Larger than life: Pontiac through the eyes of ‘Fitz’

Illustrator Art Fitzpatrick is undoubtedly best known as the co-creator of full-color Pontiac advertisements as iconic as the cars themselves.

The son of an artist father and grandson of an architect/artist grandfather, Fitzpatrick, or “Fitz,” was born with “designer genes.” But why cars? “I grew up in Detroit,” says Fitz. “What does a guy draw besides cars?”

Fitz’s early interest in the automobile led to his start at age 18 as an apprentice designer for John Tjaarda at Briggs Body Company. At 19, he began working for Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin designing custom-built Packards, and he eventually was hired by Packard to work on the Clipper. His advertising career was launched at the end of a stint in the Navy when Mercury recruited him to create artwork for an upcoming campaign.

With that, he was off. Over the course of an impressive seven-decade career, Fitz created more than 700 automotive ads, including work for Mercury, Nash, Lincoln, Plymouth, Kaiser and Buick.

Along the way, he collaborated with Van Kaufman, a former Disney animator who was especially talented at creating figures and backgrounds. Their 24-year partnership led to what would be a groundbreaking ad campaign for Pontiac.

“We were told that our job was to change Pontiac’s image, which for years had been that of a third-grade school teacher’s car,” says Fitz. “Pontiac was last in GM’s lineup, and we had to make it socially acceptable.”

Pontiac’s revamped 1959 fleet helped ease their burden. That year, Pontiac integrated a new, wider design “to make the car look better, but it was also a good advertising gimmick – the car is

wider so it’s more stable,” says Fitz.

Fitz was particularly taken with the new design’s emphasis of the vehicles’ front ends. “The front end on the ’59 Pontiac was the most important thing Pontiac ever did because it was so different from anything else they’d ever done – totally, off-the-deep-end different,” says Fitz. “It established the identity of the car.” Motor Trend agreed, naming the entire lineup “Car of the Year.”

Fitz and Van decided to capitalize on the brand’s bold new features in their award-winning “Wide Track” ad campaign. Fitz focused on those unique front ends, exaggerating each car’s proportions to achieve maximum impact. “As things went on, I was actually cropping the car to fit the frame,” says Fitz.

Quietly situated in the midst of pounding surf, private jets, towering palm trees or bright city lights, each vehicle creates a focal point that is at once subtle and imposing. “The whole idea,” says Fitz, “was that the car fit into the situation in a natural way.”

Although the car is always the largest thing in the picture, he notes, the people in the scene seem almost oblivious to it. The overall look brought an unprecedented level of style and sophistication to the campaign.

The design process was not without perks. Fitz and Kaufman wandered the world in search of inspiration for the landscapes that served as enticing backdrops to the cars.

As he recalls, “We both traveled and shot photographs looking for scene situations, whether it was hotels, or tennis courts, or yacht clubs.” The two traveled separately, covering more territory that way, and reviewed their photos when they returned. Selecting the best backgrounds, “we would make sketches, me the car and he the background, and put them together,” says Fitz.

“As Van and I used to say, we can’t believe they’re paying us all this money to have so much fun,” says Fitz.

Sophistication. Style. A hint of fun. And, of course, those larger-than-life Pontiacs. Art Fitzpatrick set a new standard for automotive advertising, and in the process created an iconic, exotic world the likes of which the advertising community had never seen before, and is unlikely to see again now that illustrated full-color ads are part of the past.

For more on Art Fitzpatrick and a full library of his Pontiac illustrations, visit

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