It is often called "Ford's famous flop," but when the Edsel automobile celebrates its 50th anniversary during the Sept. 4-7 Food Lion AutoFair at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a special display might convince spectators the controversial car was simply a victim of bad timing and its own hype.

Ford Motor Co. had momentum in the 1950s. Its first postwar offering, the 1949-51 "shoebox" design, had been a huge hit with the car-starved public, and by the middle of the decade the company was selling 20 of its Thunderbirds for every Corvette that Chevrolet built. Flush with profits and confidence, Ford upgraded its premier Lincoln brand to compete directly with General Motors' Cadillac division, which left only Mercury to serve buyers looking for something between a basic Ford and top-line Lincoln.

In 1955, Ford designers showed management plans for an intermediate-level passenger vehicle known internally as the "E-car," the "E" was short for "experimental." The clay model depicted a uniquely unappealing sedan with an enormous overhanging nose whose grille resembled a large chrome "U." The decision was made to launch an entirely new division within Ford Motor Co. based on the E-car concept.

It has been said Ford spent more time choosing the division's name than making styling decisions. "Edsel" was suggested early in the process as a tribute to Henry Ford's only son and former Ford president who died in 1943, but his family opposed it. An advertising firm generated 6,000 candidates, but none were accepted. A prominent poet was informally asked for some direction, but somehow the committee did not warm to her suggestions of Utopian, Turtletop or Mongoose Civique. In the end, the new division was named in memory of Edsel Ford.

Establishing an automobile brand meant creating a 1,200-dealer network, building Edsel Division headquarters in Ecorse Township, Mich., and scheduling production time at plants in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Michigan, Kentucky and California. As the national launch on Sept. 4, 1957, grew closer, the division's optimistic general manager claimed buyer demand would "exceed the originally announced first-year sales goal of 200,000 units."

So-called "E-Day" came and went, as did an hour-long television broadcast a month later called "The Edsel Show" in which performances by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope were regularly interrupted with endorsements for the car. What America saw, America didn't like. The public scratched its collective noggin, wondering what happened to the groundbreaking gee-whiz machine Ford promised. The 1958 Edsel was exactly like every other Ford, GM or Chrysler in the showrooms, but with a nose only a mother could love.

The infamous Edsel beak seemed like a good idea in the styling studio. The tall, oval radiator surround, outlined in chrome, was similar to that of an F-86 Sabre jet fighter. Squint hard and it could be the stately, handcrafted grille of a classic Packard.

What potential customers described, however, was a "horse collar,"

"toilet seat" or worse. Predictions of runaway sales evaporated as cars trickled out of showrooms, with only 63,000 Edsels going to new homes in 1958. Ford toned down the car's Edsel-ness with a bit of creative rhinoplasty for '59, but the car had already become a synonym for disaster alongside "Titanic" and "Hindenburg"-less than 45,000 were ordered. By the time the 1960 model hit showrooms wearing a generic American car grille, Ford had pulled the plug on the brand, and only 2,846 of the re-designed Edsels were built.

Ford Motor Co. lost $350 million betting on a car named for its founder's son, but was the Edsel's spectacular failure really the result of its unusual appearance? Detroit automakers produced several just-as-unattractive cars in the late 1950s and early 1960s, so looks don't tell the whole story.

It is most likely the case that Ford sank its new division with its own hype. The company had America talking about the Edsel before anyone in the public even saw a drawing of one. The oddly named car could not have generated more enthusiasm had it been capable of flight or turning invisible, when, in fact, it was no more advanced in design or engineering than its Lincoln, Mercury and Ford stablemates. It was really just a new body design on contemporary Ford and Mercury chassis with some equipment upgrades, broken out into Ranger, Pacer, Corsair and Citation models.

Adding to this psychological letdown was the 1957-'58 economic recession that stifled new-car sales, especially those products in the intermediate and upper categories. With Edsel prices ranging from $2,484 to

$3,766 ($18,102 to $28,433 in today's money), buyers sought cheaper transportation from Ford, Chevrolet and Plymouth.

Food Lion AutoFair attendees will have the opportunity to decide for themselves if the Edsel's appearance doomed it to be the butt of a half-century of jokes when they view a special display of five 1958-'60 models.

The fall Food Lion AutoFair annually attracts more than 120,000 visitors. It features more than 50 car club displays and more than 7,000 vendor spaces that offer a plethora of automotive parts and memorabilia.

More than 1,500 collectible vehicles of all makes and models will be available for sale in the car corral that rings the 1.5-mile superspeedway.

Food Lion AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., on Sunday. Tickets are $10 for adults while children 12 and under are admitted free when accompanied by an adult.

Parking for the event is $5.

For information, contact the Charlotte Motor Speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit us online.