Many artists can claim success, even fame, but only the exceptional few become icons. In the milieu of automotive painting and design, Art Fitzpatrick is that rarest of figures, a true icon. During a career spanning an astounding seven decades, “Fitz,” now 89 years young, has produced everything from car designs to best-selling commemorative stamps, in the process accumulating some 50 major art and design awards. Yet he’s most famous for his more than 700 auto advertisements, particularly the 1959-1971 “Wide Track” campaign for Pontiac—considered by many (me included) to be the most recognizable, successful, and influential auto-advertising artwork of all time.
You can’t wait long to start a 70-year career, and Fitzpatrick didn’t; his genius revealed itself even at a young age. After a year studying at The Society of Arts and Crafts and the Detroit School of Art, at just 18 (“I lied about my age,” he says) Fitz got a job as an apprentice designer for John Tjaarda at the Briggs Body Company; he worked on Chrysler products and the Lincoln Zephyr. At 19, he moved to California and began working with Howard “Dutch” Darrin, designing the two Darrin Packard four-doors. World War II brought service as an officer in Naval Aviation Training and the Naval Office of Research and Invention. Enamored with Fitzpatrick’s work, in 1945 Mercury signed him up for all of its ads—before he was even out of the Navy. He never looked back. By 1953, Fitz was turning out artwork for Mercury, Lincoln, Nash, Plymouth, Kaiser, and Buick. It was during this era that Fitzpatrick formed one of the advertising world’s most famous partnerships. In 1949, Fitzpatrick had brought Van Kaufman in to work on the Mercury account. Van, an urbane former Disney animator who had traveled extensively in Europe, had a flair for backgrounds and people. The pair collaborated primarily on Mercury ads until 1953, when Fitz received “an offer he couldn’t refuse” to work exclusively for Buick. Bringing Van along continued what became a 24-year partnership and a lifelong friendship.
After the successful Buick era, Fitzpatrick and Kaufman made history with Pontiac’s Wide Track campaign. Those Pontiac illustrations—285 in all—depicted a romance and a glamour never seen before (or since) in automotive advertising. Even as a boy, they captured me. I’d pore through the pages of National Geographic just to find those dreamy paintings bearing the trademark “AF” and “VK” initials—pictures of jet-setting men and pert ladies, of night clubs, yachts, turquoise surf, palm trees at twilight. And always, arrogantly shouldering aside the page’s borders, the bold, starch-creased, unmistakably American lines of a new Pontiac.
To produce his famous “wide” look, Fitzpatrick traced photos of the new car, cut the tracings into pieces, then “stretched” the car into bolder proportions. “We wanted pictures that were different,” Fitzpatrick says. “Impact is the name of the game, so we went with predominately front views—even cropping the cars so they looked too big for the page.” The two artists would then trade the image back and forth, Kaufman (who passed away in 1995) adding the people and the backdrops (often featuring such exotic locales as Monte Carlo, Corfu, and Acapulco), Fitzpatrick painting the car and tying it all together with the color and reflections of the scene.
The dynamic duo flourished. For a ten-year stretch, AF-VK pictures were the highest-rated ads in magazines 47 percent of the time. When John DeLorean took over as Pontiac general manager, he forbade the use of photos in ads and insisted that Fitz and Van “do it all.” (Another aficionado, GM vice chairman Bob Lutz, hired the pair to produce ads for Opel during his 1970s tenure at GM of Europe.) Fitzpatrick explains the success thusly: “I’ve always maintained that a picture of a car moving doesn’t mean a thing. They all move. You have to convey something about the car psychologically. It’s all about image. That’s the reason people buy cars.”
Even as the years have rolled on, Fitzpatrick has never slowed down. His 2005 “America on the Move: 50s Sporting Cars” stamps (one of which, depicting a 1953 Corvette, is on display in the Smithsonian) took just six months to become one of the U.S. Post Office’s top 25 best-selling commemorative series in history. Postcard versions of the stamps topped all others that same year, outselling Disney-designed cards by two to one. Disney clearly wasn’t put off, however: the company later hired Fitzpatrick to serve as a consultant on the Disney-Pixar animated smash hit “Cars.”
In June of 2007, Fitz and friend Jim Wangers—“the godfather of the Pontiac GTO”—released the book “Pontiac Pizazz!,” featuring fifteen Fitzpatrick paintings of the automaker’s greatest-ever cars. The Postal Service has also become yet another repeat customer: Fitz recently completed another series of commemorative stamps, “50s Fins & Chrome,” due out in October, 2008.
Somehow, Fitz also finds the time to create new artwork (on an Apple G5 computer) in his Carlsbad, California, studio, give speeches to art students, sell his pictures at auto shows around the country, and serve as an honorary member in the Automotive Fine Arts Society (AFAS) and the Classic Car Club of American (CCCA).
It’s been a privilege getting to know Art Fitzpatrick; it’s an honor to call him a friend. I remember chatting with the master at the 2007 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where he had a selection of his paintings on display. Almost casually, Fitz remarked, “Before you leave the show, be sure to check out the 1940 Packard I designed for Dutch Darrin at his shop on Sunset Boulevard. That was 69 years ago. I think I’m the only guy here who’s selling pictures and has a car he designed out there on the lawn!”
In a few minutes, I found the car: a stunning 1940 Packard 180 Sport Sedan. As I took in the exterior’s seductive curves, spectacular proportions, and captivating details, it suddenly hit me: Fitz was just 19 years old when he designed this automobile.
Which is to say, Art Fitzpatrick is more than an automotive icon. He’s a national treasure.
—Arthur St. Antoine
Editor at Large