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Roy Brown Jr., Chief Designer of the Edsel dies at 96
Roy Abbott Brown Jr., the lead designer for the short lived Edsel division of the Ford Motor Company died on Feb. 24 in Michigan. He was 96. Mr. Browns signature creation, the much anticipated but ultimately ill-fated Edsel, became a synonym for bold, bad ideas not long after it was introduced in September 1957. But he was also responsible for Ford’s greatest European success, the Ford Cortina which sold over three million units.
The son of a Chrysler engineer, Roy Abbott Brown Jr. was born on October 30 1916, in Hamilton, Ontario. The family moved to Detroit when he was 15. Roy was a graduate of Detroit Art Academy in 1937 and was hired by Cadillac. He designed the 1939 Cadillac instrument panel. He headed the Olds studio in 1940 until being drafted into the US Army in WWII. After the war he was an industrial designer an then worked for Ditzler paint. He joined Ford in 1953, led the design team for the popular 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car before working on the E car (which would later become the Edsel). After the Edsel he was transferred to the UK. He returned to the United States in the mid-1960s and continued to work at Ford until 1975. Survivors include his wife of 42 years, Jeanne Brown; four children from a previous marriage, Georgianna Byron, Reginald (Reg) Brown, Penny Beesley and Mark Brown; a sister, Betty Klepinger; five grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren.
Even as the Edsel, his most notable work, fell far short of sales goals, lost over $250 million and by some estimates as much as $350 million (in 1958 dollars), became an enduring punch line and prompted an overseas transfer for its designer, Mr. Brown remained satisfied with it. “I’m proud of the car,” he told The Sun-Sentinel of Florida in 1985. “There is not a bad line on the car.”
Many initial assessments agreed.
“The Edsel will be radically different,” said an article in The New York Times previewing the new model in 1957. “The difference in style is spectacular,” the article added. “The front end emphasizes a vertical grille that lends a distinctive continental flair. The rear-end assembly is also distinctive. Horizontal taillights sweep across the trunk lid to form a pattern like the graceful wingspread of a sea gull.”
Popular Science magazine wrote of “gadgets beyond a gadgeteer’s dreams of glory”; “more engine power than the average motorist will know what to do with”; and “styling that reverses the years-long trend to horizontal-pattern front ends, and chrome enough to tax the output of the world’s mines”. The car, the magazine claimed, “takes off like a gazelle one jump ahead of a drooling lion”.
But early praise and anticipation —soon gave way to public mockery.
The vertical grille with the “continental flair” was compared to a toilet seat and later became known as the “horse collar.” (Mr. Brown’s initial grille design was far sleeker but was reworked out of concerns about getting enough air to cool the engine.) New features — the push-button shifter, the drum speedometer — had complications.
Edsel had the right car for the wrong market. Just weeks after Edsel was introduced the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and the US entered the worst recession since the 1930s. The US markets preference was shifting to smaller more economical cars: imports, the Nash and Rambler, and soon followed by the Falcon, Comet, Corvair, Valiant, and similar cars. Others said the Edsel was hurt by excessive expectations. It was over marketed, the Segway of the 50s.
Ford’s Edsel division spent extravagantly on advertising, including an hour long variety special with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, the Four Freshmen and others in October 1957, plus television commercials, and “name the pony” promotions, but the company struggled to clarify the market position of Edsel’s various models, which sold for $2,400 to over $4,000 fully equipped. Edsel Ranger and Pacer were less expensive than most Mercury models, Corsair was about the same price point as an upper trim level Mercury, and Citations were priced as near equals to Lincoln.
Even the name of the car confused some people. It was named for Edsel Ford, the only child of the company founder, who served as president of the company until his death in 1943.
The Edsel was out of production by November 1959 and would sell just over 118,000 cars in three model years versus the 200,000 cars annually that Ford projected. Mr. Brown was transferred to England, where he helped design successful European models for Ford, including the Cortina.
In retrospect, the Edsel was not as much of a disaster for Ford as it first appeared. To make the car, Ford had added plant capacity, which they used to build more successful models such as the Falcon and the Mustang as the economy recovered.
For all its commercial struggles, the Edsel has been revered as a collectible for decades — and Mr. Brown drove one into the 1990s. Reg Brown is an active member of the EOC and still enjoys Roy's former Edsel with his daughter.
Links to news sources on both sides of the Atlantic used for this article:
Special thanks to Reg Brown for proofreading and providing corrections for this article
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A little Edsel history
A little Edsel history