Few artists are respected over the course of their natural lives. Fewer still manage to achieve iconic status. Artist, illustrator and car designer Art Fitzpatrick – who died at his California home yesterday at the age of 96 – didn’t have that problem.
An inspiration to at least three generations of design professionals, Fitzpatrick designed beautiful cars for ‘Dutch’ Darrin and Packard, produced stunning artwork and developed a series of relationships with industry to create compelling advertisements that drove sales through the roof. His accomplishments over the course of a career that spanned seven decades are nothing short of phenomenal.
Born in Detroit, Art Fitzpatrick studied at the Society of Arts and Crafts and the Detroit School of Art before starting his career working on Chrysler products (and the Lincoln Zephyr) at Briggs Body at the age of 18. But ‘Fitz’ was far more than a traditional car designer. His understanding of proportion, form and color soon caught the attention of ‘Dutch’ Darrin, who offered him a job as his firm’s in-house artist. Fitzpatrick moved out to Hollywood just one year later.
Though his career as a car designer was short lived — Fitzpatrick is credited with designing the Packard-Darrin convertible sedans and four-door hardtops and he worked on the 1942 Packard Clipper developed under design chief Werner Gubitz – his lasting legacy will most certainly be as an automotive artist.
Fitzpatrick served in the Navy during World War II. Upon his return in 1945, he began creating advertisement illustrations for Mercury. This is where he met Van Kaufman, a former Walt Disney Studios cartographer and draftsman. Kaufman painted the figures and backgrounds to Fitzpatrick’s cars – first Mercury ads, then Buick’s. Over the years he honed his skill to become a master of reflection and color. Outside of his day job, Fitz continued to paint cars for Nash, Kaiser, Plymouth and Lincoln.
In 1953, Fitz signed an exclusive deal with General Motors, where he produced advertising art and graphic design for GM Corporate, GM Europe and the company’s Buick and Pontiac brands. Fitz brought Kaufman along for the ride.
It’s hard to imagine a more prolific advertisement campaign than the ‘Wide Track’ series created by the duo for Pontiac between 1959-1971. Signed ‘AF/VK’, the artists created epic scenes of luxury, emotion and desire outside of L’Opera Garnier, Monaco’s Hotel de Paris, and on Acapulco’s bay – aspirational depictions of jet-setting glamour that were directly responsible for catapulting the Pontiac brand from 7th to 3rd place in sales. A 2003 article in periodical publication Automobile Quarterly stated: “If, indeed, a picture is worth a thousand words, those illustrations were worth millions to the coffers of General Motors.” In all, Fitzpatrick and Kaufman created roughly 600 automotive advertisements over their 21-year relationship with GM, 285 for Pontiac alone.
When asked if he thought there was still room for glamour in automotive advertisements in an interview with Influx magazine, Fitzpatrick replied:
“The title to one of my talks is “What Happened to the Pizzazz?” I deal with the starkly visible difference between what we were doing in 1973 and generally in auto advertising since then. I’m no longer privy to today’s readership research results, but I’d sure like to know what it’s saying, because it has all looked so much alike since then. One of the main reasons for that is the computer, both in the design of the cars, and illustrating them for ads. The photographers put the artists out of business, and the computer put them out of business.
“The cars all look very much alike on the road, and the ads all look the same on the web, on TV, or in a magazine or newspaper. The ad look is the result of being able to take a car designed on a computer, rotate it to any view desired, and cover it with a grey (read “silver”) skin. So, no photo, no painting, no figures (people), no background (other than some vague, computer generated shape or swoosh). So, no glamour, no class, no emotion of any kind. Recent research says 47% of car shoppers say the #1 reason for selection is image, prestige … still by far the largest group, and as for brand loyalty, about that same percentage will leave a dealership and switch to another make if they can’t find the color they want!
“About 15 years ago when Toyota was contemplating a luxury car line they did a tremendous amount of research before picking up a pencil to create a car. They used Mercedes as their benchmark, dissecting both the car and its customers. #1 reason by far for buying … image, prestige … #4 was performance. Their history book for what became Lexus doesn’t bother stating what #2 & #3 reasons were. The fact that they didn’t bother to mention them is as interesting as their identity and rank. So unless we are all reduced (for whatever reasons) to driving Smart cars, yes, there has to be room for glamour.”
Though Fitzpatrick was an Honorary Member of both the Automotive Fine Arts Society and the Classic Car Club of America, his work wasn’t limited to the automotive industry. He worked for an array of companies such as General Electric, Texaco, Uniroyal; even the US Postal Service commissioned him for a series of commemorative stamps. Entitled “America on the Move: 50s Sporting Cars” became the USPS’s top 25 best-selling commemorative series in history. He also consulted on the Pixar movie ‘Cars’ for Disney.
Art Fitzpatrick received over 50 awards for art, advertising, and design over his massively fruitful career. His work is recognized by millions of people the world over and he has been a source of inspiration to thousands of designers, illustrators and artists for the past seven decades. If that’s not the definition of an icon, I don’t know what is.