Paul Ryan’s Edsel

A few Ford Motor Company successes during the post-WWII era have been spectacular. First the Mustang in the 1960s, more recently the F150 pickup.

Ford’s most stunning defeat was the Edsel, unveiled in 1957. The Edsel endures as a case study of serial flaming screw-ups in automotive design, advertising, production, and rollout.


All of the flawed Edsel’s moving parts were destined for a dumpster. First, the car was overhyped for more than a year, with no actual previews for the automotive press; no clandestine drawings, specs, or features of any kind were revealed. Second, dealers had no advance introductions. Third, when finally launched, the Edsel looked ugly -- sensationally ugly… No, breathtakingly ugly. Fourth, workmanship was sloppy, mechanical failures recurred, and frequently. Finally, the Edsel was overengineered, too complicated for average dealer mechanics to service.

Thus, the Edsel collapsed with no redeeming virtues, except as fodder for TV laugh tracks, and the wrong kind of business school case studies.

Paul Ryan could have taken success lessons from the General Motors Chevrolet division. During the same era as the Edsel, Chevy management focused on good looks, simplicity, drivability, reliability, and uncomplicated engineering. And beat Ford routinely 2 to 1.

Instead, Paul Ryan embraced all the failure modes of the Edsel for his epic ObamaCare “repeal-and-replace” humiliation.


In 1989 Anthony Young in a piece for the Foundation for Economic Education wrote about the core issue plaguing the Edsel:

“To build up interest in the new automobile, public relations director Warnock decided on carefully controlled leaks to the print media. These took place over a two-year period prior to the Edsel’s introduction. Both Time and Life made statements to the effect that the mystery car was the first totally new car in 20 years, and that it had been in the planning stages for 10 years. This was patently false. Far from being revolutionary, the Edsel borrowed heavily from both Ford and Mercury components.

“In fact, during the first year of production, Edsels were built in Ford and Mercury plants. The Ranger and Pacer Edsels (including the Roundup, Villager, and Bermuda station wagons) were built on Ford chassis, and the Corsair and Citation Edsels were built on Mercury chassis. The Edsel division paid Ford and Mercury for each Edsel built. Every 61st car down the Ford or Mercury assembly line was an Edsel, so workers had to reach for parts in separate bins. Mistakes were made and quality on these hastily assembled cars suffered.”

When the media were finally invited to join the Edsel road show, the results were disastrous, and predictable:

“Automotive journalists were to drive 75 Edsels from Dearborn, Michigan, to their local Edsel dealers. The cars had to perform without mishap, and couldn’t reveal any defects. After all, the car had been the subject of nearly two years of hype, and expectations were high. After a comprehensive testing procedure that took two months to complete, 68 cars were handed over to journalists and driven to their respective destinations. The other seven had to be cannibalized for parts. The average repair bill for each car came to roughly $10,000, which was more than twice the price of the top-of-the-line Edsel.”

Sounds like RyanCare, doesn’t it? And there’s more:

“When all the concessions were made to accommodate cooling, ventilation, production costs, and a host of opinions, the Edsel that emerged in 1957 is sadly the one we remember today. The front-end was likened to an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon, a horse collar -- even a toilet seat. The rest of the car, both inside and out, was really no better or worse than the other offerings in the late fifties. Ford achieved the recognition factor it was shooting for, but it wasn’t positive recognition.”

Lipstick on a pig? Yup -- for the both the Edsel and RyanCare.

While the Edsel was a debacle, it was mercifully scuttled only two years after its launch. Because the Edsel was seen to be a Ford outlier, it didn’t derail Ford’s surprising success with its compact Falcon, introduced in 1960. The Mustang, Ford’s most prolific model since the 1920s Model T, followed along in 1965.

Of course, many of the Edsel division managers learned nothing from their mistakes. Richard Feloni, writing in "Business Insider," refers to a book titled Business Adventures by John Brooks containing a chronicle of Edsel stumbles. Brooks wrote more truth-telling about the Edsel fiasco, particularly the denial syndrome of its clueless progenitors:

“an Edsel marketing manager, even went so far as blaming the American public for the failed launch. He tells Brooks that he was flabbergasted that the American consumer dared to be so fickle”.

Does Paul Ryan deserve all of the blame for the ObamaCare repeal fiasco? Perhaps not. But he was the architect for all that transpired. What then should be Paul Ryan’s fate?

The Edsel executives were exiled. None were involved with the Ford Mustang. If the GOP has any designs on its own Mustang, Paul Ryan can’t be within a million miles of GOP leadership.

Edsel trunk lids were notorious for getting stuck once closed. Maybe Paul Ryan can find an Edsel trunk, and crawl inside, while waiting for a seat on president Trump’s one-way NASA slingshot to Mars.

Now, where to find GOP’s Lee Iacocca?