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Rethinking the Edsel. .

The Edsel story is one everyone knows: A cautionary tale of the dangers of research run amok, questionable styling, and bad timing. Only that isn't the story at all, according to Thomas E. Bonsall, author of Disaster In Dearborn: The story of the Edsel (Stanford University Press, $35.95).

Despite the deep recession in 1958, the Edsel was able to take a 5% share of the mid-price market, exactly the share projected in the planning stages. A share that would have grown had Ford stuck with the "E-car" project long enough for the Comet (it was an Edsel not a Mercury) to hit the market. But the fix already was in: Bonsall recounts how Robert McNamara told the head of the Edsel's advertising agency the brand was to be discontinued--while they were still at the launch party! (The Edsel launched as a 1958 model, and was off the market in early 1960.)

McNamara is not a sympathetic character. As one of the "Whiz Kids" -- they brought basic accounting principles to Ford and marketed that as a sign of their brilliance--he was both abrasive and avaricious. Picking up where his mentor, Charles "Tex" Thornton left off (Thornton tried to take complete control of corporate decision making within months of his arrival), McNamara became so powerful that company matriarch Eleanor Ford pushed to get rid of him. According to a former Ford executive quoted by Bonsall, Henry Ford II offered to erase the Kennedy campaign's debts in return for taking McNamara onboard.

But the former secretary of Defense isn't the only villain in this drama. One of the biggest is the Ford Motor Company itself, or--more accurately--the lackadaisical founding family and the company's backstabbing executive staff. Mistakes are compounded at every turn, beginning with the decision to slot the Edsel Division between Ford and Mercury, and moving the latter just below Lincoln. Launching a new car is never easy, but launching a new car and a new division and dealer body is asking for trouble. Ford got it--in spades. The first Edsels had poor quality, the plans for sharing vehicle architectures between the divisions fell victim to rash decisions and political intrigue, and expectations raced ahead of reality. It was a recipe for disaster.

Interestingly, there are parallels between the Edsel saga and the present-day Ford Motor Company. Once again, a scion of the founding family heads the company. The latest "Whiz Kids" speak with British accents. Those concerned with making the numbers balance compete with a small group trying to produce memorable vehicles. And the company has sprouted new divisions, only this time through acquisition. For those struggling to make sense of the product plan, the corporate culture, the automotive landscape, or how the modern Ford Motor Company came to be, Disaster In Dearborn is a good place to start.
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Author:Sawger, Christopher A.
Publication:Automotive Design & Production
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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