A beautiful relationship began when two young artists were paired in the Art Department at the Mercury Motor Division in the late 1940s. Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman quickly established themselves as players in the automotive advertising game with their high quality illustrations. In 1953 they were hired by General Motors to work on the new Buick range. Cut to ‘59 and Fitzpatrick and Kaufman had moved to Pontiac, where they would remain until the early 1970s. In that time, they produced a body of work that is often regarded as the high watermark of automotive art.
Throughout their tenure at Pontiac, Fitzpatrick and Kaufman produced brochures and advertising material dominated by dramatic illustrations depicting glamour and sophistication. Either sitting in or standing near a gleaming new Pontiac were suave, well-attired characters. Beautiful people, beautiful locations, beautiful cars. These were images an aspirational buyer could fantasize inserting him or herself into, enticing viewers to imagine themselves in the exotic worlds depicted. It was as if the ads whispered “Go on...treat yourself to a new Pontiac, and maybe a little glamour will come your way too…’ It was all about luring people into showrooms. From there it was up to the salesman...and with cars as good looking as Pontiacs of the 1960s, their job wasn’t too difficult.
While the Fitzpatrick-Kaufman illustrative style was not uncommon in automotive advertising, the dynamic duo were widely renowned as masters of the genre. Fitzpatrick would select overall layouts then position and render the cars, while Kaufman added detail to characters and settings. Seeking inspiration, they insisted on traveling the world in search of scenic locales to use as backdrops. This, they argued, would ensure every Pontiac they represented would be associated with glamour, fun, and the new jet-set life.
Every year, the artists would fly off to glamorous tourist spots around the globe to scout and photograph potential backdrops: Hawaii or Puerto Rico, the French Riviera or Monte Carlo, Paris and Rome (though places closer to home such as a Florida beach or ritzy Manhattan backdrops worked nicely too)
International locales were a departure from conventional advertising practice in America at the time. Truth was, most Americans didn’t travel outside the States - Pontiac management weren’t always convinced exotic locales were the ideal backdrop for their products. Fitpatrick and Kaufman usually won out by virtue of the sheer beauty of their imagery, and the belief in the power of aspirational advertising. If buyers couldn’t make it to the French Riviera, they could have a stunning Pontiac Gran Prix like the glamorous couple in the ads.
While people were often portrayed in action poses, the car was usually stationary. At rest, the gleaming Pontiac dominated the foreground whilst allowing the artists to render a glamorous lifestyle via the mise en scene, and beautiful people laughing and relaxing either in, or near the car.
Completed artwork was sent to McManus, John and Adams, Pontiac’s advertising agency where copywriters added text and headlines. With complete creative control, the only directive Fitzpatrick received from Pontiac were the specific model and trim level to depict. He and Kaufman would then select from the array of backgrounds they’d shortlisted from recent travels, then decide on which of the available Pontiac colors went best with selected locale and palette.
Fitzpatrick was a photo-realist painter, a genius with color and reflections, his artistry promoting Pontiac’s Magic-Mirror and Fire-Leveled acrylic lacquer finishes. In his most sumptuous pieces, the duco reflects a broad color spectrum and appeared as if finished in high gloss clear, then waxed and buffed to perfection. Aesthetics were further enhanced by minimizing shut lines and leaving off trim screws, antennas, bumper bolts and other necessities of mass production that might have diminished the overall effect. Kaufman used a more expressionistic style suited that tactfully ensured his lush, rich backgrounds would not draw attention away from the product. The idea was, after all, to sell Pontiacs.
The impact of Fitzpatrick and Kaufman’s advertisements helped propel Pontiac from sixth to third place in US car sales by 1962. When Pontiac decided to launch their Grand Prix that same year (to compete with stunning new Buick Riviera and Ford’s Thunderbird) they relied heavily on the expertise of Fitzpatrick and Kaufman. With a rushed schedule and limited budget, the duo came up with six exquisite magazine ads that helped shift over 30,000 units. Pontiac would maintain third-place throughout the 1960s.
Says Art Fitzpatrick: ‘This was the announcement ad for the very first Pontiac Grand Prix. The final decision to create the car had come just a few months before new-car announcement day. Van and I had two days to create an entire ad campaign for a new car model in a fresh style distinctive from the other ads we were doing. This picture set readership records for Pontiac and won the color ad 'Award for Excellence from the New York Society of Illustrators.’
When not busy jetting around the globe with his favorite co-worker, Fitzpatrick enjoyed the freedom of working from home where he could look out at yet another shiny new Pontiac in the drive. As part of his contract, he was supplied every three months with three of the latest models of his choosing. Typically he took delivery of a top of the range Bonneville hardtop sedan, a sporty Grand Prix or GTO coupe and if the feeling took him, a Tempest Safari wagon for utilitarian purposes.
Fitzpatrick and Kaufman, though highly talented in their own right, were greater than the sum of their parts when working together. Their ability to complement one another was nothing short of extraordinary and the evidence is there for all to see in the advertising art they created for Pontiac throughout the 1960s. They captured not only the pinnacle of Detroit’s finest hour, but also something of the glamour and sophistication of the new jet age. Their artwork stands as a reminder of an amazing time now vanished, though fondly remembered thanks in no small part to the efforts of Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman.
About the author
Raph Tripp is a passionate classic car enthusiast and writer, he is founder of TunnelRam.net. If you wish to publish this article in part or in whole, please credit Raph Tripp and tunnelram.net . This is an original Tunnel Ram production ©2019 Tunnel Ram. All images remain the property of the original copyright holders.