Roy Brown Jr., Edsel Designer, Dies at 96
Ralph Fountain/Las Vegas Review Journal, via Associated Press
Published: March 5, 2013
Roy Brown Jr., a car designer for Ford Motor whose signature creation, the supposedly futuristic but ultimately ill-fated Edsel, became a synonym for bold, bad ideas not long after it was introduced in 1957, died on Feb. 24 in Michigan. He was 96.
His death was announced in Michigan news media outlets.
Even as the Edsel, his most notable work, fell far short of sales goals, lost hundreds of millions of dollars, became an enduring punch line and prompted an overseas transfer for its designer, Mr. Brown remained satisfied with it.
“I’m proud of the car,” he told The Sun-Sentinel of Florida in 1985. “There is not a bad line on the car.”
Many initial assessments agreed.
“The Edsel will be radically different,” said an article in The New York Times previewing the new model in 1957.
“The difference in style is spectacular,” the article added. “The front end emphasizes a vertical grille that lends a distinctive continental flair. The rear-end assembly is also distinctive. Horizontal taillights sweep across the trunk lid to form a pattern like the graceful wingspread of a sea gull.”
But early praise and anticipation — Ford directors stood and applauded along with Henry Ford II when they were given a preview of the design — soon gave way to public mockery.
The vertical grille with the “continental flair” was compared to a toilet seat and later became known as the “horse collar.” (Mr. Brown’s initial grille design was far sleeker but was reworked out of concerns about getting enough air to the engine.) New features — the push-button shifter, the “floating” speedometer — had complications. (Making seat belts standard, however, was a trend that caught on.)
Many people felt the Edsel’s indulgences — in chrome, size and sheer steel bulk — seemed out of touch by the time it appeared on the market, during an economic downturn. Others said the car was hurt by excessive expectations.
Ford spent lavishly on advertising, including television commercials, but the company struggled to clarify the market position of Edsel’s various models, which sold for $2,400 to $3,800. Edsels were less expensive than some Mercury models, Ford’s midlevel brand, although they were sometimes presented as near equals to Lincoln, the luxury category.
“This car was kind of aimed at a market that didn’t really exist,” said Matt Anderson, the curator of transportation at the Henry Ford, a museum in Dearborn, Mich.
Even the name of the car confused some people. It was named for Edsel Ford, the only child of the company founder, who served as president of the company until his death in 1943.
The Edsel was out of production by the end of 1959 and would sell a little more than half of the 200,000 cars Ford projected. Mr. Brown was transferred to England, where he helped design successful European models for Ford, including the Cortina. He returned to the United States in the mid-1960s and continued to work at Ford until 1974.
Roy Abbott Brown Jr. was born Oct. 30, 1916, in Hamilton, Ontario. His family moved to the Detroit area when he was a teenager. Survivors include his wife of 42 years, Jeanne Brown; four children from a previous marriage, Georgianna Byron, Reginald Brown, Penny Beesley and Mark Brown; a sister, Betty Klepinger; five grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren.
For all its commercial struggles, the Edsel has been revered as a collectible for decades — and Mr. Brown drove one into his 90s.
Robert Mayer, who brokers Edsels and sells Edsel parts online at Edsel World, said that he just recently sold some original drawings Mr. Brown made in the 1990s of what an Edsel might have looked like had the line endured.
“If you are unprejudiced and look at the car, it’s beautiful,” Mr. Mayer said of the original models. “The young people who have never heard of it look at it and think it’s beautiful.”