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What Is an Edsel?

An Edsel, named after Henry Ford's son, is a range of cars produced by the Ford Motor Company from 1958 to 1960. Despite innovative features and extensive marketing, the Edsel became synonymous with failure due to its design, timing, and high costs. Its story offers valuable business lessons. What can the Edsel teach us about today's market strategies?
Kathy Heydasch
Kathy Heydasch

The Ford Edsel is a make of car that was introduced in the late 1950s to much fanfare and then to great disappointment in the marketplace. The name of the car has become synonymous with failure in modern language, despite a successful launch of the product. The Edsel was produced from 1957-60, and restored versions of the antique can fetch a high dollar on the auction block today.

In the 1950s, the Ford Motor Company decided to make a market shift within its product line. It elevated the Lincoln Continental to the top slot of its market to compete with Cadillac, which left a market hole that needed to be filled. Many years and millions of dollars went into research to develop this new line of cars, nicknamed the “e-car” or experimental car. The new experimental car line was named Edsel in honor of Henry Ford's son. Despite much publicity, including a television special called “The Edsel Show,” the new car was launched on 4 September 1957 to much disappointment. Consumers reportedly expected a drastic design change from existing Ford, Lincoln or Mercury body styles, but in fact received a similar version of the same car with a few innovations.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

Among the innovations were ergonomic controls for the driver, self-adjusting brakes, a “rolling dome” speedometer, and a transmission shifter in the steering wheel, called the Push-Button Teletouch. Despite these innovations, historians believe that the body style of the car sealed its fate by not differentiating itself enough from other cars. Versions of the Edsel's innovations still exist in modern cars today, however.

The Edsel is still used as an example in modern marketing classes which hope to teach how not to launch a product. Advertising specialists hail the Edsel as a failure because its promotion failed to send the right message to the right audience. Consumers did not respond favorably to the product for any number of reasons, and poor marketing is partially to blame.

Over three model years, there were approximately 84,000 of the Edsel cars sold, a number which is half what the reported break-even point for the company was. It was a dismal failure for the Ford Motor Company, which responded by announcing the discontinuation of the line in 1959, although production continued into 1960.

Although the Edsel was an abysmal failure for its time, anyone would be proud to own one today. This is because the value of the cars has increased exponentially over the years. Today, classic models of the Edsel are sold at auction houses for as much as $200,000 US Dollars.

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