Rock n’ roll and the automobile are inextricably linked, but few realize just how closely the electric guitar and the car are interconnected, too. Southern California’s Fender tapped into the region’s burgeoning car culture in the late 1950s, offering car colors from GM and Ford on its revolutionary new Stratocaster. Gibson, its then-Michigan-based rival, took things even further with its 1963 Gibson Firebird electric guitar. Beating the Pontiac Firebird to market by five years, Gibson’s Firebird was not only inspired by automotive design of the era, but it was designed by a bona fide car designer, too.
Ray Dietrich had spent over 50 years coachbuilding, designing, and consulting on cars before trying his hand at an electric guitar. According to Coach Built, Dietrich got his start as an apprentice at Brewster & Co., a New York-based automaker that’s probably best known for building the Brewster Buffalo fighter plane for the U.S. Navy just prior to the start of World War II. Dietrich spent a few years cutting his teeth at Brewster and Chevrolet before co-founding LeBaron Carrossiers, which coach built for everyone from Cadillac, to Rolls-Royces built at the company’s Springfield, Mass. plant (which also employed and later owned Brewster).
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When the Great Depression hit, the then-independent coachbuilder running Dietrich, Inc. found himself closing up shop and joining Chrysler. It’s at Chrysler where he made his largest impact on the auto industry, working on the team that designed the revolutionary Chrysler Airflow, and then in 1935 leading the team that designed its far more successful follow up, the Chrysler Airstream. After leaving Chrysler in the late ’30s, he joined Checker, where he worked on war production and a stillborn front-wheel drive taxi called the Checker Model D. Post-war, Dietrich restarted his coachbuilding business by designing Lincoln Cosmopolitan limousines for President Harry Truman and consulting on outside projects like the Lincoln Continental Mark II and the Tucker 48, before retiring in 1960 to Kalamazoo, Michigan.
That’s where Gibson president Ted McCarty found him in late 1962. With Fender’s bright automotive paints and its new Jaguar guitar, which appeared alongside the Jaguar E-Type in ads of the day, growing ever more popular, Gibson needed an answer. Dietrich came back nine days later with an automotive-inspired design unlike anything Gibson had ever built before.
Its offset body and rounded curves paid tribute to the ornamental fins on the American cars of the day, while its raised center section (due to its unique neck-through-body design), and ornate carved headstock were obvious call-backs to the luxury coach-built cars Dietrich dedicated his life to creating. The electric guitar versions would be called the Firebird I, Firebird III, Firebird V, and Firebird VII—an obvious tip of the hat to the GM’s futuristic jet-powered Firebird I, Firebird II, and Firebird III concepts. The electric bass version of Dietrich’s new design would be called the Thunderbird, after the Ford of the same name. Both would get a unique ornamental logo penned by Dietrich on their contrasting pickguards.
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Gibson’s Firebird wouldn’t just be designed and named for cars, but when it went on sale in 1963, it’d be available in real car colors, too. McCarty and Dietrich would settle on 10 colors for the Firebird from GM and Ford’s palates—five from Oldsmobile, including Cardinal Red, four from Cadillac, including Pelham Blue, and Ember Red, from Edsel.
The Gibson Firebird would never go on to be the massive sales success that McCarty hoped, but Dietrich’s handiwork would find fans in the hands of guitarists like Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter, Paul Stanley, and bassists like Nikki Sixx. GM, as you well know, would go on to finally put a Firebird into production in 1967, as Pontiac’s consolation prize for not being allowed to build the Banshee.
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