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In Midwest, a Model Farm Where Failed Fords Grow

North Dakotan Leroy Walker can't stop collecting Edsels. He has hundreds of the cars beloved for their outrageous styling.

November 13, 2005|James MacPherson | Associated Press Writer

BEULAH, N.D. — Leroy Walker can recite a story for each of his Edsels, all 226 and counting.

There's a lipstick-red '58 that caused its driver to be arrested three times between Las Vegas and Bowman because he was mistaken for a bank robber who used an identical car for a getaway.

Another, a two-tone green '58 Ranger, was delivered that same year in front of a church for a wedding present. Walker purchased it three years ago from the widow at an auction.

"She had lived an exciting life," Walker said. "She drove an Edsel."

Today, both cars sit almost derelict, like most of his other Edsels, intermingled with other weather-ravaged cars in overgrown fields. About 100 of the Edsels run.

It's widely considered one of the most hideous and over-hyped vehicles ever to have hit the highway, but the Edsel couldn't be more magnificent to Walker. It's a car to be coveted, he said -- from its horse-collar grill to its spaceship-like tailfins and scads of gadgets such as the push-button gear selector on the steering wheel.

"The highway gets a little sweeter when you're driving an Edsel," he said. "There isn't a soul on the road who doesn't smile and wave at you."

Walker, 64, is the selfproclaimed and undisputed "Edsel King." His 37-acre salvage yard a few miles north of Beulah, a town of about 3,000, is known as "Edsel World."

It's where his beloved Edsels are scattered haphazardly, by design.

"I don't want a natural disaster like a tornado taking them all out at once," Walker said.

He has thousands of other lesser cars and trucks, but he doesn't know exactly how many or much about their history. Scraping and salvaging those vehicles pays for his Edsel addiction.

"The Edsels are the only ones I keep track of," he said.

Bob Kreipke, corporate historian for the Ford Motor Co., said, "Henry Ford and his son, Edsel, would be proud of [Walker] for recognizing what that car was worth."

Today, the Edsel is the symbol of corporate failure. Slightly more than 110,000 of the cars were produced, mostly in the late 1950s.

"Here in Detroit, it is synonymous with a car that didn't sell," Kreipke said. "We must have taken a bath on that thing."

Walker and other Edsel enthusiasts say many believe the car failed because of its oblong grill, which many likened to a toilet seat. It was described as an "Oldsmobile sucking a lemon."

But Walker and Kreipke said the car was doomed by a weak economy, over-promotion, poor initial quality and a buying trend toward smaller cars.

"It was a good, sound car," Kreipke said. "It was priced a few hundred dollars more than what people wanted to dig in their pockets for."

Other automakers, including other Ford divisions, "badmouthed the Edsel because they were jealous of it," Walker said.

The first Edsel that Walker ever saw was in 1958 when a local farmer sped by his father's farm in Beulah.

"It was something unique, something different," he said. "I'd never seen anything like it."

He didn't own his first one until 1961, a 1958 model with a bad clutch that he got in a trade for a Mercury.

"He is the king," said Hugh Lesley of Oxford, Pa., who owns "only" 160 Edsels, the second-biggest collection.

"We've both got that terrible Edsel bug," he added.

Ila Walker said her husband had been collecting Edsels for all 43 years they've been married. She hardly notices when another appears on their property.

"You don't want to know what I think of them," she said. But she does enjoy attending Edsel rallies across the country.

Walker's collection has grown every year since that first purchase. He sells about five of them each year, and many parts.

A good-running Edsel can be purchased for a fraction of the price of a newer used car, he said.

"I can get you down the road for about $4,000 in an Edsel that will take you all the way to Los Angeles," he said.

Walker said he recently turned down an offer from Sweden of more than $50,000 for a restored Edsel Citation convertible, one of about 60 known to exist.

Robert Mayer, who owns Edsel World in Fort Myers, Fla., which sells, brokers and rebuilds Edsels, said Walker was obviously well known among Edsel enthusiasts.

"Leroy's got the most Edsels, that's true," said Mayer, who also is the founder of The Edsel Club, one of three worldwide organizations dedicated to the car. "But he's very resistant about selling or getting rid of any. He's so possessive with his cars and parts, it's like pulling teeth. He just wants to keep everything."

The price has to be right for Walker to part with one of his Edsels.

"I'm not going to drive all the way to Virginia and pick one up and turn around and sell it for $500," he said.

Most of Walker's cars have come from the Dakotas and Minnesota, the North Dakota ones usually lacking such features as power windows, seats and steering. "Farmers had no use for those," Walker said.

Walker expects to stop dabbling in Edsels on the day he dies.

Then, he said, "my family might take it over, or someone will pick them up and recycle them into Toyotas or Volkswagens, probably."

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