Fitzpatrick and Kaufman’s 10 best Pontiac ads
It was a stroke of genius. Actually, two strokes of genius. When Pontiac placed its new “Wide Track” advertising campaign in the capable hands of artists Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman in 1959, it was the start of something special. Or the continuation of something special, since the two had been working together since 1949—Fitzpatrick drew the cars, Kaufman the backgrounds and people.
They were magic. Together they created 285 memorable advertisements for Pontiac from 1959–71. Each is a masterpiece, whether you love automobiles or not. For those who do, the ads are legendary.
Fitzpatrick, who died in November 2015, just shy of his 96th birthday, painted and designed cars for more than seven decades. The son of an artist and grandson of an architect/artist, “Fitz” said he was born with “designer genes” and was immediately attracted to cars as a subject. “I grew up in Detroit,” he told Hagerty in 2013. “What does a guy draw besides cars?”
At 17, Fitz lied about his age to get into The Society of Arts and Crafts and the Detroit School of Art, and a year later was hired by John Tjaarda at the Briggs Body Company. Fitzpatrick moved to California at 19 to work with Howard “Dutch” Darrin, designing custom-built Packards. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he signed on with Mercury in 1945. He brought in Kaufman four years later.
Kaufman, a world traveler and former Disney animator, placed Fitzpatrick’s cars in exotic, romantic locations with beautiful, happy people. The partners would trade each image back and forth until they agreed upon a final draft. The collaboration worked to perfection.
The Pontiac images are the duo’s most memorable.
“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,” Fitz told Hagerty. “Pontiac was last in GM’s lineup, and we had to make it socially acceptable.”
The Fitzpatrick-Kaufman collaboration was timed with Pontiac’s revamped 1959 lineup. The two emphasized the new Pontiacs’ bolder, wider front design. “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,” Fitz said. “It established the identity of the car.”
You could find the Pontiacs in beautiful locations—France and Monte Carlo, on beaches, at sporting events, and at big-city black-tie affairs. Fitz said that although the cars were always the focal point, there was a subtlety to their presence in each scene. “The whole idea was that the car fit into the situation in a natural way,” he said.
Fitz and Kaufman wandered the world in search of inspiration for the landscapes that served as enticing backdrops to the cars. “As Van and I used to say, ‘I can’t believe they’re paying us all this money to have so much fun,’” Fitz said.
They shared their joy each month in the Pontiac ads that were featured in both automotive and general interest magazines throughout the 1960s. Each highly anticipated advertisement would take the reader on a journey, selling the lifestyle that Pontiac ownership promised—more than the car itself.
Fitz and Kaufman enjoyed a 24-year partnership and remained lifelong friends. Kaufman died in 1995.
In addition to his work for Mercury and Pontiac, Fitzpatrick also created ads for Nash, Lincoln, Plymouth, Kaiser, and Buick—more than 700 in his career—as well as two sets of automotive stamps for the U.S. Postal Service.
After poring over most of the 285 Pontiac ads created by the Fitzpatrick-Kaufman partnership, I made an impossible (foolish) decision to select my five favorites. After an hour, I had narrowed the field to 25. Then I cut it to 17. Let’s face it, five isn’t happening. So, with a couple of Advil on board, below are my seven… no, 10… favorite Fitz-Van Pontiac ads (today, anyway). Don’t agree? Share your faves in the comments section.
1962 Grand Prix, Monte Carlo
The magic of Monte Carlo—and the way Fitz and Van depicted it—is that when you close your eyes, you envision the unforgettable combination of blue waters and sandy beaches… yet neither can be seen in this image. The artists knew that, so why should they go for the obvious? Instead, they played up the automotive side of Monte Carlo by placing us at the Monaco Grand Prix… in a Grand Prix. Fun, fast, festive. What auto enthusiast wouldn’t want to be right there?
1964 Bonneville, Barbados Sunset
Now, there’s the beach—in Barbados, no less. Yes, there’s a great looking car in the image. Raise your hand if your eyes went to the background first. This is a holiday vacation you imagine the well-to-do of the 1960s might take. Nope, no third grade teachers here.
1964 Bonneville Safari, Ski New England
After enduring a long and hard Michigan winter, I vowed there was no way I would choose an image that included even the slightest hint of snow. Then I saw Fitz and Van’s “Ski New England.” The Bonneville Safari, the bright colors, the sunshine, the deliriously happy people. I’ll wear long johns. Where are my skis?
1965 Grand Prix, Rive Gauche
While it may not seem like the most exotic of locations, look closer. The 1965 Grand Prix is paused on a street on The Left Bank of the River Seine in Paris. La Rive Gauche was the hangout of choice for writers, artists, and philosophers, amazingly creative people with names like Hemingway, Picasso, Fitzgerald, and Matisse. To step into this fabulous image and spend just one day there would be as priceless as one of their original works of art or fiction.
1966 Tempest, The Good Life
Come on, now, do I really have to explain what makes this image so alluring? The thing is called “The Good Life,” for goodness’ sake.
1967 Catalina, Kona Foursome
I can only imagine what it would be like to step out of a new Regimental Red ’67 Catalina, pull my golf clubs from the trunk, and chat with two lovely blondes while I wait for our tee time in Kona, Hawaii. At this point, I can only imagine getting out of anything and chatting with anyone before doing anything in Hawaii.
1968 GTO, Horsepower II
In a clever play on words, “Horsepower II” refers to the power under the hood of this ’68 GTO and the majestic power of race horses. Toss in the power of imagination. Let’s go to the Derby!
1969 Firebird 400, Surfers
I’m not a big swimmer. My relationship with the ocean is basically from a distance or, on a good day, a short swim while on vacation. But even I, the landlubber, would challenge the surf if I could be magically propelled back in time and into this image. Yes, I’m wondering where that surfboard is supposed to go. Think I can wedge it behind the front seats? I’ll figure it out. Hang ten!
1969 GTO, Beach at Hydra
This is more my speed. Beautiful day, beautiful people, beautiful beach, beautiful car. And, Greece! It doesn’t get much better than this. In fact, speaking strictly about the cars depicted in Fitzpatrick and Kaufman’s work, I’ll take this one.
1970 GTO Judge, Thrill Seekers
Much like my previous comment about swimming, I generally have a problem with small planes, although it hasn’t kept me from accepting an invitation to climb aboard. I really want to be like these “Thrill Seekers.” I do. Perhaps they’ll allow me to be the thrill seeker whose thrill-seeking amounts to driving this ’70 GTO Judge above the speed limit?