Saturday, December 3, 2005

Ford's Folly

You can be sincere and still be stupid. ~Charles F. Kettering

My son came into my den the other day to ask me if I realized that there was a member of the Ford family named "Edsel". Sure, I said. Why not? Steph exclaimed, "They named someone after that car that was such a flop?" Given that my son is 32, that was a reminder of how old I am in that I recall that it was the car that was originally named after a member of the Ford family, not the other way around.

I have always been easily moved to reminiscence, and mention of the one-time costliest business disaster in U.S. history is just the sort of thing to get me to recall intriguing trivia, like how the Edsel got its name. It's a fitting topic at a time when GM is laying off 30,000, Delphi is laying off 24,000 (and a merry christmas to all you automotive workers), and all three U.S. auto makers seem to be totally unprepared to offer the public the fuel-efficient cars they actually want.

[Aside] The auto makers have been bragging how fast they can bring out new models. Now might be a good time to prove it.

However, let us get into the Wayback Machine (patent pending) and go back to the mid-1950's when the auto makers could do no wrong, car sales were through the roof, and truly if they built it, the buyers would come. Ford was about to burst that bubble.
[NOTE: My memory isn't that good. I owe much of this reminiscence to a book by John Brooks called Business Adventures, published by Weybright and Talley in 1969. It's a very entertaining book that also has chapters on Xerox, GE, and Piggly Wiggly to show how far it ranges.]

Ford had a problem, despite all the happiness in the auto industry. GM had an ownership progression. A guy might start out with a Chevy, move up to a Buick or Oldsmobile as he got more successful, then graduate to a Cadillac in his mature and presumably wealthy years. Similarly, Chrysler owners could start with a Dodge, move up to a New Yorker, then cruise along in an Imperial (although they didn't; Cadillac mopped the market floor with Imperial). With Ford, there was the basic Ford then a quantum leap to the Lincoln. They tried to make Mercury an intermediate link in the chain, but somehow the Merc became the young man's hot rod, from which he moved to a Ford. When he got outgrew that, the natural step was to Olds, because Ford didn't have anything in that range.

Thus was born the E-car ("E" stood for experimental, supposedly). The E-car would have models that would fill the gap from Ford to Lincoln. It would be a wonderous engineering triumph that would lure drivers from GM and Chrysler in droves. But, as engineering progressed and release time came near, it needed a name.

Ford executives, for some reason, wished to call the car "Edsel" after the only son of Henry Ford, who had died in 1943. Edsel's sons, though, were staunchly against it because they felt their father "might not have cared to have his name spinning on a million hubcaps." For all of you too young to know, hubcaps came before wheel covers. They were solid, kept crud out of your brakes, kept your lugnuts from rusting solid, and frequently had a logo on them. What a concept! At any rate, the marketing gang, led by one David Wallace were back to square one. And time was a wasting. His first take, based on the advice of one his junior assistants, was to come up with gems like -- and this straight from Brooks' book -- "Utopian Turtletop", "Pastelogram", or, for the musically incline drivers, "Andante con molto."

So the marketoids started evaluating these and many other names. Much of the evaluation was done through endless flipchart sessions. The names were written on giant tablets. An audience then sat while someone flipped through them, seemingly for hours on end. They were then quizzed on which ones made an impression. At one such mind-numbing session, according to Brooks,"somebody suddenly called a halt to the card-flipping and asked, in an incredulous tone, 'Didn't I see "Buick" go by two or three cards back?' Everybody looked at Wallace, the impressario of the sessions. He puffed on his pipe, smiled an academic smile, and nodded."

Despite such birlliant methods, the sessions were fruitless. So Ford execs called on Foote, Cone & Belding, a major Madison Avenue advertising firm to come up with names. And so they did. They delivered a massive printout with 6,000 names on it!

Believe it or not, Ford execs were not pleased. This demanding group thought that paying thousands of 1950's dollars ought to result in some culling. Sent back to their drawing boards, the agency came up with a culled list of four names: Corsair, Citation, Pacer, and Ranger. Hearing these, Ford execs, called up Henry Ford II (who was on vacation), and said, essentially (but probably more politically correctly) all the names we have suck. Please let us call the car Edsel! After talking to other family members, Henry II acquiesced. (In other versions of this story, the family was not informed until the press conference was called, thus making it too late for them to do anything about it. Personally, that sounds more like the thing executives would do, but who am I to argue with John Brooks.)

The rest, as they say, is history. The design process went much as the naming process. The car ended up taking too long to get to market, arriving at the start of a recession. It was also the wrong car for the market. It seems that there were few drivers looking for an overweight, ugly, and mechanically unreliable car. I'm not sure there's ever been a right time for that sort of car, but evidently Ford thought there might have been so they went ahead and released it anyway. As Brooks put it, "... in a way, the Edsel wasn't so bad. It embodied much of the spirit of its time -- or at least of the time when it was designed, early in 1955. It was clumsy, powerful, dowdy, gauche, well-meaning..."

So was Tugboat Annie, but I wouldn't have wanted to date her.

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