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Sales Ad Saturday- What's in a name? Ford begins work on the Edsel

“What’s in a name” is the question for this week's 'Sales Ad Saturday’. This week in 1954, the Ford Motor Company officially formed a styling committee to begin working on the development of their new “E” (for Experimental) car. The car that the stylists were working on would eventually come to be known as the Edsel, a famously embarrassing and costly financial failure for The Ford Motor Company.

The reasons behind the failure of the Edsel have been widely chronicled, but there was a good possibility that the Edsel may have been known as something else entirely when it was first introduced. How Ford executives arrived at the Edsel name makes for an interesting story. It starts with a Ford market research director named David Wallace, who in the summer of 1955 was vetting potential names for the new car. Thinking outside the box, in October that year Wallace had Robert Young from the marketing division reach out to a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet named Marianne Moore, hoping she could be of assistance in their search for the perfect name for the new car. Young offered to compensate Moore for her ideas, but Moore was a friend of Young’s wife, and declined payment for her work. Between November and December of 1955 Moore sent Young at least six letters, with dozens of proposed names for the new car. Some of her more colorful suggestions include the Utopian Turtletop, The Intelligent Whale, Thunder Crester, the Arcenciel, the Andante con Moto, the Anticipator, the Mongoose Civique, the Pastelogram, the Varsity Stroke, the Turcotinga, and the Bullett Lavolta. One wonders if Mr. Wallace sent any preliminary design renderings to Ms. Moore for inspiration, and if so, what those renderings must have looked like.

Naturally, her suggestions were not particularly well received by Ford, although the company sent her a large floral arrangement over Christmas, 1955, with a card expressing gratitude to Ford’s “Favorite Turtletopper”. The company moved on with Chicago-based ad agency Foote, Cone, and Belding, and by November of 1956, the list of potential names the firm had vetted had been reduced from thousands to just sixteen. The four top contenders on that list were the Corsair, Citation, Ranger, and Pacer, all names that would eventually be used for different Edsel models. Meeting that month, the members of the Ford Executive Committee were unimpressed with these four names. Henry Ford II, who typically chaired these meetings, was absent, with second in command Ernest Breech chairing the meeting in his place. After rejecting so many names, the executives were scraping the bottom of the barrel; at one point even considering the name “Dorf” (Ford spelled backward). Breech had enough and unilaterally recommended the committee select the name “Edsel”, a name that had been an on and off contender since the E-car was first announced.

The name was a controversial choice to some. While obviously intended as a tribute to his late father, HF2 hated it, as did his mother, Edsel’s widow, Eleanor. It took significant persuasion and a little exaggeration about the name’s perceived popularity from Breech to finally convince HF2 to reluctantly allow it, against his better judgment. When Ford PR Director Gayle Warnock found out about the decision he issued a memo predicting the name would cost the new brand 200,000 sales.

Warnock may have been onto something, but it seems inconceivable that any name could have changed the fate of the brand. The failure of the Edsel is not attributable to one specific cause or mistake. There was a short economic recession late in 1957 which did not help. The design was deemed ‘controversial’ at best, by most at the time. From a pricing perspective, a few of Edsel’s offerings were in direct competition with Mercury’s offerings, which confused consumers as the Edsel was intended to fit in as a mid-priced model between Ford and Mercury. There was also a general lack of consensus throughout the development of the car, and the meddling of Robert McNamara, a singular Ford Motor loyalist who was not an ardent supporter of the Mercury, Edsel, and Lincoln lines was not helpful. A verse from a promotional song written about the Edsel entitled ‘Adam and Eve’ seems to sum up perfectly everything wrong with the thinking of many of the executives involved with the Edsel project;

“We want our friends to understand,

When they observe our car,

That we’re as smart and successful

and grand as we like to think we are.”


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