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Demand now hot for Edsels

America's most famous automotive flop, the Edsel, just turned 50.

And while there were all sorts of grass-roots celebrations, Edsel's parent, the Ford Motor Co., didn't make a fuss. There was no homecoming at headquarters and no big cake shaped like the puckered-mouth grille. Perhaps the five-decade-old memory is still raw, or perhaps Ford is too busy with its own problems.

But the Edsel rolls on, perhaps causing a bigger stir now than when it was new. It remains a punch line, a symbol of 1950s excess and a cautionary tale of how the best-laid plans can collide with reality. Yet even in ignominy, the car has its fans and fanatics; the Edsel is more desirable today than some contemporaries that were in greater demand when new.

Still, these are not valuable collectibles but cultural curiosities, which is why the Edsel has an appeal that extends beyond the community of car collectors.

"The Edsel is one of the most economical collector cars you can get into," said Phil Skinner, collector-car-market editor for Kelley Blue Book and past president of the Edsel Owners Club. But he is a realist as well. Edsel is an acronym, he said, for "every day someone else laughs."

The Edsel's buildup was huge. Hints of the car's wonders dribbled out for months before the introduction on Sept. 4, 1957 — E-Day, it was called. For many consumers, the car fell short of their inflated expectations. In the end, even a giveaway of 1,000 ponies — intended to get children to bring parents to showrooms — was a failure.

Despite several features that were not necessarily innovations — a vertical grille, self-adjusting brakes, Teletouch transmission buttons on the steering wheel and a floating speedometer that glowed when a preset speed was reached — the Edsel was panned by the public. Among other things, it was derided for having a grille that looked like a toilet seat. Time magazine popularized the wisecrack that it looked like an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon.

Ford initially organized Edsel as a stand-alone division, and 1,300 independent dealers were established throughout the country. But in January 1958, sensing a disaster in the making, Ford moved to integrate Edsel with Lincoln and Mercury, creating a division known as M-E-L.

The Edsel originally came in four series: the Pacer and Ranger were based on the standard Ford body; the fancier Citation and Corsair were built on the bigger Mercury body. For the introductory year of 1958 there were 18 models. For 1959, the Edsel got a single body shared with the '59 Ford, and by 1960 there was little attempt to hide the underlying Ford that peeked out all over.

The spectacular sales debacle has been attributed to many reasons. Certainly the quality of early Edsels was poor; some parts ran out; incomplete cars went to dealerships with repair instructions, forcing dealers to cannibalize brand new cars.

The car came out as a recession was starting, and perhaps worse, a month after E-Day the Soviets launched the first sputnik. The Edsel, trumpeted as a new idea, suddenly seemed a vestige of the past.

For 1958, prices ranged from the two-door Ranger sedan at $2,484 to the Citation convertible at $3,766. Output plunged from an unremarkable 63,110 for 1958 to 44,891 for 1959 and just 2,846 for the brief 1960 model year, according to The Standard Catalogue of American Cars.

Edsels today sell infrequently at auction, said Jim Cox, owner of Branson Collector Car Auction in Branson, Mo. Cox has had five Edsels at his auctions in the last five years. "I get a lot of owners with unreasonable expectations about what their car is worth," he said.

Even so, in the last two years he has sold a '59 Corsair convertible for $23,000 and a '60 Ranger sedan for $8,650. One of the rarest Edsels, a '60 Ranger convertible, got a high bid of $110,000 but did not sell at the recent Kruse Fall Auburn Sale in Auburn, Ind.