The Pontiac Firebird is a cool car. The MK2 with its sprawling phoenix motif on the hood is one of the most instantly recognizable cars out there. But, did you know it wasn’t the first Firebird to be penned by a car designer? In fact, a Chrysler designer beat Pontiac to the punch.
It was the late 1950s and America was obsessed with looking to the future. Cars were festooned with wings and styling flourishes to make them look like they’d come from space, and the electric guitar was offering up a futuristic sound that hadn’t been heard before. Singers like Elvis were bringing rock and roll to the masses.
At the time, guitar makers were looking for a way to capitalize on the freedom they got with electric guitars. All manner of shapes could be created out of solid wood without worrying too much about the sound that would be produced – as all that would be handled by the electric pickups.
That decade, Gibson had premiered the iconic Les Paul, which these days is synonymous with Guns N’ Roses Slash, and the Fender Telecaster, a favorite of Bruce Springsteen, also made its debut in the ‘50s.
But by the tail end of the decade, American guitar maker Gibson needed to come up with some new designs to draw in players. Based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the company of course turned to the state’s other big export for inspiration: the car industry.
Around the same time, the former head of design at Chrysler, Ray Dietrich was looking to wind things down. After a long career in the auto industry, which saw him work with Chrysler, Studebaker and Lincoln, Dietrich retired to Kalamazoo.
It was there that Dietrich had a run in with Gibson boss Ted McCarty at a lecture he was giving about his life in car design. Dietrich was soon hired by Gibson to design a new solid-body guitar, according to Music Radar:
“The new models appeared in Gibson’s 1963 catalog, with the blurb insisting the Firebirds were a ‘revolutionary new series of solidbody guitars. Exciting in concept, exciting to play. You’ll find a whole new world of sound and performance potential... plus that sharpness in the treble and deep, biting bass... A completely new and exciting instrument that offers all the sound, response, fast action, and wide range that could be desired’.”
The original Firebird was a sleek looking guitar. The body featured an asymmetric design with swooping fins extending from either side. This was paired with a head that resembled an upside Fender component - it’s cool.
But it proved to be a case of style over substance, as the Firebird is a problematic blot in Gibson’s history. As Sam Ash Music explains:
“The guitar itself feels a bit like an automotive designer that never touched a guitar built it. It has a very awkward feel until you get used to it. Though the scale length is only a bit longer, the neck feels like you could land an aircraft on it because of the fret access and the seamless neck-through construction. Take your left hand off the neck and she nose dives. Your strumming elbow is working against the end of the reverse tailfin or whatever it is.”
It’s for that reason that Gibson killed off the original Firebird in 1965.
Over the years since, the design has been resurrected and tweaked time after time. It’s body has been reversed, then flipped back. Its pickups have been changed countless times and even the signature headstock has been replaced.
Much like the mythical beast that the guitar took its name from, the Firebird seems destined to keep coming back again and again. Thanks, Ray.