The Blue Raccoon

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The 1958 Edsel: the stealth advertising campaign premiered 50 years ago this week.

"It's Like Riding On Air...Because You Are."

I was reminded by the Washington Post's Patrick Carlson that today marked the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of a massive public advertising campaign that tried to persuade the motorists of the United States who could afford them to buy an Edsel.

Billion-eyed audience, I possess an intimate awareness of the car, its makes, models and variations. The Edsel was not one of Ford Motor Company's better ideas. The failure in the calculation of today's dollars was almost $2 billion. That's billion with a "b." The Edsel established the benchmark of how marketing can fail. Big time.

I grew up on an Edsel farm in what was then the verdant virgin wilderness heart of Chesterfield County, Virginia. My dad accumulated, he says, just 13 of the hulking Detroit debacles, but, I remember them from my adolescent years as their number totaling at least 30. At least. The big rusting remnants of chrome-covered 1950s post-war cheap gas happy motoring circled our aluminum-sided shoe box on Shawonodassee Road like something out of a Roger Corman horror movie: Attack of the Killer Edsels.

There's a long story attached to the Edsel invasion of my youth. I wrote a novel based on the concept. (No, it ain't in hard covers. It's in my closet, the rightful place of all first-person first-time novels). What happened was, my Dad entered into an arrangement with Rich Uncle Kenneth (my mother's brother, who held a white collar management job and lived in Baltimore, hence, my understanding of him as possessing wealth). They were to procure, restore and sell Edsels. The idea was rather prescient; today, a cherry Edsel can fetch $100,000 on the rare car market.

Problem was, since Rich Uncle Kenneth lived in Baltimore, he didn't have a place where he could store the cars. So, they came to reside--for a solid decade--on Shawonodassee Road. They weren't stored in some pressurized garage. Just one even got a roof over it; and Rich Uncle Kenneth owned more than 50 percent of the vehicle: a 1958 Edsel Citation Convertible. She was a long, laquered black, chrome-resplendent beauty. I dreamt of driving her to school and making vicious love with whatever infatuation of mine of the week in the half-acre of back seat.

Dad and Rich Uncle Kenneth working as a dysfunctional team yanked Edsels from fallow fields, liberated them out of the garages of widows, rescued them from junkyards and one came to our yard from Charlottesville under its own power. This was the '58 convertible.
Once pulled next to the well house and underneath a simple corrugated metal roof it didn't budge. I tended upon that car with an acolyte's fervor. I took better care of that inert vehicle than I have of any one I've ever owned since. We're talking polishing, cleaning mildew of the upholstery, vacuuming, chasing woodland critters from underneath the seats. Dad drove a '60 Ranger--by which time the exasperated Ford designers had remade the car so it looked like a harmless Mercury.

The vulvaic front end of the '58 (left), and the
push-button transmission in the steering wheel

[Images: from jetset]

The '58s met the specifications of the Ford designers who wanted the car recognized from a "sixth story window." The name came at the end of an extensive and exhaustive focus group testing phase. Ford even hired poet Marianne Moore to generate names for the car. Her suggestions included Tercotinga, Utopian Turtletop, and, my person all-time favorite, Mongoose Civique. In the end, a FoMoCo executive chose Edsel to "honor" the deceased company president. Not even Edsel's widow thought the name appropriate for a mid-to-upper range market car.

The 1958 design included a front end with an oval chrome grille. When people at last saw it, they snickered. Critics derided the shape as resembling a toilet seat, an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon, an automotive executive on the verge making a pronouncement, and -- vulvaic.

[Image: Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, 1961, via]

The motorists of the 1958 United States weren't prepared to meet a vulva at 55 miles per hour unless it was Swedish, and belonged to Anita Ekberg.

Their presence of these cars, whether the '58 Citation, the '59 Bermuda station wagon, the '60 two-door Pacer, helped define my alienated 1970s sub-suburban childhood. The Edsels surrounding my house like the Kollatz family was in a perpetual hostage stand-off shaped my character. My native curiosity transformed the cars into points of exploration; as secretive as caves, as fascinating as sunken galleons. I poked into the crannies of seats, emptied the glove compartments and pulled up floor rugs to see what they might hide. I was as excited about my discoveries as Jacques Cousteau retrieving Spanish doubloons from the muck in the ocean's bottom. I even hummed the theme song of his Undersea World series and specials -- sometimes narrated by Rod Serling and presented by Burlington.

[Image: The Marriage-Go-Round, via Wikipedia.]

My expeditions garnered various amounts of crusty change, Edsel owner manuals, Broadway Playbills (Marriage-Go-Round, Stop The World I Want To Get Off), laundry chits from exotic cities, and one grimy brassiere. That item was the first of its kinds to reach my fingers and its underwiring and hooks and straps a complicated mystery that I viewed with awe in the Spiegel catalogue whose models were always more exotic than those in Sears.) I tagged these finds with note cards describing which car I found them in, the date, and the weather that day. During numerous subsequent moves that box was lost though I still have the owners manuals.

The cars sat for so long because my Rich Uncle Kenneth wouldn't agree on a price with the numerous interested parties who wandered by or called. Dad spent numerous hours on long-distance phone calls as Rich Uncle Kenneth insisted these cars were classics, even unrestored.

Then, Chesterfield County passed an ordinance that required all vehicles in a yard to be registered. Rich Uncle figured, after all this time, they had to get rid of the cars for whatever price they could fetch.

The '58 Citation convertible was sold to a Prince Edward County official and he had it hauled away by a wrecker. I was reunited with the car many years later at an Edsel rally, but that's another story.

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