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Reminiscing – I love Edsel

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[Editor’s note: This “Reminiscing” story, edited by Richard Lentinello, comes to us from Hemmings Classic Car reader Mark Astolfi.]

In the summer of 1957, right around my 6th birthday, I first got wind of the Edsel. I liked looking at my Dad’s magazines: Popular Science and Business Week. The June 22 cover showed James Nance, posed in front of a shrouded car with a peculiar E on the side of the tarp. Split windshield? Strange slot in the front? And that boy-are-we-screwed look on his face, although I couldn’t have known that at the time.

I loved cars. All us boys did. I loved cars up until 1969 or ’70 when, for some insane reason, they started making them intentionally ugly. To this day I can’t figure that out. Some of us would get older and develop a mechanical bent, souping up engines, swapping this, that, and the other. Me, I gravitated more towards pure styling. And advertising, and marketing, the names, the colors, the options, and the names of the colors and options. Trying to guess what hue “Canyon Sunset” might be. To this day, I’ll nod and grunt approvingly when they show me what’s under the hood at car meets, but it never was my bag. I think a lot of us are like that, just a little embarrassed to admit it.

Thanks to my dad, I had a growing collection of dealer brochures: 1955 Buick, “Forefront of Fashion, Thrill of the Year”; 1955 Studebaker, my grandmother’s was red and black. When I was older, I looked up “Conestoga” in the dictionary. The 1955 Chevrolet brochure still marked with my dad’s calculations, figuring what options to get. For my birthday, my Uncle Vincy sent me a ’57 Ford Ranchero kit. The old-fashioned kind, where the bodyshell was in pieces. It was too much for me and I never finished it, some parts eventually being chopped up and added to my 1960 Imperial and later my 1964 Thunderbird, the one that showed a fastback “Italien” roof on the box (wow!), although for some reason mine didn’t come with one.

The Fifties were pregnant with the Sixties, but first came 1959, the year styling shot through the stratosphere. Even the sturdy old Chevrolet was crazy and wonderful, wilder than some dream cars from just a few years before. The calendar began to revolve around cars. The new ones in the fall, the White Hat Specials and such in the spring (my favorite was the 1964 Rambler Typhoon). Then a summer full of speculation about what was coming next. Who needed DVDs to watch in the back seat: I was too busy looking out the window at all the cars. I can still remember Mass on Sundays. We’d park a block from the church, and always right on the corner was an old Pontiac with that amber glass Indian Head hood ornament, the ultimate in cool, and I didn’t even know it lit up!

I was always fascinated by the styles, and soon came to dig the ads, the jingles, the whole marketing shmear. A big honking Buick named “Wildcat.” Brilliant. The Sting Ray was awesome, but I also appreciated a bucket-seat, center-console Starfire convertible. The Thunderbird roadster tonneau option, Mopar’s canopy roof gimmick, and the Modtops. The Avanti? There were no words; could they really make a car like that?

I even kind of liked the civilian Checker, but was it SUPER-ba or Su-PER-ba, and how about that outrageous Aerobus? I knew what a Crosley Hot Shot was, the Packard Balboa, the Ford Frontenac from Canada, and even the British Daimler. My dad took me to the shopping center one day to see a Chrysler Turbine; I still have the booklet.

But what really kicked off the love affair was the Edsel. Yes, I was smitten. I think even at the tender age of 6 I realized the styling was, well, unusual, but that just added to the fun. It was different, it was daring. And after all, nobody made fun of the Alfa Romeo’s trademark grille. This was sort of a big American version, no stranger that the Packard Request or Predictor, and they seemed well received, although not enough to save the make. I can still remember spreading newspapers out on the kitchen floor and clipping every Edsel picture I could find for my scrap book – where’s the mucilage?

Eventually, many of us Baby Boomers would consider it fashionable to grouse about growing up in the suburbs, ticky tacky houses and all that, but the truth is at the time we liked it. I make no apology. I grew up in Danvers, a historic suburb north of Boston. The cook-outs and camp-outs, carports and breezeways. High-rise handle-bars and a polo-seat for your bike.

What a life. Modern miracles like tape-recorders, sonic booms, and pasta shaped like little space stations. Playing baseball till it was too dark to see, then catching fireflies in a jar. Tree forts, paper-drives, and skunk cabbage growing in the woods across the street. The families were large, and station wagons were de rigueur. The ultimate was the Ford Country Squire, with what we called “fake wood on the side.” But then came the ultimate stunner, the Edsel Bermuda. Even the name, some exotic vacation island, teaming with ladies in bikinis and smooth private eyes wearing smoother shades. No wonder my grandmother called station wagons “beach wagons.”

Needless to say, 1957 was a pivotal year for me. Going to school meant venturing beyond the familiar ranch-house neighborhood, meeting lots of other kids, learning all kinds of new things, discovering dinosaurs, another lifelong passion (Never met a giant lizard movie I didn’t like). I started my stamp collection and collecting baseball cards. I was flabbergasted by Oo-Ee-Oo-Ah-Ah Ting-Tang Walla-Walla Bing-Bang on the radio, and the Purple People Eater. My family got their first television. I got my first library card.

But for me, 1957 was the year of the Edsel. It hooked me, and I’ve been happily hooked ever since. Of course, as a grown-up I found out what had been going on. Ford’s plan to structure a brand hierarchy like GM’s, with Edsel as the middle link. How the recession of 1958 doomed the brand despite its selling twice as many units that first model year as the iconic four-seat Thunderbird. How the planned Edsel compact morphed into the Comet. I had never realized that the taillamps on the 1958 model wagon, when blinking, seemed to point in the direction the car wasn’t turning. And that the Ford family hated the car’s name, considering it disrespectful to Edsel Ford.

In 1968, my dad was driving me to a six-week college-level summer school and we stopped at a gas station where I snapped a photograph of something I never knew existed: an Edsel Ranchero. It said “Roundup ” on the side, and for years I thought that was Edsel’s name for the truck that thought it was a car (or was it the other way around?). I had forgotten that the Roundup was just their two-door station wagon, obviously what was used for this conversion. But at last, something that topped that Indian Head hood ornament. And it was an Edsel.