Edsel Ford

UPDATED 02/08/1982 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/08/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

In the dynastic history of the Ford Motor Company, Edsel has never been a name to set engines roaring. Hard-driving Henry Ford—the original Henry Ford, maker of the Model T—always looked askance at his only son, the original Edsel. The boy was artistic and gentle—qualities that Henry distrusted—and nowhere near tough enough for the titan's liking. He gave Edsel nominal control of Ford in 1919, but it was often a hollow, humiliating job. Undercut by his tyrannical father at every turn of the assembly line, luckless Edsel was only 49 when he died of cancer in 1943. His son Henry Ford II, a strong-willed echo of his grandfather, ruled with the unchallenged power of a pharaoh until he stepped down as chairman in 1980. In 1957, at the suggestion of others in the company, Henry decided to honor his father by naming a new car after him. The Edsel was the most spectacular flop in auto-making history, and it left Ford sucking on a $350 million lemon. Around Ford's Dearborn, Mich. headquarters the name Edsel came to rival Titanic as a synonym for failure.

Against that backdrop, enter Edsel Bryant Ford II, 33, Henry's only son. Moving up Ford's corporate ladder, he seems perfectly positioned for a long, low-key run at his father's old job. Ford-watchers place him two steps from a vice-presidency, with a good chance of going all the way. "The corporate line is that he isn't being groomed for the top," explains an insider, "but everybody knows that he is."

Too much of that kind of talk could be Edsel's downfall, and he knows it. Normally even-tempered, he fumes when he hears himself compared to Britain's Prince Charles. The proposition has a superficial validity: The two men were born in the same year (1948), and each enjoys the promise of a dazzling inheritance. "Oh God, no," says a vehement Edsel, "that crown prince thing is soooo stupid. There is no crown prince; I'm not the heir apparent. Ford is not a private company like it was when my dad took it over. The board of directors is responsible for running the company. If I get to the top, it will be because I worked to get there, not because I was born into it."

Well, yes and no. Ford became a publicly owned company in 1956, so Edsel's accession is not guaranteed. Yet he is hardly likely to find himself on the street. His family holds stock that has 40 percent of the voting power in the company, and his father is still a strong voice on the board. Times have changed, though, since Henry Ford II wielded the chairman's scepter with total authority, firing presidents and dismissing all criticism with a gruff "My name's on the building." Apologetically, Edsel admits he used to boast about heading the company with equal bravado. "I've grown up since then," he explains. "I was 25, just graduated from college and I had delusions of grandeur. Every day now I realize how difficult and complicated it is to run a major company. Just because your name is on the building," he adds with a self-deprecatory grin, "doesn't necessarily qualify you for the job."

Neither, of course, is it any impediment. For now, Edsel is exactly where he wants to be, working 12 hours a day in a 37th-floor office directly under his father's in Detroit's glass-walled Renaissance Center. "When he wants to talk to me," jokes Edsel, "he stomps on the floor." In his eighth job since joining Ford in 1974, Edsel is making close to $100,000 a year as marketing plans manager. Stubbornly optimistic in the face of recession ("I don't think our industry has a terminal illness; if interest rates come down, people will buy cars"), he talks with consumers and dealers alike about features they want in the company's 1984 and '85 models. "I really enjoy my weekly visits to the design center," Edsel says. "Giving input into the development of new products is very exciting, like a woman giving birth to a baby."

Less rewarding, obviously, is the attention that goes with his legacy. Checking into a San Francisco hotel on business, the unassuming young man carrying his own suitcase gives his name only as "Ford." Not until the yawning desk clerk discovers the first name on his guest's registration card does he spring into obsequious action. Edsel is scarlet with embarrassment as he follows two scurrying bellboys to a luxury-laden penthouse. Upstairs, though, he grins with pleasure at the splendor before him: loaves of French bread, cheeses, Scotch in a crystal decanter, a circular shower and a mirrored wall reflecting a spectacular view of the bay and the city. Characteristically, his feelings are ambivalent: His delight in the perquisites of being a Ford is balanced by his uneasiness in the glare of the spotlight. The intensity of public curiosity about the Ford clan, particularly in Detroit, invariably makes Edsel squirm. "We walk into a place and people stare," he explains, shaking his head. "I mean really stare at us."

Edsel's work, on the other hand, is a welcome refuge from such unceasing scrutiny. Lending a sympathetic ear to gripes from assembly line workers, or hanging out in the pits with race drivers, he comes across as an unpretentious young man who wants to be liked. "I don't believe in getting hung up on who or what you are," he declares. "I'm no better or worse than anybody else. I want people to be surprised when they meet me and to say, 'What a nice guy he is!' " Usually they do, but occasionally his self-effacing efforts to blend into the landscape merely serve to make him conspicuous. Old Ford workers often address him respectfully as "Mr. Ford," just as they did his father. The son disdains the custom: "I always say, 'Call me Edsel.' I'm trying to be another employee of the Ford Motor Company. If you walk around being 'Mr. Ford,' you can't do that."

Crucial to Edsel's sense of himself is his complex relationship with Henry Ford II. "My father was the key force in my life, my role model, my mentor," he says. "I respect him more than any other man." Edsel remembers his childhood as a happy time, particularly before his parents were divorced when he was 15 years old. Yet the elder Ford was rarely a buddy. "My father was in the process of saving Ford," the son insists. "He just didn't have the time he would have liked." The parents' absence was reflected in the son's deep attachment to the French governess who cared for him at the family's Grosse Pointe home until he left for Eaglebrook, a Massachusetts boarding school, at the age of 13. "She was a wonderful woman and was with me constantly, really like a parent," he recalls. Edsel's friend Bill Chapin, now an American Motors product planner, remembers the night she left. "He was very upset, crying and everything because he was so close to her. We stayed up late into the night talking about her and all their times together. It was sort of a mourning."

A lackluster student at Eaglebrook and later at Babson College near Boston, Edsel apparently resolved early on not to let his own family life take second place to the business. During his college days, when he had his own radio show called Little Eddie's Grease Machine, he met Cynthia Layne Neskow, a Tequesta, Fla. oral surgeon's daughter. She was working as a secretary at a Boston ad agency. After their first date, an auto show, he spoke frankly with her about the impact of his parents' divorce. Although Edsel does not consider himself scarred by that breakup, it was obviously an example he intended to profit by once he and Cynthia were married in 1974. "It makes Edsel even more determined that ours is going to be a good marriage," Cynthia has said. "We know we are going to have to work at it, not because we're more susceptible to divorce—it isn't inherited—but because we're concerned." Declares Edsel: "I sat down and reviewed my life and decided that for me, my family comes absolutely first—before Ford Motor Company."

If his family's turbulent history helped shape Edsel's views on marriage and privacy, it also imbued him with a passion for cars. "As a little kid, I used to collect small plastic replicas and trade them like baseball cards," he recalls. "Later my father would bring home a new car every weekend. I used to drive them up and down the driveway long before I had my license." As a teenager, he visited race tracks all over the world, and he spent one summer working in California with Carroll Shelby's Ford-sponsored team. "I clocked in and out with a time card just like everyone else," he says proudly. "I learned how to tear apart a transmission and put it together again." Even today Edsel drives laps at Ford's Dearborn Proving Ground at least once a week. "It gets my blood to pumping," he admits. "I'll take any car I can get my hands on."

Graduating from Babson in 1973, Edsel joined Ford as a product analyst. His most recent assignment, before returning to Detroit in December 1980, was as the company's No. 2 man in Australia. Back in the U.S., he lives simply in a three-bedroom house in Grosse Pointe with Cynthia and their 20-month-old son, Henry III. It is a far cry from the sprawling, art-filled mansion crowded with servants where Edsel spent his own childhood, and the young man of the house seems to like it that way. In June the family will move to a larger house with a four-car garage, but there will be no live-in help and no governess for little Henry. "I understand about my parents," says Edsel firmly, "but for me it's important that I'm there for my son, for my family."

Though his older sister, Anne Ford Uzielli, 39, believes Edsel has matured with marriage and fatherhood, he continues to seem socially reticent. "Basically I'm a shy person," says Edsel, "and I'm not getting over it. When Cynthia and I go to dinner parties we tend to stay with people we know. We rarely strike up conversations with strangers. I hate pushy people like the plague." Still, he refuses to retreat from the demands of his job. A white-knuckle flier ever since a bad scare as a teenager, when a plane he was on lost an aileron, he rides commercial airlines with rigid self-control. "What I most admire him for," says his sister Charlotte Ford, 40, "is that he doesn't have to work, but after he sloshed off for a while he decided he wanted to make something of himself. He started at the bottom and he's working his way up. So if he ever gets there, he'll well deserve it."

When and if he arrives at the heights, presumably he will be the same man who departed ground zero. A personal fortune estimated at $20 million, and the promise of more to come, has never clouded his sense of identity or weakened the bedrock values his family passed down to him. Recently, at an elegant San Francisco restaurant, he stopped a companion from leaving a dollar tip for the absent hatcheck girl. "I don't believe in paying for something you don't get," he explained. "A lot of people I know tip a doorman $20 tip him $1, if he does his job. Just because I'm Edsel Ford doesn't mean I throw my money away."

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