Jacques S. Ostiguy likely would have got into aerospace engineering, if it weren’t for the nuns.
As a young boy, Ostiguy – born February 1947 in Montreal, Québec – went to a Catholic boarding school headed by the habit-wearing sisters of the faith, who were not fond of his habit of drawing jet aircraft in his books’ margins. When a CF-100 Canuck fighter crashed into a nearby convent when Ostiguy was 10, the nuns blamed him and his drawings, and forced him to stand in the corner for a week.
So, Ostiguy switched gears and doodled cars instead—his dad’s ’55 Buick Century Convertible, his uncle’s stylish bullet-nosed Studebaker. And he got good fast.
After high school, Chrysler liked his drawings enough that they gave him a scholarship to Art Center in California. In his final year there he worked as an intern in Chrysler’s Highland Park, Michigan design studios.
His first task was to come up with a decal package for a special California-market Plymouth Duster; inside of a week, he drafted the surfing-themed ‘Hang 10’ edition, which execs – and this didn’t usually happen – approved without revision, but moved onto the Dodge Dart.
It wasn’t long before his flair for elegant, European design had him working on his favourite project, the Chrysler Cordoba. “The designers working on the car, their image [inspiration] boards are of the Pontiac Grand Prix and the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, which they’re going after,” Ostiguy recalls. “They’ve gone with the rectangular headlights and it’s very angular, very hard-edged, so I soften it up.”
After being assigned a clay modeller, his first changes were to trade the square lights for round ones, and to revise the rear end (the sides of the car had already been locked-in). In his presentation to his managers, Ostiguy pointed to an inspiration board with vintage Jaguars and ’49 Bentleys on it.
“I’m saying to them, ‘Elegance is round, it’s platonic,’ and make a whole philosophical thing about round versus square.” He summarized his argument, “If you want to step away from the crowd, gentlemen, you’ve got to be British.” It worked; the execs swapped in Ostiguy’s front end with the round headlights.
Rich Corinthian leather (and Turkish-bordello velour)
For the rest of the year, Ostiguy let show his crass, unapologetic personality and pro-European design biases: his sketches featured cars with Mercedes-Benz tri-stars instead of Chrysler penta-stars, and his design presentations were rote with gimmicks—he opened one by tap-dancing, to drive home a comparison between the Motor City and Hollywood.
But while some design execs were amused, Ostiguy’s mentor, Bill Brownlie, was not, and warned him to tone things down. He didn’t. When first shown a monochromatic-deep-red mockup of the Cordoba’s interior, Ostiguy told its designer, a 30-year Chrysler veteran, “it looks like a goddamn Turkish bordello.”
“He turned as red as the velour and said to Mr. Brownlie, ‘I don’t want to see that guy in my studio again.’”
Ostiguy recalls the morning Chrysler ad execs brought actor Ricardo Montalban into the studio to see a pre-production version of the Cordoba he’d be helping sell in commercials.
“[Plymouth design exec] Neil Walling had put us [the interns] behind a partition and told us to be quiet, so we can’t see what’s going on,” said Ostiguy. “But when Montalban comes in, we can hear his accent. ‘Oh, what a bee-yoo-ti-ful car, isn’t it? So exquisite!’”
The young designers are already chuckling when Ostiguy erupts, shouting an opening line from Montalban’s then-popular Fantasy Island TV show: “The plane! The plane!” Walling immediately appears behind the partition, points to Ostiguy and mouths “My office at four o’clock.”
“Another stunt, Jacques? You thought it was funny, hmm?” Walling chastises Ostiguy later in his office. “—Well, lucky you, so did Mr. Montalban.”
None of the Chrysler execs had actually seen Fantasy Island and didn’t get the reference, so Montalban explained it to them, adding how he appreciated that one person among the staff did watch his program.
For the full story on the life, death, genius and bizarre habits of Jacques S. Ostiguy, the most eccentric French-Canadian car designer you’ve never heard of, head over to Autofocus.ca.