ART’S ART / Pontiac’s in-house artist made the cars coolly covetable / Words Giles Chapman / #Pontiac-Firebird
/ Catalina / #Arthur-Fitzpatrick
There’s plenty to remember about Pontiac. The GTO that fashioned the muscle car fad, or the early Firebirds taking the battle to the Ford Mustang. ‘We Build Excitement’, went the Pontiac jingle, and car buyers felt it with every advert featuring the work of Art Fitzpatrick. The crisp, clear, rich West Coast ambience, and the low, wide stance of the cars he depicted in his illustrations, subconsciously swayed millions into becoming Pontiac owners.
Fitzpatrick died last year, aged 96, shortly after opening a major exhibition of his work at the Gilmore Museum in Michigan. Onlookers got up close to 70 originals previously seen only in National Geographic or Life magazines, and Bill Krzastek, a 64-year-old classic car collector, was in a total reverie.
‘It was highly influential to many a young automotive enthusiast such as myself,’ he says. Not only did he draw the cars superbly but just look at the settings he surrounded them in: beaches, surfboards, dune buggies, beautiful women. It was a fiction you could be part of if only you owned one of these fine automobiles!’
‘Fitz’ was only part of the story. He was the ‘car guy’ in a legendary advertising industry duo, for it was former Disney animator Van Kaufman who created the backgrounds. The two painters’ work became so intertwined that once they even composed an advert over the phone, sight unseen. ‘I did the car and it fitted on Van’s background perfectly. We were that much in tune with each other,’ Fitzpatrick recalled in a 2012 interview.
After attending the lofty Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts in 1936, aged 18, Fitzpatrick’s working life began as an apprentice designer at Briggs Body Co. Within four years he’d styled a complete car, the 1940 Packard 180.
By 1959 Fitzpatrick and Kaufman were contracted to General Motors’ Pontiac division. Pontiac was about to embark on a decade-long image overhaul with its ‘wide track’ styling. In truth, the cars’ dimensions differed little from the Detroit norm, but Fitzpatrick’s renditions put clever emphasis on their width, shallow height and tapering length so that, to the public, Pontiacs were just a touch slicker than rivals. His work was key to changing perceptions.
While other advertising campaigns shifted to photography, Pontiac stuck with illustration, exploiting Fitz’s subtle exaggerations and Van’s imaginative, aspirational settings. Pontiac general manager John De Lorean was so alert to their power that he personally banned all photos from the marque’s advertising.
‘A picture of a car moving doesn’t mean a thing,’ Fitzpatrick declared in a 2007 Motor Trend interview. ‘They all move. You have to convey something about the car psychologically. ‘The Pontiac front end was the greatest thing they ever did. It was so different and distinctive.
It allowed me to push the visual to the limits, making seven-eighth front views instead of seven-eighth side views, the old standard. That enlarged the image of the car to 60% of the page.’ The side view had only taken 15%.
The campaign lasted until 1972. After 285 images it had run out of finely air-brushed road. Legislation to ensure ‘truth in advertising’ was closing in. And wide though Pontiacs of the era were, Fitz had made them appear wider still. The pair then had a stint working their craft for Opel, so we Europeans could enjoy Fitz’s style too. Later on, Fitzpatrick interrupted his retirement (Kaufman passed away in 1995) to produce two sets of commemorative postage stamps for the US Mail in 2005 and 2008, featuring 1950s American classics. He was also a revered consultant to Pixar’s worldwide animated hit movie Cars.
In that 2012 interview, 94-year old Fitz laughed when he recalled that photographers told him they’d tried to copy his style. ‘In 1968, our ads were the only art in magazines for automobile advertising. Every other campaign was done in photography.’
He had plenty of favourites. One featured a green ’1969 GTO convertible near a cove, with a just-emerged masked diver. Another showed a Catalina in the moonlight, with a couple enjoying themselves out on a raft. ‘At the time, you couldn’t find a Pontiac in a yacht club or golf club parking lot anywhere. Just a year later, you could find them everywhere. That was the point.’
Left and below. You could ache for a Firebird that looks like this, imagining après-ski powerslides in the snow; poolside Catalina wagon looks even longer, wider and lower than the real one. #1971