It’s March 2011, and David McGee, archivist with the Canada Science and Technology Museum, has been tasked with extracting artifacts from a two-bedroom Montreal apartment, some things donated by the estate of its recently deceased former tenant.

As he opens the door, he’s struck by three things. The first is the lingering smell of tobacco and the ashtrays scattered haphazardly around the apartment.

The second are the pictures and drawings hanging on the smoke-yellowed walls, framed photos of European luxury sedans and professional sketches of futuristic concept cars driven by a suave-looking character in sunglasses and occasionally captioned with design analyses punctuated by vulgarities and sexual innuendoes.

The third is that almost every horizontal surface, every shelf, table or counter, has a 1/18-scale model car sitting on it. Buicks on the bookcase. Dodges on every desk. Tuckers atop the toilet. “My God,” McGee thought. “I’ve entered the home of a crazy person.”

McGee is there for the drawings, but has to remove the diecast models to get to them; he keeps a tally as he takes them out of the apartment. Several hours later, after a second visit, he has a total: 513 diecast vehicles. That’s not including the 70 aircraft, 60 tanks and several large military ship models there, too.

Their collector, the apartment’s late tenant, was Jacques S. Ostiguy, an industrial designer and professor whom McGee had met about a year prior when the museum was preparing its “In Search of the Canadian Car” exhibit. (It featured a small section on Ostiguy.)

Ostiguy spent most of his career teaching at Carleton University and the Université du Québec, but also worked for Bombardier’s Ski-Doo division and, while a student in the ’70s, in Chrysler’s styling studios. He may just have been the most eccentric French-Canadian car designer you’ve never heard of.

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A wall in Ostiguy’s dining room, as photographed in May 2011 (courtesy David McGee)

Jacques 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. He sketched constantly, and got good before long. He was about 20-years-old when one night, while his father was hosting a bridge game, the cars he was drawing at the kitchen table caught the eye of a family friend, a Chrysler Canada director.

He forwarded them to Chrysler’s Bill Brownlie, then a design chief with Dodge, who invited Ostiguy to Highland Park, Michigan for a behind-the-scenes tour of the Charger studio, where the new ’68 model was being finished.

Brownlie pointed Ostiguy to design schools in the U.S., singling out Pasadena, California’s renowned Art Center as the best (and most expensive by a wide margin). Ostiguy convinced his wealthy grandmother to foot the bill for the first year, while Chrysler picked up the rest of the tab and made him one of the first Canadians to attend what is now considered the world’s best automotive design school.

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Ostiguy plays chess in this undated photo (courtesy the Canada Science and Technology Museum)

Ostiguy was in his third year when noted designer Raymond Loewy, a member of Art Center’s advisory board, paid the school a visit; Citroën had tapped Loewy to style its CX, and he wanted a student on the project for outside perspective. Ostiguy, who recalled Loewy as dressed “like a toned-down Liberace,” greeted him in French, and, after plying him with some flattery, landed an interview, then the job, that afternoon.

Loewy put Ostiguy up in a hotel in Paris, France, near the studio where the car was being designed, but wasn’t around that much. At the end of the two-month project, Ostiguy sat in on Loewy’s presentation to Citroën’s execs.

“The odd thing was in America, he spoke English with a French accent; and although he is French, [in France] he made his presentation with a marked English accent, to impress upon them that he’s American,” Ostiguy said.

Like other well-known car designers, Loewy was not above taking credit for employees’ work. “He took what I had done and didn’t claim it as his own but said ‘mes collaborateurs [my collaborators] and I have come up with this’ and so on.”

In spring 1973, Ostiguy returned to Art Center for his final-year assignment, an internship with Chrysler under Plymouth’s Neil Walling. His first task was to come up with a decal package for a special California-market 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.”

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An advertisement for the 1975 Chrysler Cordoba, the front end of which Ostiguy restyled

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.

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. “Neil Walling had put us 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!’”

Chrysler’s ads for its Cordoba, featuring actor Ricardo Montalban, somehow made the phrase “soft, Corinthian leather”
part of the cultural zeitgeist of the ’70s

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 among the staff did watch his program.

Chrysler was ready to hire him upon graduation in 1974, but Ostiguy was wary, largely because of rumours the company faced bankruptcy. He went home instead, where a firm called Design Canada put him in touch with Yves Anselme Lapointe, design director at Bombardier’s Ski-Doo.

Ostiguy was itching to find work at another Detroit automaker, but took up Lapointe’s offer to visit Valcourt, Quebec in his Ski-Doo-yellow Porsche 914. The quaint, snow-covered town appealed to Ostiguy instantly, as did Lapointe’s laid-back attitude. He was impressed with Bombardier’s “Stanley Kubrick-esque” crisp, all-white offices, and how the modellers, most of them former cabinet-makers, worked in pinewood rather than sulphur-scented clay.

“I’m shown the presentation room, and I see those little machines, and I fall in love,” he said. “The simplicity, the quiet [of the town] – except for the riiin-in-in-in-yin! of the two-stroke snowmobile engines – it’s such a contrast [with Detroit] that I immediately forget about cars.”

Ostiguy took the job in February ’75, and worked with Lapointe to turn around Bombardier’s recession-driven sales lull (Ostiguy says the company had gone from around 500,000 units sold in ’71 to 16,000 in ’74). Mostly he sketched Lapointe’s new designs and translated his manager’s styling direction for the engineers.

“Sam [Lapointe] was quite explicit about what he wanted—he would get out a Playboy or a Hustler and say, ‘I want those tits on that Ski-Doo!’” Ostiguy recalls. “Well, you can’t go to engineering and say, ‘Sam wants tits.’ You’d say ‘He wants organic shapes, uh, maybe if we move these hood blisters together—’”

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The 1975 Ski-Doo product lineup; Ostiguy joined the company that year, but left less than two years later because he
couldn’t stand the office politics

Ostiguy was soon well-liked by a lot of people at Bombardier—except his boss Lapointe, who resented his popularity. Ostiguy left in late 1976 to get away from the tense office politics, but continued to do contract work for the company for decades, including design work for a Bombardier-Daihatsu microcar.

After leaving Bombardier, Ostiguy quickly pivoted into academia – teaching at Carleton and in the Université of Québec’s design department – but was frustrated with his colleagues’ lack of real-world experience. He referred to most professors there as “half-hippie, half-pseudo-intellectuals” intent on “saving the world” when they should have been explaining to students that designers are hired to help corporations sell products.

A visit to Carleton after his retirement confirmed his fears that the “pseudo-intellectuals” had taken over, Ostiguy said in 2009. “Fourth-year students were working on projects like a solar-powered slipper-heater [or] walkers for the elderly built from recycled cow-shit,” he ranted. “The future of design in Canada is next to nil because of them—they’re as dangerous as Ayatollah Khomeini.”

McGee had photographed most of the apartment’s rooms, and the diecast cars in them, when he began noticing a few trends and back-tracked on how “crazy” Ostiguy might have been. “All the models were metal, not plastic, with just a few exceptions,” he recalls.

“Almost every one of the models was a classic in some way, a car that had some design element that was regarded as unique, a turning point, or definitive for a model, a make, or an era.”

When he finally got to reviewing some of the professor’s drawings a few months later, McGee pieced together the puzzle: Ostiguy had been, for several decades, charting specific brands’ design DNA, breaking down styling elements and tracking models’ evolutions. Going off of the dates on his drawings, he may, in fact, have been among the first to thoroughly explore the concept, McGee says.

In pictures: Ostiguy’s diecast car collection

Though he made use of Bombardier’s archives to explore that brand’s design DNA, too, it doesn’t seem Ostiguy was carrying out this research for professional reasons—it was more of a hobby of sorts, McGee figures, albeit one bordering on obsession.

But just because Ostiguy wasn’t crazy doesn’t mean he wasn’t still odd. The man refused to touch computers – though he did let one student translate his drawings into digital renderings – and, when hired on a freelance design job, would need to do about a day’s worth of ranting about the shortcomings of modern car design before he could get any real work done.

“You just couldn’t leave him alone with any blank surface because he would draw on everything,” McGee was told by several of Ostiguy’s former students and friends. “Scrap cardboard, postcards—you couldn’t leave him in restaurants because he would draw on the tablecloth, and then neighbouring diners’ tablecloths, too.”

And the content of those drawings—Ostiguy sketched plenty of Chryslers in his off-hours, as you might expect, but Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs show up even more frequently in his notebooks (Ostiguy apparently also had aspirations to work for Mazda, McGee says).

For every professional-looking rendering in his portfolio, there were two or three loose line drawings of curious-looking concept cars, often driven by a suave-looking character in sunglasses it’s apparent was supposed to be a stand-in for Ostiguy himself.

In pictures: the work of Jacques Ostiguy

The margins are filled with notes dissecting each design, sometimes in blank, academic terms, but more often in the form of half-sensical diatribes: one introduced a prototype “Pontiac Pussy-Galore” inspired by his cat Lou-Lou; another a “playboy commuter with explicit biomorphic dezoing” that makes few pretenses about its being shaped like various parts of the female anatomy.

It’s safe to say Ostiguy, likely as a result of his strict religious schooling, probably had some hang-ups about, and perhaps a preoccupation with, sex. One former student of his told McGee she quickly learned “if you were a woman, you could never stand in front of him and talk to him straight to his face—you had to go and stand beside him and have the conversation.”

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One of dozens of rough sketches of Ostiguy’s obtained by the Canada Science and Technology Museum; the tone and
wording of the notes surrounding the car in the drawing was apparently pretty typical of his private work

While the Canada Science and Technology Museum’s doors are closed for now, McGee is still figuring out how exactly to incorporate the not-easily-explained Ostiguy – and his model cars, and his drawings – in future exhibits.

All he knows for sure is that he has to have his work put on display somehow, that someone that was able to wrap their head around a concept like automotive design DNA in the way that Ostiguy did deserves recognition.

Ostiguy may have been over-reacting when he cast the future of Canadian design in doubt, but he was right about how it’s definitely changed. And we’re pretty sure it’s never going to see a French-Canadian as eccentric as Jacques S. Ostiguy again.