Roy Brown Jr.: Edsel designer drove one for decades
Roy Brown Jr., the defiantly proud designer of the Ford Edsel, the chrome-encrusted, big-grilled set of wheels that went down as one of the worst flops in automotive history, died Feb. 24 in a hospice in Ann Arbor, Mich. He was 96.
He had pneumonia and Parkinson's disease, said his wife, Jeanne Brown.
More than five decades after Brown's creation debuted and promptly vanished from dealerships across the United States, the term “Edsel” remains practically synonymous with failure.
Among auto enthusiasts, however, the car generates deep nostalgia for a bygone era of American motoring, and a degree of affection that perhaps has proved Brown right in the end.
He was a veteran automotive designer in the mid-1950s when the Ford Motor Co. put him in charge of overseeing a new car. It was to be more sophisticated than the standard Ford, less expensive than the Mercury and so distinctive, he once said, as to be recognized “from a block away.”
The new design was named the Edsel in honor of Henry Ford's late son, and only after executives rejected suggestions solicited from poet Marianne Moore, including Intelligent Whale, Ford Faberge, Mongoose Civique and Utopian Turtletop.
In the era of conspicuous consumption, Brown did not build a car for the motorist who drove. He made a behemoth for the driver who cruised — with room enough for five friends in tow.
What Brown's design lacked in aerodynamics it boasted in flourish. External features included scalloped sides and showy taillights. In a bold departure from the prevailing fashion, he nixed tail fins. “I hated the bloody fins on the Cadillac,” he once said. “They were dangerous, too.”
The Edsel's most recognizable attribute was its vertical grille, a design throwback. Brown recalled the applause from company President Henry Ford II, Edsel Ford's eldest son, when he first saw the design. The company's enthusiasm proved out of sync with American consumers.
After the car was released in 1957, the grille drew comparisons to an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon, a toilet seat and other cruder images.
Ford had invested $250 million in the venture, according to Automotive News. The original design was altered because of its expense and when engineers warned that the grille might inhibit ventilation.
Marketers were accused of overhyping the car, which sold for $2,300 to $3,800 and which was designed around out-of-date consumer research. By the time Edsels rolled into dealerships, American tastes had shifted and the economy had entered a period of recession.
Ford had hoped to sell 200,000 but ended production by 1960 after the sale of about 118,000. The company lost more than $300,000 a day during the period when the Edsel was in production.
After the Edsel debacle, Ford transferred Brown to the company's office in England. He was the chief designer of the Consul and the compact Cortina, which Automotive News described as “one of the company's most successful products in Europe” and the best-selling car in Britain in the 1970s.
Before his retirement in 1975, he helped design Thunderbirds and Econoline vans. In addition to those vehicles, his credits from earlier in his career include a show car that helped inspire the Batmobile.
Until the end of his life, Brown expressed pride in the Edsel. Almost until the end, he drove one, his son said. He said that in later years, by which time his model had become a collector's item, people would occasionally ask to buy his car from him.
He would reply, “Where the hell were you in 1958?”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Zimbabwe alleges Murrysville doctor illegally killed lion
- Rossi: Looking at the next great Steeler
- Steelers swap draft pick for Eagles cornerback
- Ability to clog the trenches crucial to Steelers defense
- After early criticism, Haley has Steelers offense poised to be even better
- Penguins not alone in top-heavy approach to salary cap
- EPA diktats: Pushing back
- Shell shovels millions into proposed Beaver County plant site
- Steelers notebook: Injuries finally become issue at training camp
- Starting 9: Examining Pirates’ deadline decisions
- Pirates notebook: New acquisition Happ more than happy to fill spot in rotation