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Art Fitzpatrick on Automotive Designers and Decades of Design Work

by | Oct 7, 2017 | Art Fitzpatrick, Heroes and Icons

“1962 Grand Prix Monte Carlo” by Art Fitpatrick and Van Kaufman. Used with permission.

Fitzpatrick’s Early Career with Howard “Dutch” Darrin and John Tjaarda

Martin: You have mentioned in previous interviews that you met Howard “Dutch” Darrin when you were nineteen years old. You had a year of art school at the time, and a little over a year as an apprentice designer under John Tjaarda. Could you fill us in on the details?
Fitz: Of all these names of custom body builders and car designers, John Tjaarda was super. He was responsible for what became the Lincoln Zephyr, which originated at Briggs, while he worked there. It was the first unibody-type construction.
Martin: Actually, I was familiar with that story, but not the person responsible for it.
Fitz: Also, Tjaarda also did the Chrysler Airflow. Remember Briggs built the bodies for Ford, Chrysler and Packard.
Martin: Yes, Packard. That’s how I know of him. One of the downfalls of Packard was when Chrysler finally bought Brigggs outright, just after the war.
Fitz: That’s right.
Martin: That was unfortunate for Packard because all of a sudden they had to go into the bodybuilding business and they had not a lot of experience, meaning none.
Fitz: Later on, when John left Briggs, he opened his own consulting and engineering design outfit. I was his first associate. He actually hired me three times, first as an apprentice designer, then when he opened his own business, and again after the war, when he had me work on projects.

Tjaarda and Darrin’s kindred spirit

Michelle: The Zephyr and the Airflow are very innovative designs. Tjaarda must have been a fascinating man to work with.
Fitz: He was really a super guy, also a great salesman, and he had a thick Dutch accent. He was an interesting guy, like Darrin. It’s funny how similar they were. Tjaarda was a member of the Dutch Air Force, flew the first airmail from continent to England or vice-versa. Dutch Darrin, of course, flew for the French in WWI. They were very similar guys. Tjaarda was more engineer than Dutch, although Dutch certainly was an engineer. Dutch was certainly more engineer than artist, particularly.

Observing the classic car design process

Martin: Everyone said he was a decent renderer, then he would hand the design it over to someone – perhaps like you – who could really draw and say, “Make this!” [Laughter.]

Fitz: As the saying about Dutch goes, he waved his arms a lot, which was really true. I never saw any of those top-notch designers pull a pencil. I never saw them draw anything. Well, Virgil Exner [designer for Studebaker, Chrysler, and others] could. Bill Mitchell [General Motors] could, too. But the custom guys, Tjaarda and Darrin, I never saw them pull a pencil.I actually met Virgil during my childhood. I grew up in Chicago, the first half of my upbringing was in Chicago. We moved to South Bend for a year when my father worked for a studio there. Virgil Exner was a mat boy, an apprentice cutting mats. I was about 8, and Virgil was about 17.

Understanding the “Darrin” touch: Designing the Packard Darrin Sport Sedan

Michelle: Is it possible to articulate what you understood to be “the Darrin touch?” You have said that when you worked with Darrin, you were confident that you understood what that meant.
Fitz: I just knew his style. We had the Victoria, I had seen Dutch’s European designs. I just knew. Dutch thought he should do a 4-door, and he approached me to do it. I said sure, and I did it, à la Darrin. Actually, it turned out so well that Packard decided that they wanted to use it and add it their line. I once had the original catalogue of the Packard Super 8s for that year, which I have since given to Mike Ames. It showed sedans, convertibles and Victorias.

Drawing the full-sized car from scratch

Martin: Yes, I have seen the reprints, that is absolutely true. So then, you were asked to do a concept for what would become the four-door sedan?
Fitz: No, actually, that was one of the few cases where I didn’t really start with a concept, I never made a sketch of that car. I started right in drawing the actual car full size on brown wrapping paper on plywood on sawhorses in the shop. I created renderings of the side view of the car, but I did those renderings after the car was built. I didn’t do any sketches beforehand. It was a backbreaking effort, I will tell you. In design studios, they ordinarily do that kind of work on the wall, but we didn’t have the wall space in the shop.

The one-of-a-kind Darrin Sport Sedan

Fitz: Mike Ames’ four-door sedan is one-of-a-kind. It is the original design as it was intended to be. Packard built 4, 5 or 6 Darrin hard tops of a different design.
Martin: I guess none of the other hard tops survived, except for the one that Gene Tareshawty has.
Fitz: I have never seen it, so I don’t know what it looks like. Does it have running boards?
Martin: Yes.
Fitz: That car was a diversion from the first car that we started on.

Martin: So, of the 1940 cars, only two of the 4-door sedans survived. One was the original car that you designed, and one was Packard’s version with running boards.
Fitz: Yes, and the one with running boards was Packard’s doing, that’s correct.
Martin: There’s no doubt that was Packard’s doing. They were trying to build something…perhaps cheaper, using at least factory body panels as a starting point.
Fitz: Yes. Taking off the running board and fixing those fenders as it is done on the Victorias and on Mike Ames’ car and David France’s [former] car [a 4-door convertible Darrin] is expensive. That’s a piece of work.

LeBaron Sport Brougham

Fitz: You know what always intrigues me, Martin, is something I have seen several times. They are probably CCCA cars…. There’s a LeBaron out that looks very similar to the Darrin. I’ve seen it at several different concours events.
Martin: Yes, I used to own one. They are 1941 cars, LeBaron Sport Broughams. They built 99 of them, it is a nice design. Packard built one 1941 4-door Darrin sedan. It’s more similar to their 1940 version with running boards than it is to your original design.

Packard’s design department

Martin: After you left Darrin’s employ, and you went back to Detroit, you went to work for Packard?
Fitz: First I went to work for Hudson, then I went to Packard. The Clipper was pretty well completed by then, I got there at the tail end. The three designers were Phil Wright, who had done the Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow, John Reinhart and myself. So there were just the three of us there doing drawings and paintings, Reinhart, Wright and myself. That was the smallest design department I ever heard of.
As I say, I got there late in the game. I ended up doing the grill, and then the next year’s revision, which turned out to be 1946, ‘47. They used the grill on the senior and junior cars.
Martin: So they used your pre-war design on the post-war cars. Was Gubitz there as well?
Fitz: Yes. I just gave away six original renderings by Gubitz to the Packard museum in Dayton. He painted beautiful side view renditions of his early Packard designs, mostly the 20s and the 30s.
Martin: I have actually seen them, dead-on profiles.

Working with George Walker

Martin: Looking back for a moment, after you worked with John Tjaarda, you have said that you worked for George Walker [ed. note: later became VP of Design at Ford]?
Fitz: He was very jovial, a great salesman, an industrial designer who had the Nash account. He had a staff working at Nash, though he wasn’t an employee there. He was a freelance designer, sort of like Raymond Lowey was at Studebaker.

The call of California

I stopped working with George Walker to go to Southern California when my dad went to work for Disney. I had to see California! So I gave up a job in the middle of the Depression, and came to California [laughing].
Martin: What did your father do for Disney?
Fitz: He painted backgrounds. Walt Disney said my dad was the only artist he ever saw that could paint air. My father was a watercolorist.
Michelle: What was your intention, prior to passing by Darrin’s shop on Sunset Blvd…..Did you have an idea what you were seeking for employment?
Fitz: Well, I know I had no idea I was going to run into “Dutch” Darrin or a custom body business in California. I figured I was going to become an art director or designer in the movie business.

Discovering Dutch Darrin’s Sunset Blvd. shop

I had only been in California a couple days, and my dad was working at Disney. I was driving up on Sunset Blvd. and I saw a Darrin in a shop there. I went in and met Dutch. It was unusual to even find him in. He was a great guy and very charming. He asked me when I could start, and I said “Tomorrow!” [Laughter.] I didn’t make much money. It certainly was one of the more interesting periods of my life, I’ll tell you that! I had fun.

I have a picture of me in Errol Flynn’s car. As a matter of fact, Dutch Darrin and Errol became very good friends, so I was friendly with Flynn. He used to let me drive his car around. There was a B-movie star by he name of Tom Brown. He was a great guy. He made a movie in the ‘30s called Tom Brown of Culver. Tom Brown was the great-looking, all-American boy. He was absolutely the epitome of the all-American boy. Square jaw, slight freckles, good-looking guy. He was only a couple years older than I was, 21, 22 at that point. He and I became pretty good friends. So I got to drive his car and Flynn’s car around town.
Martin: The Flynn car you were driving around was a Darrin Victoria?
Fitz: Yes, it was a Darrin Victoria, a 120.

Post-Packard years: Work with John Tjaarda and then a Navy Officer at One Park Avenue

Fitz: Yes. I left Packard before Pearl Harbor. I left in the summer of ’41, June or something like that….
Martin: Where did you go after Packard?
Fitz: Well, when I left Packard, I went into the aircraft industry,
Martin: So it was June of 1941 when Ed Macauley, head of the design department, said they were going to be phasing out cars due to the war effort. That’s when you went into aircraft.
Fitz: Right. Then I left that to go with John Tjaarda again. I worked with him until it was time to go to the Navy. I had a very, very interesting naval career. I was stationed at One Park Avenue in New York.
Martin: That’s not a bad address.
Fitz: Real tough duty [laughing]! But it was very interesting. I did some important things.
Martin: What was located at One Park Avenue?
Fitz: It’s an office building where we occupied part of one floor. Army Air Force occupied a whole floor above us. We employed a handful of people, and we turned out more work than the whole top floor of the Army Air Corps guys!
Martin: Can you give us a flavor of what you were doing?
Fitz: How-to-do-it books. How to bomb, how to navigate, all sorts of technical instruction. That was part of my outfit. Eventually I ended up in the office of research and invention, and got a couple patents while I was in the Navy. I was art director on an Anapolis textbook, an introduction to naval aviation. That was interesting because I was working with Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, gold medal-winning artists, and brilliant engineers. John Ford’s movie outfit, Edward Steichen’s photography outfit, we were all in one command. It was very interesting, probably about as much talent imaginable that you could gather in one command.
Martin: What rank did you have? Were you an officer?
Fitz: Yes, one had to be to work with that outfit. We had to deal with high-ranking officers.

Iconic Art: a record-breaking career in automotive advertising

Michelle: You then embarked on an illustrious 48-year career in automotive advertising. You did sensational ad campaigns starting with American Motors, Lincon-Mercury, and most significantly, the Pontiac division of GM. Your work with Van Kaufman was influential and instantly recognizable. In fact, your ad campaigns for Pontiac were credited with rescuing the marque from last place in the GM division.

“Your efforts played a great part in bring us to third place in the industry. Without them our job of moving Pontiac up the ladder would have been impossible.”
– S. E. Knudsen
VP, General Manager of Pontiac and later
Executive VP of GM and then President of Ford

A lifetime achievement award and lecturing to the next generation of automotive designers and artists

Michelle: Your artworks are still influencing designers to this day.
Fitz: Yes, that is true. In fact, I have lectured at the Mercedes-Benz Design Studios and Nissan. Are you familiar with Shiro Nakamura?
Michelle: By name, yes, of course. I recall you told me he is an admirer of your work.
Fitz: Yes, I’ll tell you a story. Shiro bought a couple of pieces from me. He came to my studio and sat down on the floor. I arranged my artworks around him, which he carefully studied. He selected a piece and asked how much…. Then he kept looking and looking and finally asked, “Can I have another one?” [Laughter.] So I said, of course you can have another one!
Michelle: You have had other speaking engagements as well, haven’t you? You lectured at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, and the Art Center in Pasadena, where you received a Lifetime Achievement Award. It must be interesting and exciting to know that you have such a rapt audience wherever you go, people who admire the work you have created, spanning decades.
Fitz: Yes, it’s wonderful. I love talking to them, I received great feedback from the San Francisco event, they want me to keep coming. I say as long as they continue to send an airplane for me to fly there, I’ll keep going back [laughing]!
Michelle: Well, that’s traveling in style. That would keep me going back, too.
Fitz: At the Art Center, I speak to the transportation design guys. What I’m discussing applies just as well to advertising illustration as it does to automobile design. This is a most interesting time in my career.

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