ROB BLACKBOURN ON FORD’S FORTUNES
THE SIGHT OF a gleaming Edsel station-wagon as I pulled into a servo at Bacchus Marsh (Vic) recently prompted a bunch of Edsel memories.
As a kid with a huge appetite for American car magazines I was particularly impressed by one bit of owner feedback about Fomoco’s then all-new Edsel. The guy memorably praised his new 1958 model for its 120mph highway speed between home and work, while complaining about the effort needed to lift his lunchbox over the high lip of the boot compartment. The article gave me two fresh new serves of info about American motorists – as well as driving a lot faster than my dad, they obviously ate a hell of a lot more for lunch.
While the Corvair caused GM heartache in the early60s, Ford was obviously badly wounded by its Edsel experience in the late-50s.
Promoted as ‘an entirely new kind of car’ the Edsel was launched with much fanfare in late-1957. No surprise then that it carried high expectations from Ford regarding its market potential and from buyers excited at the prospect of something truly out of the box from Dearborn. The reality fell well short of market-place expectations for reasons including styling that wasn’t loved, the obvious use of garden-variety Ford platforms as its basis and significant price and specs overlaps with stablemate Mercury’s models.
Its engineering broke some new ground in braking, instrumentation, ergonomics and the new Heron-head engines it shared with Mercury and Lincoln. But that wasn’t enough.
While Ford managed to sell over 60,000 Edsels in 1958, demand soon faded – its swansong model for 1960 sold less than 3000 units. Some estimates of Ford’s losses on the Edsel equate to over USD$3-billion in today’s money.
But there was light at the end of the Blue Oval’s dark tunnel. Whether you credit divine intervention, luck or, more likely, the good old American ‘can do’ attitude, who knows? – but within months Lee Iacocca, freshly installed in the big chair at the Ford Division, was pestering the still-bruised Henry Ford II to approve another new model. Again it would be based on an already existing platform, but this time it would be distinctively and unarguably ‘an entirely new kind of car’, aimed at a specific market segment – aspirational baby boomers.
When ‘Hank the Deuce’ finally relented he made it clear to Iacocca that he would be held responsible for the outcome. Fortunately there was to be no bruised butt for Iacocca, no sack-cloth and ashes – dealers took over 20,000 orders for the Mustang on Day 1. Sales continued their upward trajectory, surpassing Ford’s most optimistic projections. The one-millionth Mustang rolled off the assembly line after a mere 18 months. And they’re still rolling off…
After refueling I pulled over near the Edsel for a closer look, and to say G’day to the owners, the happy couple busily engaged with giving it an under-bonnet once-over. It was a ’59 Villager four-door wagon and it was a beauty – apparently seldom started, let alone driven, since its fullresto 15 years previously. And it had been theirs for an hour.
A 10-kilometre drive from its farm-shed previous home was their total experience with it so far. Before heading home they were doing a pretrip check of tyre pressures, fluid levels and belt tensions. So far, so good. My guess that they were off to Melbourne or somewhere nearby in rural Victoria was way out.
The Edsel’s shakedown cruise was to be a threeday drive to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. I wished them happy travels as I left, hiding my fears that numerous rudely awakened oil seals, hoses and fuel lines would be getting set to plague their journey.
But then I remembered the power of a ‘can do’ attitude.