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Review of Pontiac . . . PIZAZZ! in The New York Times - Thursday, October 30, 2008

New Fans for the Michelangelo of the Muscle Car


TO call Art Fitzpatrick an automobile illustrator is to leave half of the canvas blank. For decades, Mr. Fitzpatrick helped sell cars, most notably Buicks and Pontiacs, by pitching a carefree lifestyle in handsome magazine advertisements.

A 1959 Pontiac Bonneville was parked in front of the Hotel Ritz Madrid. A 1967 GTO was backed up to a row of surfboards. A 1971 Firebird lounged near snowy slopes. In many paintings, the male driver had a female companion, and both were smiling.

The splashy four-color advertisements, which appeared in publications like Life, Look and The Saturday Evening Post, emphasized the rakish, romantic sleekness of these powerful, all-American automobiles, part of the genre known as muscle cars.

?The whole overtone of the illustrations and the copy was about performance,? said Jim Wangers, who worked for McManus, John & Adams, the Detroit advertising agency that assembled the ?Wide Track Pontiac? campaign, which made its debut in 1959.

The work done by Mr. Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman, his partner in the studio, became famous, though few outside the automobile and advertising industries knew what ?AF? and ?VK? stood for at the bottom of the illustrations. But that would change.

Mr. Wangers became involved with Pontiac and GTO collectors' clubs in the last decade, and he discovered that the 285 Pontiac advertisements by the team known as Fitz and Van were as popular as ever. For collectors, the illustrations represented an era.

Mr. Kaufman died in 1995, but Mr. Wangers began to take Mr. Fitzpatrick to car shows and collectors' club meetings, where people let him know that those advertisements had sold them on Pontiacs.

?They will come to me and specifically describe a Pontiac ad that sticks out in their memory,? Mr. Fitzpatrick said by telephone from his home in Carlsbad, Calif. ?They say, ?I looked at that ad, and I wanted to be in that car, in that place, with that gal on my arm.' ?

He has, in fact, become a celebrity among a legion of new muscle-car fans. Mr. Fitzpatrick, who will turn 90 on Nov. 24, self-deprecatingly refers to himself as a ?retread,? but he enjoys the conversations that his artwork has jump-started.

?I constantly hear from guys who say, ?My father had one of those,' ? he said, laughing. ?Now, I'm hearing more people say, ?My grandfather had one of those.' ?

Fans have clamored for new work. Mr. Fitzpatrick created two lines of stamps for the United States Postal Service ? the second, America on the Move: '50s Fins and Chrome, went on sale Oct. 3. In addition, Mr. Fitzpatrick and Mr. Wangers collaborated on a book, ?Pontiac . . . Pizazz!?

?He's been able to put fresh images ? fresh as they may be ? in front of enthusiasts who may not have even been born when these cars first came out,? said Dave Anderson, who published the book, which costs $34.95 at GeeTOtiger.com and bentleypublishers.com, as well as online booksellers like Amazon.

The style of the original Fitz and Van advertisements is as much of a throwback as the automobiles. Mr. Fitzpatrick and Mr. Kaufman were freer to exaggerate (Mr. Fitzpatrick says ?enhance?) the width of these already low-slung cars.

?Everybody thought my versions of the car looked more accurate than photographs of the car,? Mr. Fitzpatrick said.

The illustrations helped Pontiac promote how these cars, trimmed with glinting chrome, were capable of hugging the road. The advertisements helped Pontiac quadruple its sales from 1958 to 1969 and claim a larger slice of American pop culture, Mr. Wangers said.

Buck Wilkin, the lead singer of Ronny & the Daytonas, a surf rock band that sounded like the Beach Boys, wrote a hit song about the GTO in 1964. The Monkees drove a bright red GTO convertible called the Monkeemobile in their mid-1960s television series.

?Gas mileage was not a terribly important and significant thing,? Mr. Wangers, 82, said of the muscle-car era.

Times changed, and attention to fuel economy, as well as truth in advertising, took precedence. The Fitz and Van style was essentially obsolete by 1971, and Mr. Fitzpatrick moved to California from Greenwich, Conn., to pursue a career in real estate.

His studio went largely unused until he was asked to show his work in the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, an auto show in California, and at the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, which is known for its transportation design program.

?He kept finding things to get in the way,? said his wife, Betty, to whom he has been married for 26 years.

She, too, had seen his work during the Pontiac era and thought it was extraordinary, but she had not known who had done it until they met. Now she is encouraging him to create illustrations of classic automobiles. ?It's been a godsend; it really has,? his wife said of his reborn career. ?He needs to do that detailed, technical stuff.?

Said Mr. Wangers, ?I think iconic is a beautiful word to describe him.?

The New York Times - Thursday, October 30, 2008 - review 1
Review and article about Pontiac . . . PIZAZZ! in The New York Times - Thursday, October 30, 2008