- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

BEULAH, N.D. — Leroy Walker can recite a story for each one 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, N.D., because he was mistaken for a bank robber who used an identical car for a getaway.

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

“She had lived an exciting life,” Mr. Walker said. “She drove an Edsel.”

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

It is widely considered the most hideous and overhyped vehicle ever to hit the highway, but the Edsel couldn’t be more magnificent to Mr. Walker. It’s a car to be coveted, he said — from its horse-collar grille to its spaceshiplike tail fins and scads of gadgets such as a 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.”

Mr. Walker, 64, is the self-proclaimed 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 is 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,” Mr. Walker said.

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

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

Bob Kreipke, the corporate historian for Ford Motor Co., said, “Henry Ford and his [only] son, Edsel, would be proud of [Mr. 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,” Mr. Kreipke said. “We must have taken a bath on that thing.”

Mr. Walker and other Edsel enthusiasts say many think the car failed because of its oblong grille, which many likened to a toilet seat. It was described as an “Oldsmobile sucking a lemon.”

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

“It was a good, sound car,” Mr. 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, “bad-mouthed the Edsel because they were jealous of it,” Mr. Walker said.

Mr. Walker first saw an Edsel 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.”

Ila Walker said her husband has been collecting Edsels for all 43 years that they have 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.

Mr. Walker’s collection has continued to grow. He sells about five of them each year, and many parts. A good-running Edsel can be purchased for a fraction of a used, newer 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.

Mr. 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 Meyers, Fla., which sells, brokers and rebuilds Edsels, said Mr. Walker is obviously well-known among Edsel enthusiasts.

“Leroy’s got the most Edsels, that’s true,” said Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Walker said.

Mr. 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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