Legendary Automotive Artist Art Fitzpatrick Dead At 96

FK 1960 conv

Art Fitzpatrick, who along with his partner Van Kaufman created the most memorable automotive commercial art in the form of renderings for GM, has passed away, aged 96. Although their joint work (Fitzpatrick did the cars, Kaufman the people and backgrounds) for Pontiac from 1959-1971 is what Art Fitzpatrick is best know for, he had a long career that started with Briggs Body in the 1930s and spanned to US Postage stamps from just a few years ago. The peak of his success perfectly spanned the era when American cars (especially GM) were the envy of the world, and his work certainly helped to create and cement that image.

I had a hard time deciding which image to use for the top one, but if Art Fitzpatrick were to chose a car for his final drive across the threshold, the 1960 Pontiac would have to be it. 

I’ve been a huge fan of their work for Pontiac, perhaps in part because their exaggerated forms and spacey settings mirrored my own initial impressions of America upon arriving in 1960. The fact that the first car I laid eyes on after exiting the airport terminal in NYC was a 1960 Pontiac sitting at the curb late at night only cemented the experience. Through the jet-lagged eyes of a seven year-old arriving in New York on a hot summer night, this is how it really did look. And when I started using hallucinogens later that decade, it really looked like that again. Or more so.

Packard Darrin 1940

From Art Fitzpatricks bio‘Fitz’ began his career in 1937 as an 18 year old automotive designer with John Tjaarda at Briggs Body (LeBaron) in Detroit.  In 1938 Fitz was hired by ‘Dutch’ Darrin to serve as his firm’s in-house artist and delineator in Hollywood, California.  Fitzpatrick is credited with designing the striking and seldom-seen Packard-Darrin convertible sedans and 4-door hardtops that were built in Connersville.  When the Darrin operations were taken over by Packard, Fitzpatrick went to work for Werner Gubitz, the automaker’s styling chief and had a hand in the design of the 1942 Packard Clipper. 

Art Fitzpatrick was hired by Mercury and Lincoln after the war to create the primary car images for its advertising. He started working with former Disney animator Van Kaufman, who specialized in people and settings (Kaufman died in 1996). They did work for for teen manufacturers before settling down with GM. Presumably this is an example of their early work together.

In 1953 Fitzpatrick signed an exclusive contract with GM that would last 21 years. Here’s a Buick Roadmaster.

FK 1958 cadillac art-fitzpatrick-feature

This 1958 Cadillac rendering is one of their more memorable ones from the pre-Pontiac era.

 

In 1959, F & K began to work almost exclusively for Pontiac, which coincided exactly with the beginning of that brand’s meteoric rise to third place in sales. The fact that 1959 was also the first year for Pontiac’s “Wide Track” era undoubtedly only encouraged Fitzpatrick to exaggerate the Pontiac’s width further.

FK AF fitz and van w delorean

Bunkie Knudsen gave them the credit they deserved: “Your efforts played a great part in bringing us to third place in the industry. Without them our job of moving Pontiac up the ladder would have been impossible”. Here the duo (Kaufman on left) are with John DeLorean, who took over as Pontiac’s General Manager and continued to rely on their renderings during Pontiac’s golden decade of the sixties.

 

FK 1960 night

I wallpapered my bedroom with their dreamy ads, even the ones going back to 1959, something would never have done for any other car ads. Their appeal was already timeless, despite being two years old!

Was this not the perfect thing to gaze at while falling asleep as a seven year old? Modern-age fairly tales, for a new era. And very few words! Who needs them anyway?

FK 1961_Pontiac_Bonneville_Vista_Rear_by_AF-VK

This one for a 1961 Bonneville hits close to home, as the DC-8 jet appears to be a Swiss Air plane, just like we flew to America.

FK 1961 Pontiac fr. jpg

I’ll post a few from the Pontiac era as it unfolded. If you want a larger selection, a Google search will facilitate a slip into another era readily.

FK 1962 exotics

Starting with the first Grand Prix, F & K did a series that posed them in European locales, like this one presumably at Monte Carlo, although those aren’t exactly GP car from 1962.

FK 63pontiacgrandprix

 

Here’s the ’63 GP in Paris. it also shows how these renderings were actually incorporated into the ads.

FK 1964 64 GRAND PRIX

The same ’64 GP rendering found itself in several backgrounds.

FK 1964 Pontiac_Grand_Prix_1964_Carleton-Terrace_by_AF-VK

I shouldn’t really show this one, as it is one of his worst. The GP’s hips and roof line are not shown to its best advantage.

FK 1965_Pontiac_Grand_Prix_Rive-Gauche_by_AF-VK

The ’65 comes off better, especially in front of that Citroen H Van.

FK 1966 Pontiac_Grand_Prix_1966_Anniversary-Ad_by_AF-VK

The times they were a’ changing, and although F -K did change somewhat, their approach started looking old fashioned by about this time. It certainly still appealed to a certain demographic, but this was not where the 60s were going, stylistically.

FK 1965 gto Pontiac_GTO_Convertible_1965_by_AF-VK

Which explains why F-K were not used for the 1964 GTO launch, and this is the only GTO rendering by them from the ’64-’65 era. It just doesn’t capture the youthful image that the GTO was all about.

FK GTO 1969 snow

That’s not say there weren’t any GTO or Firebird renderings by them after 1965. But this one from 1969 begins to reflect the changing demographics and styles; the people in the rendering (by Van Kaufman) looked a bit more like the real thing. Realism was becoming more predominant, and F-K would have to change along with the times, for as long as their approach still worked at all.

FK 1969 firebird sun

This Firebird ad from 1969 also struggles to capture how surfer dudes (and their girlfriends) looked and dressed in 1969. I shouldn’t be critical in this retrospective, especially as it was Kaufman who was doing the people and backgrounds. But it does convey the challenges of keeping what was quickly becoming an archaic format relevant.

FK 1969 GP

Meanwhile, the demographics of the GP were aging along with that increasingly irrelevant car, so the old K-F magic worked better here.

FK 1969_Pontiac_GTO_Convertible_Beach-at-Hydra_by_AF-VK

This one displays a lighter touch. Is the woman about to take off her top? It is 1969, after all.

FK 1971_Pontiac_GTO_Judge_Hardtop_Coupe_by_AF-VK

The last year for Pontiac was 1971, and this GTO Judge rendering shows the challenge of staying relevant even if the girl on the bike looks to be bra-less. Is the fixation on that part of the anatomy Kaufman’s or mine?

FK 1971 pontiac

No such issues here, with a 1971 Bonneville ad that harks back to 1961 in its sensibilities.

FK 9172 Opel

Although the Pontiac era was over (in more ways than one, as the brand slipped in the 70s), F-K finished out their years with GM doing Opel renderings. Of course, to keep things consistent, the cars should have had American backgrounds.

FK 1972 opel

Well, this background could have been from either continent. Showing powerful RWD muscle cars like the GTO and Commodore GS cutting tracks in snow is part of the suspension of reality.

FK 2005-USPS-stamp-Art-Fitzpatrick-e1392272483706

Art Fitzpatrick had once been offered the position of VP of Design for Studebaker after the Loewy contract expired in 1955. He turned that down, since he was not willing to live in South Bend, IN. But in 2005, when he was commissioned by the Postal service to illustrate three sets of stamps, he chose the 1953 “Loewy” coupe as one of them. The final of the series (2013) was not done by Fitzpatrick because he disagreed with the USPS research department about the proper width of the whitewall tires on the 1959 Cadillac. Art Fitzpatrick may have distorted the width of the wide-track Pontiacs, but he was not going to compromise on a white wall  tire.