Fender’s Classic Series ’60s Stratocaster Lacquer was the first ever Mexican-made, vintage-themed Strat with a gloss nitrocellulose finish
The roots of the Fender brand were put down in a humble Californian radio workshop in the summer of 1946, following Doc Kauffman’s amicable departure from his and Leo Fender’s K&F lap steel/amplifier manufacturing venture. Later that year, Leo established the first Fender factory operation locally in Fullerton in order to continue expanding production and, by 1949, had simultaneously progressed the concept of a solidbody ‘electric Spanish’ guitar into the prototype phase, paving the way for the release of the Esquire and Broadcaster in 1950 (the Broadcaster was renamed the Telecaster in 1951).
As the company grew, a new bespoke factory building was erected and with the release of these seminal models – followed by the introduction of the revolutionary Precision Bass in 1951 and Stratocaster in 1954 – Fender enjoyed unparalleled success as the world’s first mass producer of solidbody electric guitars.
Fender’s Mexican connection dates back to the early days of the ‘golden era’ period of production in Fullerton, California, which was bolstered by a partially Mexican-American workforce – some of whom, such as Abigail Ybarra and Tadeo Gomez, have since become prominent names in Fender lore. They were not so much ‘master crafts people’ as members of a solid, dependable team who facilitated Leo’s vision of a streamlined guitar-building facility while operating custom spec machinery to produce instruments at scale and with consistency – an art in itself and the key to Fender’s initial success.
Between 1946 and 1964, Leo, along with his business partner, Don Randall, scaled up his operation slowly and without compromising on quality, allowing Fender to grow at a steady pace and become a globally renowned phenomenon. But with electric guitars becoming ever more popular as the 60s progressed, the demand for Fender products soon reached heights beyond any previous expectation and, in 1965, the company was sold to corporate investors CBS for $13 million.
“The moment The Beatles went on [The Ed Sullivan Show] in February 1964, everything grew exponentially,” Terry Foster, Fender historian and co-author of Fender: The Golden Age 1946-1970 (Cassell Illustrated), told us in a recent interview. “Everybody wanted to play guitar after they saw The Beatles, and Fender couldn’t keep up with it. The Beatles killed the golden age of guitars!”
As a new breed of management took over production, Fender guitars began to change, and despite showing increased sales and profits, the period of CBS’s reign is regarded as a time of slow, steady decline with regards to quality.
“When CBS bought that factory, they professionalised the organisation,” continues Terry. “It was all about practicality in the same way that all factories make things at scale as cheaply as they can and with the best possible quality – but there’s no romance in the way those things were built.”
The Classic Player series presented a range of desirable instruments, including the Baja Tele, designed by the Custom Shop but manufactured in Mexico
Today’s Vintera line, featuring this ’60s Jazzmaster Modified, showcases the continued expertise of Fender’s factory in Ensenada, Mexico
During the 70s, this general decline in quality was not lost on a significant percentage of the potential market who increasingly hunted down guitars from the earlier period of production. Perhaps more disconcerting for Fender, however, were those Greco and Ibanez-branded copies originating from the Fujigen factory in Japan, which – along with Tokai’s relatively accurate imitations of pre-CBS-style Strats and Teles – were presenting a serious challenge to Fender’s sales worldwide. Consequently, in 1982, a joint venture operation between Fender and the Japanese distributors Yamano and Kanda was announced named ‘Fender Japan’ with the aim of competing against Japanese copyists on their own turf and overseas. While manufacturing its own official Fender and Squier-branded takes on a ’57 Strat, a ’62 Strat, and a ’52 Tele at the same Fujigen factory, Fender simultaneously developed an equivalent (Vintage) series in the US and from this point on became a bona fide multinational corporation, expanding both in terms of reach and range as the 80s progressed.
Leo’s vision was to produce instruments at scale and with consistency – an art in itself and key to Fender’s initial success
In 1985, CBS announced the sale of the Fender company for $12.5 million and its current owners, Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC), set about constructing a new factory operation in Corona, California. As part of the firm’s new international manufacturing strategy, production was further expanded in Korea and India, before Fender hit upon another location in the late 80s – this time a little closer to home – in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico (some three and a half hours’ drive from the Corona facility).
With significant input and training from Japan’s highly skilled Fujigen factory, the first guitars appeared from the new Mexican factory in 1991 in the form of Fender mainstays the Standard Stratocaster and Standard Telecaster, with Squier models appearing later on in 1993. Having been rebuilt following a factory fire in 1994, the Ensenada factory has gone from strength to strength while releasing dozens of new models over the years and continues to operate as a key location in Fender’s global network. ■