In November 1956, Ford settled on a name for its new line of mid-priced automobiles: It would be called the Edsel, after the son of the firm’s founder. Launched the following September, the Edsel was an utter flop, and has since become an exemplar of a product gone wrong, of how seemingly omnipotent firms and advertisers can be laid low by grass-roots consumer antipathy.

Documents held by the Hagley Library help make sense of the Edsel debacle. Two months after the Edsel’s launch, Ford hired Ernest Dichter, then the nation’s leading market-research analyst, to help the company determine how to increase sales. Dichter's frank assessment, laying out the extent of the Edsel’s troubles, offered only a few glimmers of hope for the company.

The Edsel, he bluntly told Ford, suffered from "a bandwagon in reverse" with a "quite negative” word-of-mouth campaign. Edsel owners seemed not only unenthusiastic but even embarrassed by their choice. "I guess I just don’t talk about my cars much," one told Dichter, but "it seems I talk even less since I got an Edsel." Another complained that if he told others about buying an Edsel, "they make a wisecrack and that’s it."

Non-owners adamantly didn't want one. "I sure wouldn’t want to own a car that would make a freak out of me," one explained. "You see an Edsel and you see everyone turn around and look at it as though it was a monster of some kind."

To Dichter, Ford’s advance promotional campaign had failed to "construct a personality for the Edsel," that would offer consumers "a picture of themselves as the most important market." One married man considered the typical Edsel owner to be "some smart young jerk” who “enjoys being stared at." Another man (described as well-off), characterized it as "the kind of car for people who don’t have a damned thing but want you to think they do."

Clearly, those who didn’t already own an Edsel were convinced that it was a car for someone else.

Edsel advertising catalogs help explain how Ford failed in this all-important task. The flier launching the 1958 line, headlined "This is the Edsel -- never before a car like it," promoted a dizzying 18 different models. By trying to offer an Edsel that would appeal to everyone, Ford was guilty of, in Dichter’s words, presenting a "confused fog" rather than a "sharply defined image" for the car.

The flier was full of clashing images: two sober-looking, suit-clad businessmen leaning on the Edsel Corsair hardtop; two sportsmen (one seemingly carrying a rifle) getting ready to go on a hunting trip in their Edsel Ranger sedan; a young couple sitting on a beach next to their Edsel Citation convertible; and a large family going for a drive in their Edsel Bermuda station wagon. Sowing even more confusion, the flier promised that the Edsel "was priced from just above the lowest to just below the highest." There may have "never before" been a car like the Edsel, but exactly whom it was for was a mystery.

Dichter also took aim at the Edsel’s notorious front grill, which had, he said, become the butt of "antagonistic jokes and ridicule." He warned that it had helped to give the car a feminine image -- a problem in an era when men did most of the car buying. "It looks like a girl with her lips all puckered up waiting to be kissed," one interviewee related. Another explained that the grill made him feel that "if you get too close, it might scoop you up and suck you in," language that must have been all too clear for the Freudian-inclined Dichter. To counter these connotations, Dichter recommended giving the front end a "masculine, aggressive name," such as the "jet-intake" or altering the design "in order to effect a less passive and more aggressive appearance."

Ford inadvertently reinforced the Edsel’s feminine image through its own promotional material. One pamphlet, which promised that "more than any other car, you drive the Edsel by touch," intended to hint that the car was easy to operate. But by using the visual motif of a gloved female hand touching the car and its instruments, it only reinforced that the Edsel was for women. The gloved hand showed how to control the "Teletouch" gear shift located on the steering wheel, how to "position your seat at the flick of a switch," and even how it was possible to "lubricate your Edsel at the touch of a button."

Men may have been especially put off by the "speed warning light," which could be set to cast a "red glow over the speedometer if car speed exceeded your pre-set mile-per-hour limit." Presumably giving the female hand the power to control the car’s speed would not have been a selling point to male consumers who anticipated driving it! Little surprise that one male interviewee flatly told Dichter that the Edsel "isn’t a man’s car."

Dichter’s advice was a case of too little, too late. Ford eliminated the offending front grill, but otherwise failed at the greater challenge of successfully imagining whom the Edsel was for. The catalog for the 1960 line, the Edsel’s last, contained even greater confusion on the identity of its owners. Highlighting an elaborate color scheme to create "personality-planned interiors," Ford declared that the new Edsel was "for people who want fresh, good looks."

So whom did the catalog include in this capacious category? A distinguished businessman driving the Edsel Ranger sedan (the same model suggested for hunters in 1958); a buffed water-skiing couple "who admire sports-car dash" enjoying their Edsel Ranger convertible; a fisherman using the Edsel Villager station wagon to get to his favorite stream; and "thrifty-minded" families who could fit everyone into the Edsel Villager nine-passenger station wagon. Purchasers could also choose from among 20 two-tone exterior color combinations, 14 solid exterior finishes and six interior fabric sets. Consumers responded to this "confused fog" by shunning the car, forcing Ford to cancel production before the 1961 model year.

While the Edsel is long gone, its unfortunate iconic place in our history remains secure.

(Roger Horowitz is associate director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology and Society at the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this blog post: Roger Horowitz at rhorowitz@Hagley.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this blog post: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.