Being an only child must have allowed Edsel a unique relationship with his charismatic father. They certainly had their disagreements and different styles, but they also had tremendous respect, admiration, and love for each other. There's no doubt that his relationship with Edsel is one of the more significant in Henry Ford's life.
Edsel Ford can be called a child of the automotive age. Born November 6, 1893, the first days of his life were filled with the newest sound in the country—the “chuck-chuck” of the gasoline engine. He was six weeks old when his father tested the first Ford engine in their kitchen while Edsel slept in his crib a few feet away. He was not yet three when, on June 4, 1896, he shared his father's triumph by riding in Henry's first successful car.
As a young boy, Edsel was interested in the styling and making of automobiles. It is no accident that his first car sketches were made in 1903, for that year marked the founding of Ford Motor Company and the beginning of his father's rise to fame and fortune.
During his years at the Detroit University School, Edsel wrote essays on automobiles and automobile manufacturing. After hours, he visited the busy Ford factory where he helped in the office, licked stamps, carried mail and learned how cars were made.
At the age of 12, Edsel had his own Model N Runabout. His imagination and styling ability were not satisfied with the "ugly-duckling" lines of the early cars. In these pioneer days of the "horseless carriage," he started out to civilize the automobile. He had an ideal of comfort, grace and beauty, which he expressed in a series of personally designed cars. One of these became the famous Model T Torpedo Runabout.
Edsel's interest in automobiles was more than a youthful wish to be different. In 1912, when he completed his work at the Detroit University School, he decided against college and joined the company where he could learn more about automobile manufacturing as an apprentice.
By 1915, Edsel had become a businessman and automobile manufacturer. From the beginning, he assumed responsibility for the business side of the company: sales, purchasing, advertising and the numerous details of the daily routine. His father was free to concentrate on engineering and manufacture.
Ford Motor Company expanded enormously in a few short years, and yet demand far outreached supply. Henry Ford wished to continue expanding the company's facilities, but other stockholders insisted on immediate profits at the expense of expansion. When the courts decided against Henry Ford, he resigned as president of the company, vowing he would form another company with his son and produce a car that would outshine the Model T. In this atmosphere it was Edsel, newly elected president of the company on January 1, 1919, who found a solution. He began negotiations for the purchase of outstanding minority stocks and by July, Ford Motor Company had become the sole property of the Ford family. Plans for expansion went forward rapidly.
Edsel brought a fine organizational talent to his new position of responsibility.. The commercial side of the company was Edsel's domain. The overseas operations were of special interest to him, and he worked to expand Ford facilities in foreign locations. He encouraged and supervised Ford participation in public events such as the World Fairs of the '30s. He constantly emphasized quality and service as the prime factors in Ford sales. In business and administration, it was Edsel who held the company together behind the scenes.
A Vision of Beauty
Successful though he was as an executive, Edsel's real contribution was not in the daily routine of making and selling. He brought something new to the automobile industry—a belief that an automobile could be beautiful as well as useful. His principal interest was in the styling of cars to carry out this ideal.
When the Fords purchased Lincoln Motor Company in 1922, Edsel finally had the opportunity to make design an active force within the company.
Lincoln and Design
With the purchase of Lincoln, Edsel's first concern was for an improvement in the Lincoln style. Edsel commissioned noted body designers from all over the country, including Brunn, LeBaron, Dietrich, Judkins and Derham. Each car was a masterpiece of beauty, yet planned for quantity production. The result was an era of the most distinctive and beautiful automobiles in automotive history.
Edsel’s greatest contribution to styling might have been the Lincoln-Continental he designed that was sold prior to and immediately after World War II. Although only a few more than 5,000 were built, those still on the road today are in great demand because of their classic styling.
Edsel's influence did not end with the Lincoln. In the mid-Twenties, he pushed for an improvement to the Model T’s styling. Changes in 1923 and 1925 gave Model T curved surfaces and smoother lines. These changes resulted in increased orders, and Henry Ford was forced to recognize the effect of the styling changes. As a result, he finally allowed colors on the Model T, giving up his famous orders that "You can have any color, as long as it's black."
Beyond Vehicle Styling
Although his interest in engineering was limited, Edsel Ford has been credited with the installation of hydraulic brakes on Ford cars and with interesting his father in building a six-cylinder engine to sell with the V-8. He also brought about the development of safety glass, after a friend suffered severe cuts in an accident in 1926.
Edsel’s Important Marketing Insights
It was Edsel who recognized that there was a large field of prospects among the middle class, for whom “pride, vanity, a desire for something more impressive enter very strongly into the sale." His ability to recognize the public's inherent desire to purchase "something more impressive" motivated his push for a medium-priced car. As a result of his efforts, the Lincoln-Zephyr was added to the Lincoln line in 1935.
He further recognized that the lower area of the medium-price market, the area which would benefit most by the shift to higher-priced cars, was untapped by Ford Motor Company. The competitive potential of the company could not be maintained without active entry into this price class and, accordingly, the Mercury was launched in October 1938.
Aviation and World War II
Edsel Ford purchased the Stout Metal Aircraft Company to produce the famous Ford Tri-Motor plane. He later mobilized engineers and technicians to develop a conveyor system for mass production of interchangeable-part bombers in World War II.
Sadly, the pressures of World War II took much of Edsel Ford's strength. With his death on May 26, 1943, Ford Motor Company lost a true leader, the man whose vision and energy had held the company firm.
Edsel Ford’s greatest contribution to the automotive industry was his ability to combine the artistry of custom design with the functional requirements of mass production. This concept sparked the styling revolution of the 1950's. He knew that an important goal of automobile making was the pleasure of the owner, and to this end he insisted on comfort, service, quality and beauty.