Music and motoring go hand in hand like peanut butter and grape jelly. The both of them just naturally click, and have done so since some miracle worker of an engineer figured out how to wire up a radio and a few speakers in an automobile.
But just how deep does this connection run beyond cruising down the road and tuning into a local classic rock station or hooking up your iPod through your car’s aux jack and jamming out? The answer might surprise you.
When the Ford Motor Company introduced the Thunderbird for 1955, it was their response to the Chevrolet Corvette arch rival General Motors began production of two years prior in 1953. But while the Corvette aspired to be a sports car capable of beating a British sports car over the head with a hammer, the Ford Thunderbird aimed to be something more along the lines of sporty two-seater grand touring car. To put it another way, if the Corvette was supposed to be an American Jaguar E-Type, then the Thunderbird was a sort of American Aston Martin DB Mark III drophead coupe with whitewall tires and fender skirts.
Compared to the Corvette of the time, the original Thunderbird was a smashing success. Despite only being officially on sale for ten days, the Thunderbird was already less than 1,000 units shy of outpacing the number of Corvettes GM had sold for the 1953 and 1954 model years combined. By the end of 1955, Ford had sold over 16,000 of the damn things and would go on to build a total of about 53,000 Thunderbirds before they replaced it in 1958 with an entirely new version (that was, in all honesty, a fat and lazy boulevard loser built for middle-aged men and their daunting housewives, but we’ll gloss over that for now).
While GM and Ford were busy throwing down for the title of America’s best sports value, another rivalry was also starting to heat up. In 1954, the Fender Electric Instrument Company (which is known today as the Fender Musical Instrument Corporation) had just introduced what would become one of the most successful and iconic electric guitar designs in all of history: the Fender Stratocaster. Like the Thunderbird, the introduction of the Fender Stratocaster — also simply called the Strat, for short — came two years after the company’s rival, Gibson, had introduced what would eventually be their most recognizable design: the Gibson Les Paul... which was their response to Fender’s original Broadcaster/Telecaster model.
Similar to how the first-generation Corvette never lit up sales charts, the Les Paul would find itself struggling to gain acceptance in the newly busting market for solid-body electric guitars, largely due in part to its expensive price tag and traditional construction and feel. The Strat, on the other hand, was a runaway success out of the box thanks to its inexpensive price tag, good ergonomics and futuristic design, and Fender initially struggled to keep up with demand. If you wanted an electric guitar back in the 1950s, the Stratocaster was what you pined for more than your next breath. And the fact that the biggest names in the emerging genre of rock ‘n roll — Buddy Holly perhaps being the most notable — could frequently be seen playing one probably didn’t help.
So, Ford Thunderbirds and Fender Stratocasters... what do these two very different things have to do with one another? Read on.
When Fender initially launched the Stratocaster, it was available only in one rather boring finish: two-tone sunburst (for those of you who don’t understand guitar jargon, a sunburst finish is where a tinted lacquer that reveals the natural woodgrain of a guitar’s body typically fades to a solid black color). And although a handful of early Stratocasters managed to squeak through factory doors wearing a transparent white “blond” finish, it wasn’t until sometime later someone at Fender got a wild hair up their ass to paint one red and really open Pandora’s box.
That someone was George Fullerton, a gifted musician and designer who worked alongside Leo Fender, the engineer and accountant who started the revolutionary electric guitar giant.
According to Fullerton in an interview:
I had an idea about a color I thought would be neat, and I went to a paint store and had [it] mixed. I worked with the man in the paint store, we added different things to it until I got the color I wanted. I had this guitar sprayed with it and I thought it turned out really neat. All the people at the sales office laughed at it and said, “Who would want a red guitar?” We did make a few of them and put them out into the field and, boy, they caught on like wildfire.
The rush that was already was bursting from the factory doors suddenly went the through the parking lot gates and around the block. In 1956, Fender updated their catalogs to read that, for a modest five percent premium, you could order your brand new Stratocaster in almost any custom color your heart desired. All you had to do was ask.
By 1960, Fender had standardized their custom color offerings and expanded them to other models, such as the country-fried Telecaster and the virtually-ignored-by-jazz-musicians Jazzmaster. Your options included: Fiesta Red, Sherwood Green Metallic, Shell Pink, Lake Placid Blue and Shoreline Gold Metallic, among many others.
So who was supplying the paint? Was it Mr. Fullerton’s buddy down at the paint store, keeping late hours to mix special hues of red, blue and green for the busy Fender factory? Or was it someone else?
For anyone acquainted with the automotive industry, and the art of auto body repair especially, the name of Fender’s paint supplier should be very familiar to you: it was none other than DuPont. And while evidence points to some of the earliest custom color Stratocasters likely being unique shades of red or blue, starting in 1958, Fender was simply buying over the counter automotive lacquer paint and spraying its guitars with it. More specifically, and as evidenced by original Fender color charts, the company was purchasing DuPont’s Lucite and Duco lines of nitrocellouse lacquer and acrylic enamel paint respectively.
That finally brings us to the link between the 1956 Ford Thunderbird and the 1960 Fender Stratocaster that we see pictured at the very start of this article: they were both sprayed using the exact same Fiesta Red DuPont lacquer paint. Need further proof? Well, you might need a magnifying glass and the right eye of God himself to see it, but the custom color chart from Fender and the page ripped from a ‘56 T-Bird brochure in the image above both make mention of Fiesta Red paint, with Fender’s color chart going so far as to actually list DuPont’s paint code.
But the Stratocaster can be linked to other cars besides the Thunderbird. Let’s go down the rabbit hole just a little more.
With the exception of Candy Apple Red, virtually every custom color offered by Fender was borrowed from one car or another. Lake Placid Blue, another popular Fender custom color, was originally used on the ‘58 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham. Shoreline Gold Metallic was originally used on late ‘50s Pontiacs. Shell Pink was a ‘56 Desoto color, and on and on.
I suppose what’s especially remarkable is that Fender still paints its guitars in these same colors today. While you might not be able to run down to your local Cadillac dealer to purchase a brand new ATS in Lake Placid Blue, nor call up Hometown Ford and ask them to order for you a brand new Fiesta ST in Fiesta Red paint (who’s with me on that idea?), you can run down to your nearest Guitar Center and swipe a brand new Fender in either of those colors. So not only are you buying a musical instrument, you’re also sort of buying a slice of automotive history.