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The true story behind Wheels’ most controversial magazine cover

By Peter Robinson, 24 Dec 2019 Opinion

The true story behind Wheels most controversial magazine cover

I sent Edsel Ford a framed copy, and for years it hung on the inside door of a toilet in his home

Thirty-nine years later, Wheels’ infamous March 1980 ‘lemon-on-wheels’ cover remains the most controversial in the magazine’s history. Ford assumed the beautiful new XD Falcon would romp home in COTY. But this ignored the reality of the XD being little more than a reskin of the XC: still with leaf rear springs, manual steering with almost 5.5 turns lock-to-lock, and mediocre ride and handling.

Nobody took the perceived slight more personally than Edsel Ford II, then deputy managing director of Ford’s Australian outpost and head of sales and marketing. And the son of Henry the Deuce, Ford’s chairman.

Wheels magazine lemon cover

Ford’s brilliant response, a full-page advertisement of 31 lemons, each carrying the name of a car that didn’t win COTY, appeared just once, in Wheels’ June 1980 edition, with this message: “There are times when being a lemon is not a bitter experience at all.” As Wheels editor, I sent Edsel a framed copy of our cover and the advertisement, and for years it hung on the inside door of a toilet in his home.

In late 1980, when it was announced that Edsel was returning to Dearborn, David Robertson, then motoring editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, sat down with Edsel for a long and remarkably revealing interview that appeared in Wheels, February 1981. It is the best story the still missed Davey Rob, who was killed on a car launch in December 1993, ever wrote.

The normally affable and easygoing Edsel admitted that when he had arrived in Australia as a 28-year-old, he had needed to learn to, “engage my brain before my mouth”.

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“I came down here thinking I knew everything … I really knew nothing… 

“When I first came here I know I said I did want to succeed my father. I thought my ultimate goal in life was to run the Ford Motor Company.”

Edsel then admitted to David that that was no longer the case.

Finally, it was Edsel, having previously refused to talk to Wheels about the COTY decision, who raised the subject.

“Before I came here the people in Dearborn said the Australian press were the toughest in the world. I think that still holds true … I think our products have been mistreated by certain members of the media. I think that’s very, very, unfortunate.”

David asked if he meant Wheels?

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“Yes, I do,” he said. “I can only judge it on the grounds of the stories that have been written … It is my greatest single disappointment in my time in Australia that we didn’t win the COTY award … The Falcon you see today is the last car to ever be produced in Australia that was designed, engineered and manufactured by Australians, for Australians. I think that that sheer fact alone would have been the criteria for giving Falcon COTY. I think it’s a great Australian tragedy.”

Edsel misread history. There would be three more new Australian Falcons – EA, AU and FG, with the BA reskin and engineering update finally winning COTY in 2002 – and a further three generations of all-new Australian Commodores.

“I will go to my grave feeling as if Ford Australia has been cheated. It really hurts me and it always will.”

The true story behind Wheels most controversial magazine cover

Eleven years after the COTY hullabaloo, Edsel was still upset. He told Business Week magazine (December 9, 1991), “I don’t think I’ve ever been so mad in my entire career, it was a cheap shot.”

Edsel, now 70 and a director of FoMoCo, serves on two of the company’s senior committees, still loves motor racing, and is a valued member of the Detroit community.

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As the crowd gathered before the ball on the eve of the 2003 Goodwood Festival of Speed, an American voice shouted my name in recognition across the throng. Edsel, of course, there to celebrate Ford’s 100th anniversary. We chatted happily like old mates, though neither of us raised the COTY issue.