Roy Exum: At Last, Mr. Brown Can Rest

Monday, March 11, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Back when I was so young I was just beginning to wear long pants, the advertising geniuses on Madison Avenue declared Sept. 4 in the year of 1957 as “E Day” and promised what was coming would be every bit as victorious as our famed “D Day.” It was part of the hoopla over a revolutionary new car to be introduced that day and the hype was so great that over 3 million people swarmed Ford dealerships in just one day to look at what was called an Edsel. Trouble was, after seeing it, nobody bought one.

Of course, within the next two years the Edsel automobile was such a universal flop that today your Webster’s dictionary has two meanings for the word: “1. An automobile produced (1957-1959) by the Ford Motor Co., 2. A product, project, etc., that fails public acceptance despite high expectations, costly promotional efforts, etc.”

In truth, Edsel was the name of Henry Ford’s only son and the car bearing his first name was the result, it has been said, of some Ford board members seeking favor with the family. But because it was such a strange name the public would shun it, causing one far-sighted Ford executive to predict in a one-sentence memo: “We just lost 200,000 sales.”

My goodness, I’ve even heard a college football coach once call a player “an Edsel” when the poor guy never produced. The reason I bring America’s greatest marketing tragedy into focus is because about two weeks ago a man named Roy Brown Jr. died in Michigan after living over half a century with the fact that he will always be remembered as the man who designed the worst-looking car you ever saw.

You think being “Mr. Pelosi” would be tough; the American public and, more particularly, the intense hierarchy of the automotive manufacturing industry have known about poor Roy Brown in a way that you might have thought he invented the atomic bomb.

Brown, who died at age 96 in a nursing home, staunchly defended the car’s boomerang taillights and “its classic scalloped lines” all the way up until he died in late February and today, after its notoriety has made the car a punch line in 50 years of tasteless jokes, the antique car collectors are buying old Edsels in a way that always made feeble Brown growl, “Where in the (heck) were you back in ’58!”

With a grille that looked like “a toilet seat,” a “horse collar” or, in the view of a Time magazine reporter, “an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon,” the car had such innovate. Yet, in the first year alone, Ford Motor Company only sold half of what they had anticipated and by the time the car was officially deemed a dinosaur, Ford had lost the equivalent of what today would be $2 billion.

“I cried in my beer for two days,” designer Brown later said in an interview. The car designer was quickly banished to England, where he admirably designed the Cortina for the British market, a car that became the best-seller and was in production for 20 years. Some years later, he transferred back to the States where he helped with the Thunderbird and the Econoline van before becoming the Executive Designer for Lincoln-Mercury before he retired in 1975.

Despite his climb to redemption, Brown will also be known as “the man who built the Edsel.” How bad did it get? Richard M. Nixon was our country’s Vice President when once he visited Peru and when the motorcade was pelted with eggs, Nixon quipped, “They were throwing them at the car – not me.”

As sales increasingly dived, addled executives came up with one hare-brained gimmick where every Edsel dealer was shipped a live pony. If your kids could talk you into test-driving an Edsel, your name would be put in a local drawing. The trouble started when nobody realized ponies need food. Ponies then digest it and soon all of the angry dealers had quite a different mess to deal with in a desperate attempt to sell the ugly car. 

Also, most winners took the $200 cash-option instead of the live animal so the dealers sent the animals back to where they came from, where the factory already had huge inventory of unsold Edsels. It was a most unfortunate time for Ford and Roy Brown bore the brunt of the scorn for what some believe is the greatest failure our country has ever known.

Because there were so few made in the short two years, a pristine Edsel will bring $100,000 on today’s antique car market – believe it or not -- and almost twice as much if it is a convertible. And here is one bright spot – the Edsel was the first American car to ever have seat belts as standard equipment.

Sadly, it won’t do to call the late Mr. Brown the father of the seat belt. No, he will also be the person behind the Edsel and while Packard, Nash, Pontiac, Plymouth and Saturn have also died in the last half-century, nothing will ever compare to the car that Roy Brown designed, the Edsel.

Thank the Lord that Mr. Brown finally knows peace and quiet.


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