Detroit Is Outsold by Imports in U.S.
DETROIT, Aug. 1 — Detroit lost its leadership of the American automobile market for the first time ever in July, when import nameplates outsold the three American companies in a dismal month for auto sales.
To Ford, a Disaster. To Edsel Owners, Love.
KINGSTON, N.Y., July 31 — Martin Lennox took out an ad in the local paper to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the day his car rolled off the assembly line. Then he gave a party.
Mr. Lennox’s friend Steve Wyckoff arrived with a present, a bottle of transmission fluid. And, between swallows of soda and bites of chocolate-covered cupcakes, Mr. Lennox’s granddaughter Mercedes explained that she was named for an actress, not a car.
Certainly not Mr. Lennox’s, which sat, gleaming, outside the garage he has rebuilt around it. It is not just another relic from the days when Detroit’s designers favored sofa-size back seats, blindingly shiny bumpers and two-tone paint jobs. Mr. Lennox’s car is a 1958 Edsel.
To business-school types and drivers old enough to remember, the Edsel was such a disaster that it became synonymous with failure. But not to Mr. Lennox, who once gave a pair of Edsel earrings to his wife, Sharon. And not to Mr. Wyckoff. He owns 24 Edsels, although he drove a Toyota Tercel to the party.
They are regulars at gatherings of the Empire State Chapter of the Edsel Owners Club — “we have them close to where the president lives, and thankfully, I’m the president,” Mr. Lennox said. But they did not bother with the 50th anniversary celebration last weekend organized by three national Edsel owners’ groups in Dearborn, Mich.
Mr. Lennox, 63, a former telephone equipment technician who retired last year, said his Edsel was the 1,234th made. It had 59,602 miles on the odometer before he let the engine warm up — “that’s a big hunk of iron, and it likes to be hot” — and took it for a spin on Monday. For the record, the engine produces 345 horsepower, 5 more than a modern-day Chrysler 300 with a Hemi engine.
Mr. Lennox aimed the long hood with the “E” ornament on the end — his car is longer than many sport-utility vehicles, and weighs 4,479 pounds. Rounding a corner and passing a monument he helped restore when he was commander of the local American Legion post, he said he enjoyed driving a car that has become a head-turner.
“And,” he added, “I’m not a boastful person.”
But there is something contrarian about indulging one’s infatuation with the Edsel, which was discontinued only two years after the Ford Motor Company introduced it as mid-priced competition for the likes of Oldsmobile and DeSoto. Mr. Wyckoff talked about using one of his Edsels as his daily car and being pulled over by a police officer who had seen him go by the day before, and the day before that, and maybe the day before that.
“I’m tired of seeing this Edsel,” the officer told him.
No problem, Mr. Wyckoff told the officer: “I’ve got one for every day of the week.”
The Edsel was one of those ugly ducklings that never had a swan phase. “The Edsel was aesthetically against every single aspect of what, visually, a car should look like,” said Matt Haig, the author of “Brand Failures: The Truth About the 100 Biggest Branding Mistakes of All Time” (Kogan Page, 2003). “It was ugly next to Chevrolets and other cars that were looking quite beautiful.”
And then there was the name. Never mind that Edsel Ford had been Henry Ford’s only son. “People had word associations of ‘pretzel’ or ‘weasel,’ ” Mr. Haig said. “It didn’t have the soaring, almost poetic evocation of, let’s say, ‘Thunderbird.’ ”
Worse, the Edsel’s timing was all wrong. Bob Casey, the automotive historian at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., said plans for the Edsel made sense when they were worked out in 1955. But by the time the Edsel was finally introduced in late August 1957 — after Mr. Lennox’s car had already been made — the United States was heading toward a recession, and the economic headlines were not the only ones that were ominous.
As a cartoon put it after the Edsel went on sale: “My, it’s a big week for everybody! The Russians have the intercontinental ballistic missile, and we have the Edsel.”
Things did not get better in 1958. The writer Robert Daines published what he called “the ultimate Edsel photograph” on the title page of his book “Edsel: The Motor Industry’s Titanic” (Academy Books, 1994). It showed Vice President Richard M. Nixon on a trip to Lima, Peru, in May 1958, riding in an Edsel convertible that looked a lot like Mr. Lennox’s.
“Seconds after this picture was taken,” Mr. Daines wrote, “Nixon was pelted with eggs and tomatoes by demonstrators. Nixon later joked: ‘They were throwing eggs at the car, not me.’ ”
In all, about 111,000 Edsels were built. There were three model years: 1958, 1959 and 1960. But Mr. Lennox came to Edsels later. He said he decided in the early 1980s that he had to have a car from the late ’50s or early ’60s. “Everything I looked at was cheap and in a basket” — meaning reduced to parts that would have to be restored — “or expensive,” he said.
Then he saw a newspaper ad for a 1958 Edsel Citation. “Wow,” Mr. Lennox said.
The seller wanted $3,500 — “an awful lot of money.” He estimated the car’s value now at $15,000 to $20,000. “The engine was filled with rust” until he had it rebuilt. “It looks good in photographs,” he said. “It’s got some flaws, but you can’t see them. Like us.”
Mr. Wyckoff said there were four Edsels at his wedding, in 1978. “My mother-in-law thought it was ridiculous,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is not a good start. This is my life.’ ”
“I never tell people how many I have,” Mr. Wyckoff said. “If they suspect I’m crazy, I don’t want to confirm it.”