Cars We Remember: Edsel Ford - remembering the man, not the machine
Q: I was interested to read your article, “Henry Ford: The Great Industrialist & Fateful Hunger March,” as I have been a big fan of the history of the Ford Motor Company since the first time I read, “FORD, the Men and the Machine” by Robert Lacey, (which I have re-read many times since.)
Without question Henry Ford is a fascinating subject, but I strongly feel that his son Edsel Bryant Ford is a man deserving of having his own story told. Edsel gets lost in the shadow of his famous father and his name now is sadly only associated with a failed product offering, but he had a very great influence on the FORD Motor Company in his own right.
In your article you mentioned Henry introducing the new Model A to replace the T in 1928. Did you know that Edsel had been after his father for the better part of 10 years to introduce a new car? Did you know that Edsel had a major influence in the styling of the Model A?
Henry’s focus was purely utilitarian. He thought style was a waste of time, but Edsel recognized that the physical appearance of a car was now what first attracted buyers. Did you know that Edsel was the driving force behind FORD buying the failing Lincoln Motor Company and was the chief designer of the Zephyr and Continental? He also founded the Mercury Division to compete against cars in a higher bracket.
Edsel was also the driving force behind The FORD Motor Company building, (at their own expense,) the Willow Run factory to manufacture B-24 Liberators for the war effort. By adopting moving assembly-line practices to the manufacture of aircraft they were able to build heavy bombers cheaper and far faster than conventional methods, eventually seeing one completed plane leave the factory every hour.
As I mentioned, Edsel Ford has a fascinating story and perhaps you may be the man to tell it. If so please send me a copy. Regards, Andrew McCarnan, Oshawa, Ontario, Canada.
A: Andrew, thank you very much for your email about Edsel Ford, who I agree got the “short end of the stick” when it comes to his accomplishments all because of the failure of the Edsel motorcar.
I, too, respect Edsel for all his contributions that you so eloquently explain. Additionally, Edsel was also aware of the importance of performance in a car company’s overall marketing program and was known for his philanthropic efforts. He also is involved in a controversy that involves early North Pole explorations as he helped finance the highly decorated Admiral Richard Byrd and his North Pole explorations.
We’ll get to the conspiracy theory in a bit, but first the Edsel Ford accolades.
You are indeed correct that when it came to styling and looking ahead, Henry Ford didn’t have the foresight that his son Edsel did. And, for whatever reason, I never have written a column about the overall talent and skills that Edsel brought to the Ford Motor Company board of directors. So for this fact alone, I thank you yet again.
Sadly, Edsel Ford did not live long enough for his positive impact to continue and thrive. Born in Nov. of 1893 and the sole child of parents Henry and Clara Ford, he grew up with all the cars and action around him and rose to President of Ford from 1919 until his untimely passing May 26, 1943. He was just 49 years old when he succumbed to stomach cancer following unsuccessful surgery. His father then reassumed his position as president of the company until he named Edsel’s son, Henry Ford II, president of Ford in Sept. of 1945.
Edsel’s non-voting stock was then donated to the Ford Foundation that he and his father founded in 1936. He is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit, Michigan. Edsel’s children with wife Eleanor include the aforementioned Henry II, Josephine, Benson and William, all of whom inherited sizable shares in Ford and his three sons all worked in the family business.
Edsel Ford’s death impacted so many organizations as he was one of the most significant art benefactors in Detroit history. Other notables about Edsel were his serving as president of the Detroit Arts Commission, where he commissioned the famous Diego Rivera Detroit Industry Murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). He also was an early collector of African art and his contributions became part of the core of the original DIA African art collection. After Edsel’s death, his family continued to make significant contributions.
Edsel also financed several exploratory expeditions, including the historic and famous flights of Admiral Richard Byrd over the North Pole starting in 1926. Byrd’s famous Antarctic expeditions were responsible for founding the Edsel Ford Range of Mountains, Ford Massif, Ford Nunataks, and Ford Peak.
The many Admiral Byrd, Edsel Ford financed flights to Antarctica, however, have become way more popular than just a naming rights honor. Specifically, one of Byrd’s Antarctic adventures following Edsel’s passing has become one of the biggest conspiracy theories going on today dealing with Byrd’s North Pole encounter with a lost civilization. According to Hollow Earth theorists, in 1947 Byrd met an ancient race underground in the North Pole and the numerous videos on the subject, including one that aired on the History Channel, explain all in detail. Most viewers have no idea that it was Edsel Ford that helped finance Admiral Byrd’s exploration ventures, making for a bit of trivia. His now famous “Ancient Civilization” is best explained on the History Channel episode called “Ancient Aliens: The Hollow Earth Hypothesis,” Season 8, Episode 6 and you can find it on YouTube.
Edsel and his father many times disagreed on car manufacturing theories, with Edsel always thinking forward. Edsel would go on as founder of the Mercury division and he was also responsible for both the Lincoln Zephyr and Lincoln Continental.
As for the Edsel automobile, it was introduced to an amazing amount of advertising and fanfare in September 1957 as a 1958 model. Edsels were assembled at the many Mercury assembly lines, much to the chagrin of the union auto workers who did not receive extra benefits to bring the new model to fruition.
Edsel trims included the Citation, Corsair, Pacer, Ranger and station wagons Bermuda, Villager, and Roundup. Unfortunately, the Edsel division is still regarded as one of the auto industry’s biggest failures while poor Edsel Ford had nothing to do with the car as he had been gone for some 15 years. Although sales were decent the first year, Ford eliminated the car from production following the 1960 model citing a re-emphasis to produce more compact size cars.
I’ll end by theorizing that had Edsel Ford lived a long life, a car with his name would have been much different, especially considering the prototype car he did design, notably the 1934 Model 40 Speedster V8 Special, was a beauty.
I’m glad you mentioned all of Edsel’s other successes in your letter, Andrew, as indeed Edsel Ford deserves to be remembered more for his Ford Motor Company accomplishments instead of a car from the late 1950s he had nothing to do with.
Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and Gannett Co. Inc. and welcomes reader questions on collector cars, auto nostalgia and motorsports at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, PA 18840.