Eye Candy: Mid-Century Performance at the Gilmore Car Museum

Richard Nixon's image provides backdrop for 1969 Camaro Z/28 | Larry Edsall photos
Richard Nixon’s image provides backdrop for 1969 Camaro Z/28 | Larry Edsall photos

Curators at the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan, were working on a Mid-Century Performance exhibit that would go beyond the typical muscle cars and turn the museum’s stunning, auto-show style entry space into a showcase for powerful cars from the 1960s and ’70s.

But the number of cars planned for that exhibit weren’t enough to also fill the hallway that leads from that space to the museum’s other galleries. What to do?

The preliminary plan was to display some of the original, historic but miscellaneous automotive art the museum owns. But then artist Art Fitzpatrick, now in his 90s, called to say that he wants to donate his own works to the Gilmore, and it just so happens that Fitzpatrick’s heyday as an automotive artist involved the creation of stunning advertising artwork smack in the middle of the 20th century.

Voila! Mid-Century Performance became a unified showcase for cars and art, and has been so well-appreciated by visitors that two of them have offered to donate their own mid-century performance cars to the museum’s collection.

Jay Follis, the museum’s marketing director, wants to make sure that those coming to the museum don’t expect that Mid-Century Performance is just another grouping of “muscle cars.”

“We didn’t want to do it as ‘muscle cars’,” he said of an exhibition that goes beyond the performance icons of the era — don’t fret, several of them are there, including a GTO and a tall-winged Hemi. However, Mid-Century Performance also includes more traditional mid-century performance machines, such as a 1961 Pontiac Ventura Sport Coupe, 1964 Dodge 300 hardtop, 1965 Plymouth Belvedere Super Stock, 1967 AC Shelby Cobra 427, 1968 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, 1969 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 Rally Sport and 1969 Plymouth Barracuda Formula S convertible.

Mention of that ’61 Pontiac Ventura provides a nice transition from the cars to the art since Fitzpatrick and fellow artist Van Kaufman were responsible for the images — more than 250 of them — in the Pontiac “Wide Track” series of advertisements. Fitzpatrick would paint the cars and Kaufman would do the backgrounds, including the people.

Fitzpatrick was a student when he was hired by John Tjaarda, then designing cars for Briggs Body Company, to work as an apprentice. At age 19, Fitzpatrick went to California to work with another famous designer, Howard “Dutch” Darrin. After his U.S. Naval service in World War II, Fitzpatrick returned to Detroit, doing automotive advertising art, much of it in partnership with Kaufman, a former Disney animator.

Fitzpatrick was in his 80s when he did two recent series of U.S. postage stamps — America on the Move: 50s Sporting Cars and 50s Fins & Chrome — and was a consultant to Disney-Pixar on the Cars movie.

Mid-Century Performance will remain in place probably well into the fall months, perhaps even to the winter holidays, Follis said, and then it may move, along with those recently donated performance cars, into another exhibition space occupied for more than a year by a display of historic hot rods.

Photos by Larry Edsall

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