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Remembering Automotive Illustrator Art Fitzpatrick, 1919-2015

The Asphalt Jungle

Last November, the auto world lost a legend—and I lost a friend. Art Fitzpatrick, perhaps the greatest automotive illustrator of all time and co-creator of the iconic Pontiac print ads of the 1960s, passed away at the inspiring age of 96. Just a few months earlier, I'd driven down to his home and studio in Carlsbad, California, to join him and his lovely wife, Betty, for lunch. He was looking frail, but his mind was scalpel sharp. And though he'd stopped giving lectures and making auto-show appearances, in his studio he was still busy as ever.

In a career that encompassed everything from designing cars to creating stamps for the U.S. Postal Service, "Fitz" was most famous for his Pontiac work. Between 1959 and 1971, working with his business partner, the late Van Kaufman, he painted the dramatic, romantic, wide-angle pictures that made Pontiac's ads the envy of the auto biz. (Fitz fashioned the strikingly proportioned cars; Kaufman added the people and the exotic backdrops. Look for the famous "AF VK" initials.) As a teenager I didn't know who Art Fitzpatrick was, but I sure knew his work. I'd see those Pontiac ads in National Geographic—a rakish Bonneville convertible pulling up under the entrance to a dusk-lit Acapulco nightclub, a muscular GTO flashing along the French Riviera—and I knew that someday I wanted to live in that glamorous, jet-set world. Even in college, when I should have been studying Proust and calculus, I'd sneak off to the remote corners of the library's stacks and pore through old magazines in search of more Fitzpatrick treasures. (Today you can view much of his work at fitz-art.com.)

"I have to laugh at all these TV ads today, with cars ripping their rear tires off doing wheelies," said Fitz during our lunch last fall. "Every car can do that, so what are they really selling?"

He took a bite of his sandwich, shook his head. "The cars all end up looking the same." In contrast, those circa-1960s images created by Fitzpatrick and Kaufman were so distinctive, so expressive that then-Pontiac chief John DeLorean decreed, "No one else will do our print ads as long as I'm boss."

Fitz also lamented modern advertising's growing reliance on computer-generated imagery. "They no longer have to take a car to, say, Palm Springs in February and shoot pictures. They can just sit at a computer and create the car, spin it around every which way, and then add any backgrounds they want. You don't need artists to do this anymore. And being computer illustrations, it's really hard to get any character out of them."

When I asked how he and Kaufman came up with their "look," Fitz smiled. "We did 285 Pontiac ads, and only one of them has a person looking at the car. Whether the background is a tennis court, a fancy hotel, a beach—doesn't matter—the people in the scene are always engaged in some pleasant pastime that gives viewers a nice warm feeling, some emotion they can relate to." As for the cars themselves, Fitz said, "I wanted them too big for the page. Sometimes I even cropped in on the car—I mean, if one headlight looks like the other, why do I have to show them both? That way, the car could occupy, say, 70 percent of the page—whereas with a full side view you'd only cover 15 or 20 percent. To me, it was so simple. I'd look at other ads and think, 'What the hell are you doing, fellas?' "

As I got ready to leave, Fitz shook my hand and—playing on our shared first name as he often did—said, "See ya later, Art for art's sake!" I'd never see him again. But thanks to his unforgettable work, I'll see him always.