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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Edsel, Japanese automakers and the lessons of history

Time to get back to living...

I've put whatever energy I have had into the important things: work, family, etc. The blog has had to suffer. I believe I have it in me to begin again.

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The Edsel

I have one of those flip calendars that sit on your desk. This particular one is "Cars of the '50's". Today's car, and I kid you not, is a 1958 Edsel Bermuda. Here is the description:

"Just 1,456 six-passenger Bermuda station wagons were built. Chalk Pink and Frost White two-tone paint ensured that this one wouldn't get lost in the parking lot."

They don't mention the two-tone wood trim along the side, the fat whitewall tires or the orange-yellow license plate.

Edsel was an abject failure for Ford and was at one time considered a symbol of the company's slide behind Chevrolet as the most popular car in America. It was a medium-priced car with oddball styling and an awkward name that never resonated with customers. Ford decided it would give customers something that customers didn't want. It took them awhile to figure out that Edsel was a failure, three years in fact. The 1958 Edsel was followed by the 1959 and then the 1960! Perhaps they didn't give up easily since the car had been so many years in the planning stages? It was back in 1948 that Henry Ford II called on his planning committee to begin work on a car that would be the Ford version of the Buick. Nine years later production would begin.

I have culled a small portion of the timeline from the Edsel.com website which, in retrospect, sheds some light on the planning of all cars. But this was particularly humorous to me...

October 19, 1955: After having problems determining a suitable name for the E-car, renowned poet Marianne Moore was approached to submit inspirational names.

November 7, 1955: Marianne Moore began to offer her list of names, which included such notables as "Resilient Bullet", "Ford Silver Sword", "Mongoose Civique", "Varsity Stroke", "Pastelogram" and "Andante con Moto".

December 8, 1955: Miss Moore submitted her last candidate: "Utopian Turtletop".


Here is an excerpt from an eyewitness account of the delivery of the first Edsels to a new dealership:

The first cars shipped came to the Ford Plant on Grand Avenue in Dallas. One morning about 3:00 A.M., I received a phone call from our Service Manager, Bill Showalter, urging me to get dressed and rush down to the Ford Plant. What I saw was unbelievable. Some of the car doors were roped closed. Some bumpers were roped up. Many of the cars equipped with the air bag shocks were practically on the ground. The "gear shift" was in the center of the steering wheel and if you used reverse, the trunk lid would open. Unbelievable. We then learned the dealers were receiving cars in the same condition. We were then instructed to contact all of our dealers and ask them if they preferred to receive their allotment with these kinds of cars, or take half their allotment with the cars in standard condition. Many of our dealers were former new car dealers who had canceled their franchises thirty to sixty days earlier and had no new cars to sell for some time. By far the majority replied to ship their allotment and they would fix them. Unfortunately many could not be fixed. The condition of the cars could not be kept quiet and competition had a "field day". It cost a fortune to get the cars corrected.


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The end of an era

Edsel is a famous flop. It was symptomatic of what was going wrong in US Automobile manufacturing. Long used to having the fat-cat status of being the top dogs in the industry, US automakers became lazy. Union contracts were given out that were far too lucrative and that enabled a large percentage of the employees to spend time loafing rather than working. New cars were designed to be just a little different than the previous model year to encourage sales to those who had to have what is new. Yet technology was not emphasized as much as design. Quality controls were ineffective and the result was a product that was increasingly unsatisfactory.

The American consumer learned the words "designed obsolescence" because of the US auto industry. It seemed the cars were made to rust out and fail after about seven years of use. Disgruntled consumers looked to find better quality and choices in their cars. Some automakers paid the ultimate price within ten years of the advent of the Edsel, with Studebaker perhaps the classic example. Labor problems and shoddy manufacturing controls were key to the demise of the famous automaker and great improvements in these areas later on couldn't make up for the damage done during the late 40's and early 50's, when customers would find broken bottles left inside their car doors or curse words painted on the inside trunk lid.

I worked in the auto industry for just short of 18 years and I was there to see the end of an era. In the early 1980's Japanese automakers began to make inroads against the impression of the public that they made inferior cars. They utilized advanced quality control methods that ensured a better product. They worked hard at the technology needed to produce more efficient cars. Meanwhile, Detroit was content with business as usual. I think that perhaps the 1980's output from Detroit includes some of the worst cars ever made. It seems that the American consumer agreed.

As Toyota and Nissan and others made headway in the US and sales of the standard US automobiles dropped, Detroit began to wake up. They began to demand better quality control in their factories and in the factories of their suppliers. They put more money into R & D, they began looking to scale back wages and benefits. But it was too late.

Canny Japanese companies moved here, built factories here, and with the days of high-end wages for automobile workers at an end, they could get the highly productive American worker for less money that Detroit was paying, locked into contracts with labor unions first negotiated in the days of milk and honey.

In truth, both Toyota and Ford, like most automakers, are multi-national corporations. They have factories and subdivisions and other holdings scattered around the world. All money made by Toyota is not going to Japan nor is all Ford money staying here in the USA. There is still a huge pie to slice up, this demand for automobiles, and Ford is not going to go belly-up. Still, they once were the most popular automobile on the planet. They once were the most innovative and the one company more than any other that understood the marketplace. The Edsel epitomizes the end of an era in Detroit and was the harbinger for harder times to come.

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There is only one letter's difference between "car" and "war."

Can we not learn from history? Change is inevitable in every endeavor. Cars had to change. Toyota saw this well before Ford did. Therefore, Toyota became the more successful corporation and Ford lagged behind.

The tactics of World War III have changed and we need to understand this, lest we become the Ford or perhaps even the Studebaker and Islam the Toyota. Allow me to explain:

Sure, the liberal side of the political coin during the 1920's and 30's could see the growing dangers of totalitarianism in the world but refused to think of doing anything to deal with the problems beyond talk. Communism in Russia, Fascism in Germany and Italy, Imperialism in Japan - Totalitarian governments that began to bully their neighbors, then swallow them whole. Negotiations with governments intent upon world conquest are foolish and meaningless. Hitler would promise to be good, then he would go conquer Poland.

Wiser heads prevailed as the dangers to freedom around the globe became apparent. The United States of America held back as other countries began fighting World War II, for we were not directly involved. December 7th, 1941 changed all of that. Pearl Harbor was a slap in the face that awoke America to the worldwide dangers. Hitler added to the sting by declaring war on the United States four days later.

Japan believed that the US was ill-prepared to fight a war on multiple fronts and would not try to stop Japanese advances in Asia and the Pacific if they wiped out our Pacific Fleet. The opposite happened. We got mad, and got going, and we threw ourselves into the building of the mightiest war machine mankind had ever known.

World War II was in fact a fight for free governments versus totalitarian governments as we look in retrospect. Hitler unwisely attacked the Soviets, desirous of their resources, and thereby made one of the totalitarian forces his enemy. We accepted their help and yet the Soviets would wind up winning, in part, the spoils that Hitler himself had sought. They greatly expanded their holdings in Europe and would be our primary enemy for the next four-plus decades. Ronald Reagan recognized their economic weaknesses, their philosophical weaknesses, and played off of that by challenging them militarily in a technological arms race that they could not win nor afford. His policies were the push that toppled regimes that had already begun teetering on their unstable foundations. He beat them, to an extent, at their own game.

As totalitarian governments were the threat in the 1920's and 30's, as they became the scourge of the 1940's, those who love peace at any price resisted armed conflict. They were wrong. We had to fight for our freedoms or lose them. Today, it is totalitarian governments and Islamofascists who are the threat. They have prepared for war and loosed it upon us.

Have we forgotten 9/11?


There are plenty of people who flatly stated that 9/11 was the Pearl Harbor of the 21st century. How soon we forget! War is different than it was for our grandparents. The enemy is not encased in fighter planes, in large ships, in lines of troops digging trenches. He is crouched within civilian living quarters, pressing the button on a remote-controlled IED. He is lobbing largely-unguided missiles across the border into Israel. He is strapping explosives to his chest and trying to take 40 other people into the afterlife along with him. Things have changed.

Israel is engaged in warfare that includes tanks and planes and yet it is primarily a war against terrorism, against people who hide among civilians, eschew uniforms and laugh at the Geneva Convention. It isn't pretty. But do we not understand that they are fighting our war, against our enemies? We find ourselves in Iraq, in Afghanistan, fighting terrorists rather than armies and yet while brave young military personnel risk everything to fight for us, there are so many at home who cry for peace at any price! They decry Israel and call for two idiocies at once - cease-fire and negotiations.

To the terrorists, a cease-fire enables them to gather more ammunition so they may begin again. To specifically terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, the idea of negotiations must be humorous indeed! They have vowed to destroy Israel and wipe out the Jews. There is nothing to negotiate.

In today's world, Midway is now Afghanistan. The beaches of Normandy are Iraq. Israel in South Jordan is Corregidor. Can you not see it? Do you not understand?

Those who tell you that cease-fires and negotiations and, God help us, the United Nations(!) will save the day are trying to sell you an Edsel.

2 comments:

loboinok said...

Very well written article radar. I trust you are feeling better.

My dad had a '59' Edsel. One ugly car.
He drove it for a year or two and parked it in the barnyard and replaced it with a '58' Belair.

For some reason, everytime I came across a Karma Ghia in the 70's, I thought of the Edsel.

radar said...

Lobo, we once took a Karmann Ghia into a garage, dropped the engine and replaced a piston, using a bottle jack, a rock for a fulcrum and a wood beam as a lever. How the thing ever ran after that...but it did!

Most people don't know that the Mercury Comet, that came out in 1960, was originally the Edsel Comet as it was planned. Just before manufacturing began Ford changed its mind, realizing that the Edsel name had become the kiss of death.