Exclusive motoring – 1958 Edsel Villager
With only 978 produced, the 1958 Edsel Villager is one of the rarest station wagons on the road today. Photography by author.
Regardless of historical finger pointing and excuse making, Ford has to be credited for not just settling for the same-old same-old, inside or out, with the Edsel; the grille was controversial from the get-go, but inside, the stylists and engineers got together for a pair of interesting items that were beyond the standard-issue stuff for the era.
First was the barrel speedometer: Instead of a boring old needle swinging from left to right, the needle stayed steady while a revolving drum, its numbers clearly embossed into it, would match its number to the car’s speed. None of this “I couldn’t see the speedometer, officer!” nonsense; the number was in your face and right in front of you. As a bonus, it would glow if you exceeded a predetermined speed.
The second was the Teletouch push-button shift transmission. Now, pressing a button to shift wasn’t new: Chrysler launched its “jukebox” TorqueFlite transmissions the year before the Edsel debuted. Edsel’s particular innovations, though, were twofold. First, the shift buttons were positioned in the center of the steering wheel where they could easily be located, saving you the trouble–and danger–of taking your eyes off the road to look somewhere on the instrument panel. Second, they were electric and required only a gentle press for the smooth-acting button to send the message to the transmission. When engaging, the sound is mechanical and positive, rather than the substantial clank you might hear under a comparable Mopar.
It was August 21, 1958, three days before Edsel’s inaugural season was set to close, when our feature Villager station wagon rolled out of the Louisville, Kentucky, plant that it shared with sister Ford-badged products. It seemed like it was destined to be a Southwestern desert car from the get-go: The body was painted Driftwood, a pale beige that was just a few shades off of the complementary white that adorned the long roof and the side coves. “It also came with power steering and Teletouch, plus the padded visor and dash, which were options, and cloth seats, which were more of a choice than an option. It also had backup lamps, bumper guards, tinted glass, fancier wheel covers and dealer-installed air conditioning.” So says Ted Downer of San Francisco, the car’s owner and restorer, though it is no longer Driftwood. Aah, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
“It was purchased new in Covina, California, and nearest we can tell it was taken to the high desert east of L.A., near Palmdale. Sometime in the ’70s, a guy in Costa Mesa, California, bought it and parked it. I found it in 2012. The owner was apparently a hoarder; he parked it in his garage in 1979, and then just buried it in the garage under all of the stuff that he was holding onto.”
What he saw in that Costa Mesa garage was something of an eye-opener. Other eyes might have considered this Edsel a prime example of the junk that filled the space. But Ted, who has owned and restored more than two dozen Edsels of all body styles since 1975, saw something else: potential. “The engine and brakes were frozen; it had been repainted once–badly–in the original Driftwood, and it looked awful: just dirty and badly-used. The bumpers were covered in surface rust. The floors were all gross. I later pulled the seats out and found a Hershey Bar wrapper advertising the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. The wheel covers were missing, along with a couple of little things like the turn signal arm–they’re made of plastic; they’re tough to find today, and they disintegrate easily. The cloth on the seats was shot, and someone started taking the dash apart. But most of the parts there were stored in the spare-tire well. Someone had converted it to floor shift from its original Teletouch. It was just a big mess.
“But that’s good,” explains Ted, who obviously has some new understanding of the term “good” that most English-language speakers have apparently overlooked. “It was beat-up and tired, but not destroyed. It was a complete car. The body was straight and had zero rust. The cargo area had its original linoleum, along with the original padded dash and dash paint. It even had the original yellow California license plate on it.” Now, Costa Mesa is just inland from Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, California, about five miles from the sea. The roads are dry, but machinery there is not impervious to airborne sea spray. “This Edsel only survived,” Ted tells us, “because it was buried in a tomb of junk. And if I didn’t take it, someone would have ended up rodding it.”
And so, it was taken apart in anticipation of a full restoration. “The odometer read just 79,000 original miles, and though the engine was rebuilt after sitting for as long as it did, I kept the stock 10.5 compression in it,” Ted says. “I did replace the original carburetor for a more modern Edelbrock carb, but that was about it.”
The mechanical parts are restored fairly easily: Parts are interchangeable with enough other Ford products that finding the right components wasn’t an issue. And the body was solid. That just left everything else–easier said than done for a car with as few reproduced parts as an Edsel. “NOS parts–any NOS parts–are hard to come by for a 1958 Edsel these days,” Ted explains. “But restoring one isn’t impossible. Some of it is shared with Ford, like weatherstripping and glass. Some of it is reproduced–taillamp lenses, wheel cover appliques and spinners, a few little things. But interiors? Nothing is reproduced except for the seat cloth and vinyl materials. SMS makes material for the upholstery–vinyl and cloth–plus the carpet and headliner, but I had it sewed locally. No one makes an interior kit for an Edsel.”
Significant money was saved by using the factory-original dash pad. “They tend to shrink around the edges,” Ted points out, “but this one wasn’t cracked at all. It must have spent much of its life in a garage, even before the hoarder got it. So, I softened it up and stretched it back out.” The secret? “I used a silicone tire dressing, like Black Magic, and sprayed on a thick cover over a course of weeks. I restuffed it, heated it with a hairdryer, pulled it taut and then glued it back in place. It was hard to do, but it saved me about a grand from getting one made for it.”
Ted wasn’t so lucky with the acres of stainless trim. “Nothing is reproduced for it,” he laments. “I removed all of the stainless trim and took most of the dents out myself.”
While it was apart, Ted elected to make a significant aesthetic change: the color. “Driftwood isn’t my favorite color on the Edsel palette,” Ted admits. “Maybe on the scallop or the roof, as an accent color, but on the main body it looks kind of like milky coffee. Edsel advertised that you could order 90 different color combinations; the paint chart offered lots of blues and greens, and you could set it up using any colors you wanted on the roof, body and coves.” And so, Ted made a unilateral decision to switch the body to Turquoise, with a black roof and white coves as the accent.
Today, Ted insists it feels “like a new car. All the rubber’s been replaced, and I installed double-thick firewall insulation and sound deadener, so it’s really quiet and feels solid. Wagons are usually very rattly, and this one isn’t. I took my time, hunted the rattles down, and fixed ’em, one by one.”
Regarding the Teletouch transmission, Ted calls it the Edsel’s “Achilles’ heel … With regular use, they’d give warning signs and then expire, and there you’d sit. But I’ve rebuilt the motors in all of my Edsels, and I’ve never had another one go out on me,” though he confesses that the rebuilt units in his cars don’t see much rain or dirt. Whatever the issues Teletouch may have had when these cars were new, the interface in Ted’s station wagon feels positively dreamy. “They were designed originally for the redesigned 1958 Lincolns,” Ted tells us. “Look at the steering column in those cars–it’s enormous. But Lincoln backed out at the last minute; they decided that Teletouch was too advanced a feature for their conservative buyers, so Edsel got it instead.”
Getting in requires you to be a little bit limber: a high floor, low roof, short door, high seat and large-diameter steering wheel combine for a tight ingress. Once you’re in, there’s plenty of room in all directions–headroom and shoulder room are quite generous, particularly considering this is the smaller of the two Edsel bodies, and the seat demands that you sit upright as you drive. There’s no slumping in an Edsel.
“After we photographed the car, I got it home and re-jetted the carburetor,” Ted recalls. “I adjusted the timing; it’s a little rocket now, very stable, and I get 14 MPG on the highway. Most of the station wagons like this Edsel came with a 3.23 rear gear, which was pretty punchy around town. Of course Fordomatic transmissions start out in second gear unless you really punch it from a stop, which downshifts it into first, or you push L1 to start off.”
Twist the ignition key, and the engine settles into a 900-RPM idle. We know this because this particular car was ordered with the incredibly rare factory tachometer. Ted has seen only a handful of these units in person, and estimates that they were installed in about two percent of all Edsels, ever. Power on our drive–despite 300-plus horsepower and 400 lb.ft. of torque–feels only adequate to push its weight around. Curb weight is just the high side of two tons, plus another 400-plus pounds of driver and passenger during our drive, surely sapped as much from the accelerative power.
The extant power is easily-enough controlled: Aim the big E hood ornament, which reads the right way from both front and rear, and there isn’t the usual wandering mess we’ve come to associate with bias-ply tires on the straight and narrow. In the corners it’s another matter, the quick-enough power steering lets you react suddenly, but the suspension always feels half a beat behind. The Edsel leans dramatically, even at marginal speeds, and the typical bias-ply sidewall graunch is in evidence early into your turning circle. And despite our two-ton wagon being equipped with manual drum brakes front and rear, they’re beefy 11-inch drums, and offer both a firm pedal and reasonable stopping distances from speed.
And Ted’s right: Even freshly-rebuilt wagons frequently have the occasional squeak or rattle magnified by the big echo chamber behind the front seat, but as we got to drive it, this Edsel felt tight and all right. (If contemporary reports are to be believed, Ted’s largely noiseless example is probably better than new.)
For decades, Edsels were punch lines, but time has put distance to the cruelty of contemporary comment. Despite the marque’s sordid legacy, or perhaps because of it, today this Edsel Villager holds its head high in a car-crazy crowd.
I’d owned a 1959 station wagon as my first Edsel, and I’d always wanted a tri-tone nine-passenger wagon. Edsel Division made just 978 nine-passenger Villager wagons for 1958, which makes it one of the rarest Edsel models in its debut year, and finding one that had been parked for 35 years was a stroke of luck. It rides and drives like new. I just got it on the road when these photographs were taken. The only item left for me to restore is the roof rack.
1958 Edsel Villager
Base price $2,955
Type: 90-degree Ford FE OHV V-8,iron block and cylinder heads
Displacement: 361 cubic inches
Bore x stroke: 4.05 x 3.50 inches
Compression ratio: 10.5:1
Horsepower @ RPM: 303 @ 4,600
Torque @ RPM: 400 lb.ft. @ 2,900
Valvetrain: Hydraulic valve lifters
Main bearings: 5
Fuel system: Holley four-barrel 1848Acarburetor, mechanical pump
Lubrication system: Pressure, gear-type pump
Electrical system: 12-volt
Exhaust system: Single exhaust
Type: Fordomatic three-speed automatic, Teletouch pushbutton shift
Type: Semi-floating hypoid
Type: Recirculating ball, power assist
Ratio: 20:1 gear, 27:1 overall
Turns, lock-to-lock: 5
Turning circle: 44 feet
Type: Hydraulic, four-wheel manual drum Front/rear: 11-inch drums
CHASSIS & BODY
Frame: Ladder-type frame with full-length boxed side rails and five cross members
Body style: Four-door station wagon
Layout: Front engine, rear-wheel drive
Front: Independent; unequal length A-arms, coil springs, telescoping shock absorbers
Rear: Live axle; semi-elliptic rear springs, five leafs each side; telescoping shock absorbers
WHEELS & TIRES
Wheels: Stamped-steel disc, drop center
Front/rear: 5.5 x 14 inch
Tires: Four-ply rayon bias-belted with white sidewalls
WEIGHTS & MEASURES
Wheelbase: 116 inches
Overall length: 205.4 inches
Overall width: 77.1 inches
Overall height: 58.8 inches
Front track: 59 inches
Rear track: 56.4 inches
Shipping weight: 3,930 pounds
Crankcase: 6 quarts
Cooling system: 20 quarts
Fuel tank: 20 gallons
Transmission: 22.4 pints
Bhp per cu.in.: 0.83
Weight per bhp: 12.97 pounds
Weight per cu.in.: 10.89 pounds
Total Edsel models: 68,045
Villager wagons: 978
0-60 mph: 10.2 seconds
*Source Motor Trend, December ’57
Pros & Cons
+ Sublime sensations at the controls
+ Edsels have attained retro-geek-chic status
– Finding one
– Need to limber up to get in
– Very few parts reproduced
International Edsel Club
P.O. Box 312
Muskego, WI 53150
Edsel Owners Club
1740 N.W. Third Street
Gresham, Oregon 97030
This article originally appeared in the March, 2014 issue of Hemmings Classic Car.