Friday, March 08, 2013

1145 Roy Brown

1145 Roy Brown

You remember Roy Brown, right?  Oh?  You don’t? Okay, well you know him by his work if you’re of a certain age.
Yes, Roy Brown is the guy who designed what may be the greatest automotive punchline of all time.

Mr. Brown was an automotive innovator of a sort.  But in one regard, he was truly Old School Detroit.  Now, 54 years after the car went out of production, he’s quoted in the New York Times obituary which is quoting an interview from the Orlando Sun Sentinel as saying he remained proud of the Edsel and “There’s not a bad line on this car.”

This debacle cost Ford $350,000,000.  What is that in today’s money?  One dollar in 1959 is worth $8.02 now. You do the math.

This debacle had Brown exiled to the company’s offices in Britain, but not fired.  Very 1960s.

Ugly as it was, the Edsel wasn’t a bad car.  There were things about it that were just fine, especially from the inside looking out.  Push button transmission, standard seat belts, decent engines and transmissions, sturdy construction and so on.

The problem was that double dose of ugly.  Oh, and one other thing:  There was no market for the car.  The original plan was to build something more expensive than the Ford and a little cheaper than the Lincoln/Mercury division’s panoply of boring.  The production reality resulted in so much overlap with the older brands that it competed only with its stablemates.

Old School Detroit again.  The ad above?  The ‘59 model will show the “...Edsel... is here to stay...”?  Uh... nope.  That was its final year the car was built. There was a 1960 model, but they stopped production in November of 1959.

Today, there would be outrage among the company stockholders, and there was then, too.  Today they would have thrown out the entire front office.  But stockholders of Ford then as now cannot do that.

Ford went public in 1956, but like many family outfits that do that, there were two classes of stock, the kind you could buy and the kind that only went to the Ford family.  Guess which one had (and still has) the votes.  (Here’s a hint.  If you own one share of Ford, you get one vote.  If a family member owns one share of Ford stock, he gets 16.)

There’s an advantage to such an arrangement, especially with legacy companies like Ford and the New York Times. They get to raise money in the market, but vest control with friends and family.  

But back to the Edsel, which has become a cult car. There’s an outfit in Florida called Edsel World that brokers sales of parts and cars.  That’s all they do. And they do plenty of business, or so it seems.

When Ford was pregnant with the Edsel, they hadn’t yet come up with a name. The company chairman decided “Edsel” would be a great marque because it was the first name of the company founder’s only child. The public relations director at the time, Gayle Warnock, is quoted in a newspaper article on that “world” website as saying a name like that would mean the loss of 200,000 sales.  Again, the double dose of ugly was no help.

Poor Mr. Brown.  He wasn’t a bad guy.  He just had a tin eye while working for a company that had a tin ear.

One of the great automotive journalists of the era, Tom McCahill, said the Edsel from the front looked like an “Oldsmobile sucking a lemon.”  It was indeed a lemon.

I’m Wes Richards.  My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2013

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