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Are Audi and Rover copying Edsel?

2004-03-17 10:50

The Edsel - the original "lemon"

John Oxley

It was in fact the styling of the Edsel that led to the generic term for a bad car being a "lemon", an allusion to the Edsel's ugly grille which many observers said resembled a mouth that had just sucked on a bitter citrus!

The Edsel was named after Henry Ford's only son, and the company had high hopes for the car.

The origins of the Edsel can be traced back to 1948 when Ford decided it needed another brand to compete against its long-time competitor, General Motors.

GM had Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Buick and Cadillac in its family, which meant it could sell to a very large cross-section of the buying public as they could choose from a range which started with an economical Chevy and progress right through to a luxurious Cadillac.


Similarly the other main US car manufacturer, Chrysler, had Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler and Imperial.

Ford, however, was limited to Ford, Mercury and Lincoln, and was concerned that consumers were deserting the Ford family because there was nothing in the niche between Ford and Mercury.

Edsel production began with a big fanfare, but the first mistake was that the most expensive models were introduced first, not the more attractively-priced entry level versions. This led to customer resistance at a time when sales should have been burgeoning.

But a bigger problem was that Edsels were made on the same production lines as Fords.

Workers often got the Ford and Edsel parts mixed up - many people thought intentionally - to the detriment of Edsel owners, and Edsels often arrived at dealerships in an unroadworthy condition.


The Edsel's quality control issues were compounded by mechanics' unfamiliarity with the car's state-of-the-art technology.

The worst problems came from its automatic Tele-touch transmission, whereby the driver selected the gears by pushing buttons on the centre of the steering wheel.

However, it was a complicated affair, and most mechanics didn't know how to fix it.

Design flaws also created problems for Edsel owners. For instance the Edsel's bonnet ornament would often fly off at speeds in excess of 130 km/h - which the car could do easily.

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Over the course of three model years (1958, 1959 and 1960) approximately 118 000 Edsels were manufactured in the US and Canada. Today there are not many more than 2 000 running, and most are only seen at Edsel owners' get-togethers, since they still break down a lot!

Financial losses

Although Ford lost money in the Edsel debacle, it wasn't significant by Ford standards, and Ford shares didn't lose value - in fact Ford paid a dividend and posted a profit in all the years the Edsel was produced

More significantly, much of the money invested in the Edsel was paid back when new technologies developed for and charged to the Edsel's budget were applied to future Ford models.

For instance, the Edsel was the first car to have self-adjusting brakes; by 1962 all Fords were equipped with self-adjusting brakes.

Ford also learned other lessons, one of which was to take its assembly plants away from the individual divisions to created a new division known as "Manufacturing."

This meant workers no longer worked for the Ford division, for example, but for "Manufacturing."

This removed much of the partisan behaviour that had devastated Edsel, and put responsibility for quality back in the hands of the workers.

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Back to today

So what has all this got to do with Audi and Rover?

Nothing at all - and a lot.

These days the high levels of manufacturing expertise, quality, and materials mean that, save for some vehicles produced in emerging markets, cars don't break down a lot, and the chance of a manufacturer producing a "lemon" is quite rare.

Yes, there will be "Monday cars" and "Friday cars", but they will be the exception rather than the rule.

Both Audi and Rover have excellent quality reputations - especially at this level - and it's hardly likely either of them will produce "lemons".

More's the pity then, that they have gone the Edsel route with their controversial grille designs.

As someone once said "Nice legs, shame about the face!"


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