed Thunderbirds and Econoline vans before he retired in 1979.

In the beginning, reviews of the Edsel were enthusiastic. Popular Science claimed the car “takes off like a gazelle one jump ahead of a drooling lion.” The car was basically a hybrid of existing models with updated features. It cost $250 million to develop, the equivalent of slightly more than $2 billion in today’s dollars.

Ford had set out to develop “some kind of a dream car — like nothing they’d ever seen”. Distinctive features were included that set it apart from other late-1950s American cars. The most obvious was the vertical oval front grille, inspired by European limousines. The car also introduced technological advances such as a push-button transmission control on the steering wheel and a “unique warning light system” that would let drivers know when they were low on oil or gasoline.

When the car was under development, an initial list of 18,000 possible names were rolled out to Ford executives by an advertising agency. Eventually, Ford executive Ernest Breech decided to name the car after Henry Ford’s late son, Edsel. That decision upset researchers, who had market tested the name Edsel and found that 40 percent of consumers responded with “What?” when they heard it. But Ford persisted with the name. Interestingly enough, five of the Edsel’s seven model names were later used for other cars, including two built by competitors: the Chevrolet Citation and the AMC Pacer.

As part of a huge promotion for the car, Ford sponsored a TV special, The Edsel Show, which starred Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, the Four Preps and Rosemary Clooney. Fifty million viewers watched the show.

Despite the big splash, the Edsel sold poorly in its first three months of release. In December 1957 Ford offered eight-inch souvenir models of the Edsel if people would take the car for a test drive.

The Edsel didn’t live up to the expectations that the company created in their advertising, so potential customers stayed away. In addition to not living up to the marketing hype, the United States was in a recession and Edsel offered its most expensive models first while competitors were discounting last years models.

The vehicle actually had some great innovations for its time. With the Edsel, Ford introduced a “rolling dome” speedometer and a “Teletouch” transmission shifting system in the center of the steering wheel. Controls for the driver were ergonomically designed and the car had self-adjusting brakes.

Ford launched the Edsel as a brand-new division, but depended on Ford production lines to produce their cars. Ford workers resented assembling “someone else’s” vehicle and didn’t take a lot of pride in their work. Not having a dedicated work force resulted in shoddy workmanship. Many of the vehicles that showed up at the dealer showroom had notes attached to the steering wheel listing the parts not installed.

The Edsel’s quality control issues were compounded by Ford’s mechanics and their unfamiliarity with the car’s state-of-the-art technology. The biggest problem was the transmission controls that were in the centre of the steering wheel. It was a complicated system that the mechanics didn’t know how to fix.

The Edsel was out of production by the end of 1959 and would sell a little more than half of the 200,000 cars Ford projected. For all its commercial struggles, the Edsel has been revered as a collectible for decades — and Mr. Brown always drove one. He mused in a 1985 Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel interview that people often stopped him in the Edsel and offered to buy it. To which the Edsel’s chief designer said that he usually replied, “Where the hell were you in 1958?”

Robert Mayer, who brokers Edsels and sells Edsel parts online at Edsel World, said that he recently sold some original drawings Mr. Brown made in the 1990s of what an Edsel might have looked like had the line endured. “If you are unprejudiced and look at the car, it’s beautiful,” Mr. Mayer said of the original models. “The young people who have never heard of it look at it and think it’s beautiful.”

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