Published by EH.Net (September 2003)

Thomas E. Bonsall, Disaster in Dearborn: The Story of the Edsel. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002, Pp. 211; illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $35.95 (cloth)

Reviewed for EH.Net by Thomas R. Winpenny, Department of History, Elizabethtown College

If you derive a sense of superiority from reading about someone else’s blunders, then you are likely to enjoy this book. If you have a deep-seated need to hate Robert McNamara, then you are likely to enjoy this book. (McNamara helped create the Edsel and also supported the F-111 that came to be known as the “Flying Edsel.”)

Thomas E. Bonsall, author of the only existing history of the Avanti, has produced Disaster in Dearborn: The Story of the Edsel. Published by Stanford General Books, this volume will be welcomed by the general reader, certainly the Edsel cult, and others. With perhaps as many as 100 photos in this 211 page book, it is conceivable that someone might purchase this work for the photos alone.

Bonsall provides background for his story with two opening chapters on the life of Edsel Ford, followed by one on the automotive marketplace between the wars. Henry Ford, the founder, generally seemed to be harsh in his treatment of his son Edsel, even though his son took a serious interest in the design side of the automobile business. Henry simply seemed to resent the fact that Edsel and his wife Eleanor (a local department store heiress) spent considerable time on the Detroit social circuit and were lauded as patrons of the arts. Their cozy little nest on Lake St Clair was actually an 87 acre estate punctuated with a 60 room house. In any event, Edsel worked in the design end of the business, rarely pleased his father, and was dead by 1943. His wife, Eleanor Clay Ford lived till 1976 and left an estate worth roughly $90,000,000.

More critical than Edsel’s life, to this story, were the plummeting fortunes of the once great Ford Motor Company between the wars — now that they were challenged by Alfred Sloan and General Motors. “Sloanism” carried GM from 18.5% of the United States market in 1922 to 47% by 1941. By contrast, Ford had 48% of the market in 1922, but only 18.8% by 1941. Sloanism by the 1950s came to mean not only greater insight in marketing, but the wisdom to use interchangeability through their GM line of five distinct cars. This brought great savings that Ford did not seem able to emulate or match. To cut to the heart of the matter, the Edsel car of the late 1950s was to provide one solution to the sagging financial fortunes of Ford.

Henry Ford II, Robert McNamara, and others committed $250,000,000 to designing, building, and marketing a bold new car to penetrate the medium price market at the end of the decade. We are all free to debate just how clever and bold the new design actually was. How good was the engineering? Was it really important to have the gear shifting buttons in the center of the steering wheel? How good was the advertising and marketing? No matter. The Edsel dealers sold only about 60,000 1958 Edsels for a medium priced market share of only 5 %. The situation never really got any better and by 1960 the Ford Motor Company was out of the Edsel business and Robert McNamara moved on to the World Bank.

There are multiple reasons for failure here, and Thomas Bonsall brings a level-headed and reasonable analysis to the problem. The overriding error was “bad timing.” By this Bonsall means trying to crack the already overcrowded medium price field while it was contracting from sales of 3,000,000 units in 1955 to 1,200,000 in 1958. (Note: The DeSoto disappeared shortly thereafter.) Another failing resided in new and inexperienced dealers, many of whom really did not know the business, many of whom lost their life savings. Furthermore, Motor Trend, Automotive News, and Consumer Reports were all pretty harsh in their assessment of the Edsel – frequently citing quality control problems. In addition, John Keats writing in The Insolent Chariots and Vance Packard writing in The Hidden Persuaders mocked the auto industry for its extreme design tendencies and frivolous accessories, charges that certainly might apply to the Edsel. Ironically, in 2003 there seem to be endless Edsel lovers in America and a true cult following. Alas, their support came 45 years too late.

Professor Winpenny teaches history at Elizabethtown College. His forthcoming book chronicles the hundred year history of the Manhattan Bridge over the East River in New York City.