By Greg Glassner
Roy A. Brown, the chief designer of the Edsel, recently died at the grand age of 96.
The Edsel, for those of you under the age of 60, was an automobile for which Ford Motor Company had high hopes in the late 1950s.
Riding the crest of the post-war economic boom during the Eisenhower administration, Henry Ford II decided his company needed a new brand to compete with GM’s Cadillac. Despite reservations from others in the company, Ford decided to name it after his father, Edsel Ford, who had lived his adult life in the shadows of crusty old Henry Ford.
Brown, who had at one time worked for General Motors on the LaSalle, another example of an ill-timed auto brand, was charged with creating a car that looked distinct, while still utilizing existing Ford and Mercury underpinnings.
The Edsel was different in some respects.
It had an automatic transmission operated by push buttons in the center of the steering wheel and a strange vertical grille, a stylized version of the upright radiator grilles of the classic cars of the 1920s and 1930s.
In the meantime, the Edsel was repositioned to fill a perceived market gap between Ford and Mercury, which was elevated in status. It became the proverbial answer to a question nobody asked.
I might have paid scant attention to Brown’s obituary, were it not for the fact that I had recently stumbled across a copy of “Edsel,” by Loren D. Estleman while browsing through the Mechanicsville branch of the Pamunkey Regional Library. The novel is based on a fictional newspaper columnist-turned adman who is hired by Ford to promote the Edsel.
When I was in junior high I remember attending a high school homecoming game at which a local dealer provided all-new Edsels as chariots for the homecoming queen and her court. Several shiny new convertibles in pastel colors circulated slowly around the quarter-mile cinder track as the announcer did his best to stroke the car dealer by drawing similarities between the trendy new cars and the pretty girls riding in them.
The stunt was an attention getter and so was the Edsel, although Brown’s styling, especially the retro-grille, drew attention of the wrong kind. Comics came out with Edsel jokes and wags compared the vertical grille to a fish’s mouth, someone sucking on a lemon and, scandalously, a feature of the human female anatomy.
The offbeat name, production delays, an economic downturn, faulty diagnosis of what consumers wanted in an automobile and controversial styling all contributed to the Edsel’s demise.
Ford pulled the plug on the Edsel in 1961.
When initial sales flopped, Ford executives were all too happy to blame it all on Brown’s design. He was sent packing to the truck division and later to Ford of England, where he had a hand in designing the successful Cortina and Lotus-Cortina models.
Thus rehabilitated, he returned to Detroit and eventually retired as executive designer for Ford’s Lincoln-Mercury division.
Though still a name that evokes snickers, Edsels are now popular among car collectors. Before his death, Brown attended many Edsel and Orphan Car Shows as a minor celebrity.
He claimed he never let the Edsel’s failure get him down.
Editor Emeritus Greg Glassner continues to contribute Tomato Patch columns to the H-P. He also contributes stories to the Shenandoah Region, Porsche Club of America (http://www.shn.pca.org), and for the newsletter of the Virginia Jaguar Club (www.lyonstales.com).