by James Kraus
During the 1960s, Pontiac brochures and advertising were dominated by dramatic illustrations created by the team of Art ‘Fitz’ Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman. These lush images depicted scenes of glamour and sophistication populated by suave, well-attired cosmopolitan characters, always accompanied by a larger-than-life Pontiac with shimmering chrome and glistening paintwork.
These were images that the aspirational car buyer could fantasize inserting himself into, and they nourished the idea that maybe he himself might gain access to this beautiful and exotic world if he were to go out and buy a new Pontiac.
While this illustrative style was not uncommon in automotive brochures and advertising, Fitz and Van were the acknowledged masters of the genre. They began their storied collaboration working for Mercury and Buick before hitting their stride during their decade-plus run at Pontiac. Fitz would select overall layouts; then position, render and detail the cars, while Van fleshed out characters and settings.
The process of collecting the background images is a story in itself, a tale that would excite any man about town. Every year, Fitz and Van would jet away to glamorous watering holes around the globe to scout and photograph potential backdrops: Rome, Paris, Monte-Carlo, Acapulco, Hawaii, Puerto Rico… no stone was left unturned.
These international locales were a departure from the conventional advertising practice in the U.S. at the time and occasionally met with resistance in the insular world of 1960s Detroit management. An executive once groused to Fitz that a couple of the backgrounds looked a bit too foreign. He ended up with a tinge of red in the face; the locales of the two images to which he objected were actually Upper Manhattan and Washington, DC.
Having complete creative control, the only orders Fitz received from Pontiac headquarters were in regard to which car model and trim level to depict. He and Van would then select a background, decide which of the model’s available colours went best with the palate of the selected locale, and work magic.
When the images were completed and finalized, the work was sent to Pontiac’s ad agency, McManus, John and Adams, where copywriters would add suitable text and a complementary headline.
The effectiveness of the Fitz and Van advertising illustrations helped propel Pontiac from sixth to third place in the U.S. sales derby by 1962, outsold only by the more mass-market Chevrolet and Ford lines. Pontiac would would retain the third-place position through the remainder of the decade.
An eleventh-hour decision to introduce the Grand Prix for 1962 in competition with the Ford Thunderbird and upcoming Buick Riviera resulted in a minuscule last-minute marketing budget to launch the new model. The paltry funds allowed for no television spots and development of a mere six print advertisements in support of the Grand Prix. Despite these constraints, Fitz and Van’s enticing series of six illustrated magazine spreads helped sell over thirty-thousand G.P.s in 1962.
While background figures were animated, cars were nearly always depicted in a stationary position. Serenely at rest, they nevertheless dominated the compositions via scale and realism.
Fitz was a master at colour depiction and reflection rendering. His aristry made the most of Pontiac’s 1960s Magic-Mirror and Fire-Leveled acrylic lacquer paint finishes. In his best work, the paint appears to reflect an unusually broad colour spectrum and looks to be covered with infinitely deep high gloss clear overcoat, appearing if the car was covered in molten colour.
Aesthetics were further enhanced by minimising shut lines and leaving off trim screws, antennas, bumper bolts and other extraneous minutia. Detailing of the cars was impeccable. Look closely at Monte Carlo Nights above and you will just be able to discern the vertical pleats at the upper edge of the rear seat backrest.
When not busy jetting around the globe, Fitz enjoyed the freedom of working from his home. When he did choose to venture out, he first had to decide which car to drive. As part of his remuneration from Pontiac, he was supplied every three months with not one or two, but three of the latest models of his choosing; typically a posh Bonneville, a more sporting Grand Prix or GTO and a Tempest Safari.
Complementary skills were key to the Fitz and Van style. Fitz possessed the talents of a photorealist painter ideal for rendering automobiles, while Van had a more expressionistic style perfectly suited to keeping his lavishly rich backgrounds from drawing undue attention away from the product.
The reign of Fitz and Van at Pontiac coincided with the pinnacle of the era of Jet Age glamour and sophistication; an age they exquisitely grasped and captured. Their images remain today as frozen moments in time reflecting the spirit of idealized gracious living, 1960s Style.
The images shown are my personal favourites. For more, visit Art Fitzpatrick’s site.
2021 Update: Author Rob Keil has produced a 200-page book on the work of Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman lavishly illustrated with every known image produced by Art and Van for Pontiac, as well as their earlier work for Mercury and Buick and their later work for Opel. Available here.