Roy Brown, Jr., by all accounts of his death at 96 recently, was a man of refined taste and affability who unfortunately had a singular negative achievement for which he will always be remembered. “Somebody had to take it on the chin for what was the disaster at Ford known as the Edsel,” writes Hot Rod’s Thom Taylor, “and that person was Roy Brown.”
But the design alone did not doom the Edsel.
“Marketers were accused of overhyping the car, which sold for $2,300 to $3,800 and which was designed around out-of-date consumer research,” Emily Langer points out in the Washington Post. “By the time Edsels rolled into dealerships, American tastes had shifted and the economy had entered a period of recession.”
And it wasn’t as if he were designing in a vacuum. “When Mr. Brown exhibited his first clay model of the car to top management, he was greeted with a standing ovation,” writes Stephen Miller in the Wall Street Journal. “But the adulation was short-lived.”
Not among aficionados, of course, who today pay upwards of six figures at auctions for some vehicles -– or a lot less. The Edsel was in production from the 1958 to the 1960 model years and cost Ford $350 million, or the equivalent of $2,790,410,959 in 2013 dollars, according to one estimate.
The first Edsel club was formed in Oakland, Calif., in 1967, reports Automotive News’ Andrew Thurlow. “It lived on as one of the more remarkable designs of that time period,” Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Mich., tells Thurlow. “People are always stopping by at the exhibit here to pay tribute to that particular model.”
“The Edsel's most memorable design feature was its trademark ‘horsecollar’ or toilet seat grille, which was quite distinct from other cars of the period,” Wikipedia reports. “According to a popular joke at the time, the Edsel ‘resembled an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon.’ Some have speculated that the car failed to sell because its grille resembled a vulva.”
Brown’s take on the observations in a 1985 article about him written by the [South Florida] Sun Sentinel’s Grant Segall: “There are people that have toilet-seat minds.” In any event, he “didn’t let one bomb ruin his entire career,” he said.
“The Edsel got a bad rap. It's a beautiful car. Young people today love the outlandish design elements,” Robert Meyer, proprietor of Edsel World in Fort Myers, Fla., tells the WSJ's Miller.
Brown was also the chief designer of the Cortina, and worked on the Thunderbird and Econoline van, as well as a concept car called the Lincoln Futura that reportedly became the inspiration for the Batmobile. And as Hemmings Daily’s Daniel Strohl points out in the lede of his obit, “in the long run, the failure of the Edsel actually proved a blessing to Ford: Out of its ashes came the Ford Falcon and Mercury Comet, and the lessons learned helped Ford successfully launch the Mustang.”
After graduating from the Detroit Art Academy at the age of 20 in 1937, Brown “was hired by GM legend Bill Mitchell for the Cadillac design studio,” Motor Trend’s Christian Seabaugh reports. “He left Cadillac to lead Oldsmobile’s design studio in 1941, before getting out of the business during World War II, when he served in the U.S. Army guarding Fort Knox.” He joined Ford after the war.
Brown died Feb. 24. A memorial service was conducted at First Presbyterian Church in Brighton, Mich., last week. Survivors include his wife of 42 years, Jeanne Feciashko Brown, and four children from his first marriage to Emily Roberts, which ended in divorce. His family has asked that donations be made to the National MS Society.
Brown was, by nature, an optimist. He told Segall that he “cried in my beer for a couple of days,” after he was relieved of his design duties for the Edsel’s final model, but then jumped right back into the driver’s seat.
“I’m a pretty intense person. I’m excited by being alive. I’m like a kid; I wake up in the morning: ‘What’s next? What’s new?’” Brown said.
But he remained faithful to the Edsel, which he drove to nearly the end of his life, Langer reports. And when someone wanted to buy his gleaming vehicle, he’d shoot back, “Where the hell were you in 1958?”