Psychology Yesterday

Stories from the behavioral past

How the Edsel Got Its Name

Naming a product is more difficult than it may appear.

In 1956, having trouble coming up with a good name on its own, Ford Motor Company asked its ad agency, Foote, Cone & Belding (FC&B), to come up with some possibilities for its new, very special project. Codenamed “E-Car” (“E” for “Experimental”), this project wasn’t just another automobile for Ford. It was in fact the first car to be introduced by the company since 1938 when the Mercury made its debut, this twenty-year stretch more than enough time to give engineers and designers plenty to think about how to build the perfect automobile for the American consumer of the 1950s. As well, the E-Car would be not just a single model but four different series comprising a total of eighteen cars- essentially a new, entire automobile company. For many Americans, the Edsel would be the first really new car they had a chance to buy after the war, its introduction an important event in the history of automobiles.

FC&B, which had just been awarded the large account, not surprisingly went all out for its new assignment, including asking employees in its Chicago, New York, and London offices to come up with possible names for the automobile. The employee who came up with the winning name would win an E-Car, such a prize no doubt explaining the volume of entries the agency received. No less than 18,000 names poured in, six thousand of which were presented to Ford for consideration in alphabetical order in beautifully bound books, complete with each name’s word associations. Not knowing what to do with such a large list, Ford’s market research director, David Wallace, asked a research company in Ann Arbor to find out which ones the public liked best, and add any others that seemed to resonate with consumers. Four names—Corsair, Citation, Pacer, and Ranger—topped the list, but Wallace and a colleague working on the project, Bob Young, were unsatisfied. Nothing less than a special name for the special car would be acceptable.

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The logical path not having worked out, Wallace and Young decided to ask someone who was skilled with words but not familiar with the auto industry to come up with something better. As it turned out, Young’s wife happened to know a very good poet who she felt would be happy to help out. Marianne Moore, whose Collected Poems of 1951 had won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bollingen Prize, was indeed delighted to apply her imagination to the project, coming up with such unquestionably imaginative names as Utopian Turtletop, Andante Con Moto, Mongoose Civique, Pastelogram, Intelligent Bullet, and Bullet Cloisonne. “Name after name was submitted from the florid pen of Miss Moore, each reaching undreamed of heights of poetic fancy,” wrote Thomas E. Bonsall in his definitive autopsy of the Edsel, “none of them even remotely suitable for the E-Car.”

With the product launch rapidly approaching, and names like Utopian Turtletop clearly not going to fly, Wallace and Young presented the four top research-tested names to an executive committee meeting headed up by Ernest Breech, a vice president at the company. “I don’t like any of them,” Breech growled, “Let’s take another look at some of the others.” Among the rejects considered by Breech and the other top dogs at Ford were Drof (“Ford” spelled backwards), Benson (one of Henry Ford II’s sons), and Edsel (the name of Henry Ford’s son who had died at age 49 in 1943). “Let’s call it that,” said Breech of the Edsel, the name reluctantly accepted by Henry Ford and Edsel Ford’s widow. The ill-fated decision, just one of many surrounding the new car, would have poor Edsel rolling in his grave for eternity, his name forever linked to what Bonsall called, as the title of his book, Disaster in Dearborn.

Larry Samuel, Ph.D., is a cultural historian and the founder of Culture Planning LLC.

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