The BMW Art Cars: Part 1, The 1970s

The start of a legendary series


Back in 2012 the DSC Editor still had a day job, and towards the end of that period along came the Summer Olympic Games in London, which brought with it a cultural programme across the UK Capital, and that programme featured one event which caught the eye!

The DSC Ed has been deeply immersed in the logistics that support the London 2012 Olympic Games and whilst that has meant that, for instance, he missed the Spa 24 Hours for the first time since 2001 this year it also led to one or two opportunities to experience some of the huge numbers of events that accompanied the global show that is the Olympics.

In a spare 45 minutes, I decided to make my way down to an old, partly disused car park in the East End, “Why?” I hear you ask!!

Well, I’ll tell you! Because the ‘brutalist’ surroundings of the Great Eastern Car Park were host to a display of some of the most famous mobile works of art in the world, BMW was a major corporate sponsor of the London Games and they, in conjunction with the Institute of contemporary arts, have put on a free exhibition of 16 of the infamous ‘Art Cars’ a line that stretches back to the 1970s and has its roots firmly in endurance racing.

Here’s the first of three stories covering the 16 cars in the London exhibition, with apologies for some pretty ropey Editorial photography and for use of some rather flowery art critique. If you are in London during the Games do try to get along and see this, it’s well worth an hour of your time.

Car #1: BMW 3.0 CSL, Alexander Calder

The first time a BMW was transformed into a work of art was 1975.

Alexander Calder was inspired by the French auctioneer and racing driver, Hervé Poulain, to produce the first-ever BMW Art Car. The US artist only used primary colours and distributed them in broad swathes across the paintwork of the BMW 3.0 CSL.

The use of differing colours within the individual elements of the car’s structure adds to the illusion of movement within the picture as a whole.

Back then the fact that a car was being presented as a work of art was a sensation in itself. The greater sensation was that the car was entered and raced in the 1975 Le Mans 24 hours, Poulain shared the drive with Sam Posey and Jean Guichet and despite the car posting a retirement it set the scene for a series of Art Cars that continues to this day. Sadly the world’s first BMW Art Car was also one of Calder’s last works of art as he died the same year it was unveiled.

Car #2: BMW 3.0 CSL, Frank Stella

In 1976 the series continued with a second 3.0 CSL, and again the car was entered for the Le Mans 24 Hours with Brian Redman and Peter Gregg joining Herve Poulain, despite a second DNF the car was a smash hit with a very distinctive, ‘graph paper’ design from Frank Stella.

Cut-out lines all over the bodywork intensify the geometric look of the car.

Explaining the thinking behind his high-speed work of art, Frank Stella, born in 1936 said, ‘My design is a kind of blueprint applied to the entire body of the car’. It’s a stunning overall effect, one of the DSC Ed’s favourites of the whole collection.

Car #3: BMW 320 Gp5, Roy Lichtenstein

Car Three by renowned ‘pop’ artist Roy Lichtenstein is one of the most popular of all the Art Cars; the BMW 320 Group 5.

The artist had this to say on the fruit of his labours: ‘I invested as much thought and effort as possible’. Undeniably! The result of these efforts is a harmonious combination of the aerodynamics in the bodywork with the aesthetics of his art; after all, it is one of the fastest moving pieces of art the world has ever seen.

Lichtenstein’s famous comic strip style is reflected in the paintwork. ‘The painted lines symbolise the road the car has to follow and the artwork also portrays the surroundings through which the car is being driven’.

Again overall the effect is stunning and must have been all the more so over 30 years ago. The car was entered at Le Mans once again, Herve Poulain joined by Marcel Mignot, and came home in a stunning ninth overall!

Car #4: BMW M1, Andy Warhol

Car number 4 is the car that for many embodies the whole Art Car programme. It helps of course that the subject matter this time was such a stunning car in the first place, the BMW M1 was already a thing of beauty.

Andy Warhol was the artist for this 1979 creation and the world famous artist even took responsibility for transferring the smaller scale design to the actual bodywork himself with only the aid of his assistant. Warhol explained the bold, bright and lucid brush and finger strokes on the Art Car BMW M1 thus: ‘I tried to portray a sense of speed. When a car is going really fast all the lines and colours become a blur’.

The finish is rather less than factory fresh but that’s part of the beauty of this, it’s bright, it’s rough, it’s a REAL artwork!

The car was entered for the 1979 Le Mans 24 Hours, Hervé Poulain and Marcel Mignot returned, joined by none other than Manfred Winkelhock and the trio came home with a fine result, 6th overall and second in class.