At the time there were many who had the opinion that civilian jets would be mostly a specialty market. Many thought that pure jetliners would be to fuel-hungry and expensive for all but a few, and that new turboprops would outclass them in safety, range and economics. It was not thought that the speed difference would matter as much. Lockheed bet that these people were right and put their money on the Electra.
Convair made the opposite error and made their jets to heavy, fast and fuel hungry. Elvis liked them, though, so they must have gotten something right
. Boeing and Douglas simply made the right bets.
One thing that Lockheed failed to understand is that to be in this business you need a full or nearly full product line. You need to be fully commited or out of it altogether. Each time they tried to enter in a big way, with the Electra and later the L1011, they wanted to just have one really good profitable product and did not think about the need for a full line. This made the airlines, correctly, doubt thier credibility and commitment to the market and also made fleet planning more difficult for them when they bought Lockheed products. Boeing and Douglas were quick to produce other airliners to complement the DC-8 and 707. Lockheed did not come up with any credible partner for the Electra.
Because of this, my guess is that Lockheed would not have a really different history even if the Electra had been a 4 engined jet, They may have even been in more trouble and ended up like Convair, simply because they would be competing with so many others. At least the Electra gave them a unique product. Only if Lockheed could have afforded to develop a new jetliner AND
the Electra (this is a big if) things could have been more interesting.
But even then, their corporate culture would be working against them, because.......
You need a long-term commitment to do what it takes to satisfy the market in order to succeed in this business, not just to a product but to a whole line of products. Lockheed never really had this long-term commitment, so they were doomed from the start. Mcdonald Douglas had it and then lost it, and was forced out of the market. Perhaps Boeing is loosing it now.....