Edsel designer Roy Brown: Car is still nifty at 50
| September 3, 2007 - 12:01 am EST
Just as Roy Brown was going to dinner to celebrate his 90th birthday last October, he heard a car horn beeping loudly in his driveway.
Brown, the designer of Ford's infamous 1958-60 Edsel, looked outside and saw his granddaughter behind the wheel of a freshly restored 1958 Edsel Pacer convertible.
It was not just any Edsel. It was the very car Brown owned for decades before giving it to his son in the 1990s.
It was 50 years ago this week that Ford launched the car that launched at least a thousand jokes.
But the Edsel is not now, nor has it ever been, a laughing matter to Brown, who retired from Ford in 1979 after a long career that saw him banished to England after the Edsel disaster. He rebounded spectacularly as design chief of Ford of England, drawing such classics as the original Ford Cortina and the Consul.
"I call it Ford's most successful failure," Brown said of the Edsel in a phone interview with Automotive News.
In mid-August, Brown attended a 50th anniversary gathering of the Edsel club in Dearborn, Mich. More than 200 cars were there. And Brown, who lives in south central Michigan, was given a hero's welcome.
"I almost wore out my hand signing glove box doors and fenders," he said.
The Edsel was launched with great fanfare in the fall of 1957 but died just three years later after becoming the butt of many jokes. Comedians said the grille looked like an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon and compared it to a toilet seat.
But the real reason the Edsel died was not the way it looked. It arrived after a big change in consumers' preferences and a softening in the economy.
Ford planned to sell 200,000 Edsels annually but moved only 118,000 before disbanding the Edsel division in 1960. Talented executives such as Brown, whom Ford valued, were farmed out to Ford outposts until the furor and embarrassment died down.
Brown returned to the United States in the late 1960s and went on to design Thunderbirds and the Econoline vans of the 1970s before retiring.
Says Peter Horbury, Ford's executive director of design for the Americas: "It was a brave man who did the Edsel. It was just that one detail - the grille - that went against the grain."
Horbury said Ford designers should celebrate the Edsel's 50th anniversary and not bow their heads in silence. But alas, Ford has no plans this week to commemorate the occasion.