The unveiling of Ford’s new mystery car, the Edsel, was to have been a momentous occasion. Instead, it was a big embarrassing flop that would mark a dwindling of the car capital of the world – Detroit.
Born Hiroshima Day in nearby Pontiac, it seemed to me all the cars in the world seemed to come from Detroit. During the Second World War, Ford Motors had produced one B-24 an hour out of its massive Rouge River Plant, iron and aluminum in one end, airplanes out the other. In the 50’s, pent up demand for cars provided jobs for returning vets, and women could tend house again. But airplanes were no longer needed and car sales lagged.
Ford’s grandson Henry II needed something between the Mercury and the Lincoln. His Whiz Kids team (non-auto engineers and financiers, including Robert McNamara, who would later go on as our Secretary of Defense to engineer the Vietnam War) put a fancy push-button transmission shifter on the steering wheel, which hardly anyone wanted or liked.
Much hype and hoopla was raised up by the advertising team over the mystery “E Car.” But instead of the sleek designs of the 1957 era, this 1958 car seemed clunky, bulky, overdone. Too bad too many helped design the Edsel, and too bad for poor Edsel Ford for having his name attached.
Edsel Ford was the only son of his well-known founder dad, Henry. Though Edsel (1893 – 1943) was innovative and generous, he was never enough for his dad. He had urged the Model A, which revived sales with an affordable, strong V-8 engine. Edsel Ford financed Admiral Byrd’s exploration to the North Pole. He paid for Diego Rivera’s huge union-friendly paintings at the Detroit Institute of Arts. His estate (he died of stomach cancer at age 49) funded the initial Ford Foundation. He was Henry’s only child, but he wasn’t the man his dad wanted him to be. The second generation can never be first.
We figured Joe must have known Henry Ford and invested early on, because Joe had money even though his hi-fi store on 6 Mile Road in Detroit didn’t do much business. He had a huge pile of unopened mail on his desk. “Too many lawsuits,” he explained. Plus, out behind his store in the dirt alley, in his broken-doored garage, Henry Ford’s personal horse-drawn carriage sat, neglected. It was all dusty, with pieces of scrap iron tearing the old leather seats.
My Cousin Danny’s dad (who was a rising executive at Ford Motor Company) must have gotten us 15 year-olds our first jobs with Joe. We tended a warehouse with an odd assortment of scattered stuff, like gyroscopes from B-24’s and a mold for a fiberglass boat. We helped him wire up the speakers for the big hydroplane race on the river. But fixing and launching Edsel Ford’s old luxury yacht marked changes for us teens ─ and in retrospect, for Detroit.
Ford Motor Company released the Edsel after much hoopla and hype about what a radically new car it was to be. Instead, it was to be a big flop. It was just another big Detroit car. Designed by too many people (including Robert McNamara) it had such advanced features as a push-button automatic transmission array on the steering wheel, which no one wanted. Worse, it had a vertical grill that looked like what people snickered about.
Driving out to the boat yard, Joe would point to various women. “Last chance?” he’d jokingly ask. We were supposed to say whether we’d go with her if it was our last chance in life, which for 15 year-olds would more likely be our first. It seemed preposterous to us that old Joe still cared; he was over 60!
Edsel Ford’s wooden party yacht was about as attractive as the car by the same name, which is to say it was ugly, almost vulgar. There it sat on land near the river at the boat yard, 63 feet long, 12 feet wide and about 20 feet high. Big clunky vertical bow to plow the waters. Clunky vertical windows around the main party room. Two huge engines below. Dull brown and grey.
Our job was to stuff cotton into the large cracks in the dried hull and then seal them in with heavy black tar. Joe put a four-foot long monkey wrench on the propeller shafts, forcing them to turn, rust falling out of the bearings. “It’ll free up when we put it in the water,” he reasoned.
Too late to put the big boat in the water that day, Joe went home and Danny and I finished the tarring and planned to spend the night. We found old whisky and other liquor bottles in the bar of the party room and collected the last few drops from each, mixing them with some RC Cola and proceeded to get a little tipsy.
Next day, it took all morning for the boat yard guys to bring the huge sling on rail road tracks over to the boat. They lifted it up, slowly drove it to the launch place, lowered in in the water, and went to lunch. Danny went with them and I went below to snooze away my quasi-hangover.
“Brad,” I dimly heard in my nap, “the boat’s floating away!” I popped up on deck. Egads! The river had pulled the boat out into the flow. I was only ten yards from the dock. What to do? Danny yelled, “Go get the lifeboat on top the cabin and bring a rope.” I went up, but the life raft was full of scrap iron, puncturing the seats.
Perhaps I could steer it, use the rudder to guide it back. I turned the captain’s wheel this way and that. (I can say I have piloted Edsel Ford’s yacht!) No avail. I was out in the middle of the river now. Checking below the floor boards, there was already two feet of water seeping in past our shoddy packing. I tried scooping it out with a bucket but it wouldn’t quite fit between the floor joists, so I had to use a 16 ounce glass to fill the bucket, carry the bucket up the ladder to the deck and dump it. The water rose faster than I could bail it out.
Then I got a good idea that wasn’t. I reasoned I could siphon the water through a hose and into the river. Besides that it wouldn’t work (because the water in the boat wasn’t higher than the river) the hose I sucked on had a huge spider living there. Neither I nor the spider liked that.
Meanwhile this slowly sinking, multi-ton, non-working boat had drifted across the river towards a line of high-end luxury sailboats. Would this boat clear them before drifting past towards a park by the river? No. When it got close the last one in line, I jumped on it and tried to put my feet back up, pushing it off. Didn’t work. The heavy mass of the Edsel ground its way along the sleek rounded mahogany rear of a large, new sailboat. “Screetch,” it slowly scraped along.
Fortunately, it drifted near the park. (No foolin’, back at Detroit a few miles away, an ominous thunderstorm flashed and boomed, and it turns out, had a small tornado.) I threw an anchor line out to stop it, threw another line towards shore, jumped overboard in the water, swam the rope to shore and tied it to a tree. Tired and wet, I felt proud to have saved Joe’s Edsel boat from sinking or drifting out to the big lake. But when Joe and Danny finally got there by car, Joe was mad at me. I quit, went and sat in his car, and found an almost empty bottle of schnapps under the seat. The huge old Edsel boat, being not that far from shore, sank to the shallow bottom and stayed there.
On the way home we got behind a small Datsun. I had never seen one. As far as I knew, every car in the world (other than the VW Bug) came from Detroit. “Look at that,” said Joe. “What a joke. Made in Japan.”
Byron Bradley Carrier
© January 19, 2018