BMW Art cars

The BMW Art Car Project was introduced by the French race car driver and auctioneer Hervé Poulain, who wanted to invite an artist to create a canvas on an automobile. The logic was sound enough, to enhance the image, the reputation, the visibility of the brand – there was no denying that BMW wanted to achieve this, but by offering a connection with culture with cars; the beauty of speed and the artistic expression of the medium struck a chord with the public, and the project has resulted in 19 cars to date, with 16 documented here.

In July 2012 a selection of the cars were presented by the Institute of Contemporary Arts in a Shoreditch car park as part of the London 2012 Festival, entitled Art Drive! As a fan of both modern Art and cars, this opportunity to see all of the cars in one spot was potentially a once in a lifetime opportunity, so Reallyloud made an early start and headed towards the city.

The first car in the series was painted by American Alexander Calder. Calder was a multi-displined artist who focused on sculptures, but became known for his creation of jewellery and the painting of civil DC-8 aircraft which led him to being commissioned by BMW. Calder painted the 480bhp race car in 1975 which then participated in the 24 hour Le man event. A prop shaft failure took the car off the track, seven hours into the race. It was never raced again.

1,265 of the homologation special 3.0 CSL were built, with an impressive 500 RHD cars imported into the UK. 


 The full aero package earned the racing CSL the nickname Batmobile

The rear wings were not installed at the factory, but were left in the boot for installation after purchase. This was done because the wings were illegal for use on German roads.

Bright primary colours dominate large areas of the bodywork. There is a notable corrolation with his sculpture work and the sweeping floating panes of colour on the car. The commission was one of Calders last works.

The second car in the series was commission in the following year, with another 3.0 CSL. This time it was given to minimalism painter Frank Stella. Known for his interest towards representing his work as a flat piece rather than any form of abstract expressionism, the car also made it to the 24 hour Le Man circuit.

However, unlike Calders brightly coloured car, Stella took a more graphical ordered approach, using grid lines similar to graph paper. This geometric approach to surfacing on the white bodywork flattens the curves and contours and highlights perspective.

Stella devised a black and white design based on oversize graph paper. Cut-out lines all over the bodywork intensify the geometric look of the car.

“My design is like a blueprint transferred to the bodywork.”
— Frank Stella

Stella was already a motor racing fan, so understood the dynamics, emotion and technical aspects of the sport, which influenced the final outcome of the design.

The secondary thicker lines breaks up the repetitive grids, which would be indistinguishable at speed. Stella said that no over-interpretation should be taken from his artwork on the car, it’s asthetic value has more merit than any abstract concept.

The grid work ‘graph paper’ style is a common theme on his other work of the period.

Stellas 3.0 CSL was raced at the 24 hour Le Mans event in 1976, and was expected to be entered into Manufacturer’s World Championship event by F1 legend Ronnie Peterson, but unfortuntely Peterson was killed in 1978.

More powerful than the first BMW Art car, the 3210cc turbo charged car produced an outstanding 750 bhp, and was capable of reaching 210 mph.

Roy Lichtenstein was a leading founder of the American Pop Art movment, called due to its rejection of elitest confines and embracing of imagery from popular culture such as advertising, comics books and mundane mass-produced cultural objects. This aligns the movement perfectly to BMW’s Art car remit and the third racing car installation, this time the newly introduced E21 Group 5 BMW 320i was eagly anticipated, given Lichtensteins household name.

“The design also shows the countryside through which the car has travelled

Lichtensteins bold lines, patterns and colours could be considered the more accessible decorations to relate to, the swirls, colours and textures reflect a moving car, with his comic book influenced ‘Benday Dots’ relating to past work in his comic book style paintings.

Deeper analysis of the patterns illustrate the journey and environment the car has to follow. Speed lines and observations of a road journey are easy to pick out.

Car number three in the BMW Art series was unveiled in 1977, and again with Poulain driving it achieved the best result of the Art Cars, and finished 9th in the 24 hour Le Mans race in that year.

Power output was lower than the previous cars, the baby BMW is still a fully fledged racing car and powered by a Formula 2 racing engine.

Nicknamed the Flying Brick in reference to the blocky bodyshape, the E21 had a reasonably successful racing career.

The success of the Lichtenstein car’s racing and artistic attributes helped place the project into the media, and opened the path to capturing one of the best known living artists of the 70’s.

Andy Warhol, like Lichtenstien, was a leading figure in the visual art movement known as Pop Art. His works, which cover a remarkable spread of mediums had established himself in the 50’s and 60’s as an artistic pioneer. After a very successful period, he spent much of the 70’s focusing on portrait commissions, making the most of his success in a more entrepreneurial fashion. Having been made aware of the BMW Art Cars project, it was announced that Warhol would be allowed to paint BMW’s halo project, the M1 in 1979.

Following Lichtensteins ordered and precise markings of motion, Warhol also used the speed theme but took a different approach to painting the car. While the three previous artists all painted on 1/4 scale models, and then painted on the real car by assistants, Warhol actually applied the paint on the full sized car himself.

The inprecise blurring, the movement and bleed of colour took him just 30 minutes to complete – the spontanious nature, and instant impressions may look like unregulated daubs of paint but the effect is surprisingly coherant.

Considered the most valuable BMW Art Car, as only 399 road going models and 53 were race cars were produced, instantly making it a collectable asset the moment it left the factory. Add in the Warhol paint work, and you have something that utterly unique. The car was raced once, again at the Le Mans 24 hour event in 1979. It finished in 6th place.

After the collosal impact of Warhol and the BMW M1, the Art Car series toned down the racing aspect and utilised a mass production car and for the first time to use an European artist. Ernst Fuchs, another multi-displined artist who was prolific by his works in music and poetry as well as painting. He also approached the project in a different manner, utilising artistic freedom in using emotions in the form of fear as a subject on the 1982 BMW 635 CSi.

Fuchs abstract inspiration is based on a representation of a hare racing across a motorway at night and leaping over a burning car – a conceptual sensation of speed.

The car is a standard production model, which at the time represented the top of the range of the 6 series.

B MW Art Car number six, is another BMW 635CSi, sourced not from Germany but an American spec model. Robert Rauschenberg treatment of the car marks another departure for the ongoing project, instead of using paint to portray the dynamics and movement of the car, Rauschenberg has focused on using photographic techniques. Also known for his early involvement in ‘Pop Art’ his interest in abstract expressionism and collage helped develop a subtle yet thoughtful impression the 1986 BMW CSi.

Using the car as four distinct canvas, he applied a 19th Century French Neo-Classical painter Ingres painting works on the left side of the car.

On the right hand side, used both his own Everglades swamp grass imagery combined with Italian Mannerists paintings by Bronzino.

The grass and trees conveys an environmental concern, which was the first BMW Art Car to deliver such a message.

The last canvas are the hubcaps, which are photographs of antique plates. The car was to be the last of the series with direct involvement with Pop Art.

The car made its first appearance in 1986 at the BMW Gallery in New York and made an appearance in Europe two years later.

L earning from the side step from the original Pop Art influenced cars, BMW commissioned an Austrailian artist, Michael Jagamara Nelson to widen the appeal towards a global audience. His influences have come from the Western Desert Art Movement, known as a collective called Papunya Tula. As an indigenous Austrialian, Nelson was clear on his task painting the first of two 1989 E30 BMW M3s. Nelsons work may appear as random geometric shapes and patterns, but in tradition of Australian mythology, are actual physical creatures from the desert.

Papunya paintings are deeply threaded into symbolism, its cultural roots are passed to each generation of indigenous Austrialians, while provided a source of inspiration for the future.

While the Art is a step into a whole new direction, the racing aspect returned with the iconic M3. The Motorsport division of BMW Australia were instrumental in the project and the car was entered in several domestic competitions.

T he second E30 M3 BMW was also offered to another Austrialian artist in 1989. While Nelsons car was rooted deep into historic symbolism of the country, Ken Done straight from become the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 1988, was commissioned to paint the car echoing the original cars relation to speed and environment. As an accomplished designer and artist, Done wanted to protray countries sunny and friendly outlook as his theme.

Adorn with bright colours symoblising Austrialias beach landscapes, this fun intrpration also includes abstract visuals of birds and fish, both like the M3, move at high speeds.

Like Nelsons car is was competively raced in the same season, although it only appeared once on the racetrack and like all the BMW Art cars, now lead charmed lives.

The E30 M3 was produced in two distinctive specs, the Euro spec and the American spec. All of the Austrialian imports were Euro Spec cars, and race prepared versions won 4 different race championships in Australia.

A rt is an international global interest, so for the 9th Art car, a well respected Japanese artist, Matazo Kayama, was asked to participate in furnishing a 1990 BMW 535i. As a mixed technique artist, Kayama used his skills and influences as a talented artist with the ability to produce works that give the impression of both painting and photographs, he used metalcut and foilprinting as well as airbrushing to use the car as a static canvas.

Kayama titled the piece ‘Snow, Moon and Flowers’. Due to its intricate use of small pieces of silver, gold and aluminum foil then car is very much a static piece and therefore needs to be stored in controlled conditions, and certainly not driven!

Kayama involvement in the BMW Art cars helped the brand exert a more dominant presence in Japan.

The dark settings of the car park doesn’t highlight the luminescence of the piece. The artist struggled with visualising how the finished piece might end up, as the 3d canvas is deceptively difficult to work out where light and contours fall.

T he first European artist for the BMW Art project, this is César Manrique unmistakable vision on a 1990 BMW 730i. The first impressions are unmistakenly influence by influential Spanish painters of the past. As an architect, graphic designer, sculptor and landscape designer, Manrique used his disiplines to feature rolling, sweeping lines and lively colors, cutting through a fast moving environment with elegance and grace.

Manrique is another artist who was interested in the impact of the car and the environment, focusing this commision on the connection between culture and nature.

The artist said he had tried “to unite the notions of speed and aerodynamics with the concept of aesthetic appeal in one and the same object.”

Another standard production car, this is the first 7 Series executive saloon to be used for the series, it’s large areas of flat panel work helping to create the effortless impression of the car gliding through travel.

The bright hues convey a feeling of attraction and fun, without distracting from the asthetic element of Manriques underlining message. The car plays a role as an everyday object, yet has a clear link with the colours of nature.

G erman painter A.R. Penck bold, yet simple application of black on a red car is far more challenging that meets the eye, with the abstract symbols and images acting as ciphers to be decoded. As a self taught artist, he combined his interest in mathematics and cybernetics to help convey how art relates to a solid object.

Based on the 1991 BMW Z1, it is another limited run car with around 8,000 units produced.

Manrique was also keen to celebrate the creativity of the engineers and designers who have expressed the freedom and joy of the car.

W while it is noted that the 12th Art car was given to a South African female artist, consideration should also be accredited that the tribal art used was exposed to such a broad audience. Mahlangu used traditional Ndebele tribal art, which was traditionally carried out by women of the tribes on their homes. The significance and meaning is rooted far back into time, which successfully connects the graceful proportions of the 1991 BMW 525i to an ancient tradition harking back to the 18th century.

The colours have symbolic meaning and use a complex system of tradition and creation, often conveying a message of news, intent or in some cases protest.

The pink patterns are one of the most important aspects, with the other four colours representing messages that could be considered a coded reference to tribes people.

The results are highly cohesive, with the linear patterns and lines perfectly matching the cars robust styling.

F or the 13th car, the ordered lines and straightforward symbolism of the previous car has been replaced by more confrontational insular look at society. Sandro Chia is an Italian painter known for his conceptional pieces, but started to develop expressionist yet figurative pieces. The piece reflects is youth, as he would draw graffiti on cars as a way of expressing his thoughts as mirror.

Taken as a more light hearted approch than previous BMW Art cars, it still portays a message for society, the desire of cars and the constant demand and the need for harmony.

The car used is a 1992 BMW 3 Series, but a specific racing prototype version. It was not thought to have been raced in competition, maintaining the more recent cars status’ as works of art rather than visual experiements in motor racing.

T he highly influential British artist David Hockney used a BMW Art car to add to his considerable portfolio in 1995. As a major player in the Pop Art movement, his commonly recognised works absorbed 60’s Americana, with its aspiration positivity. His approaching, using a 1995 BMW 850i as his canvas, was to reflect attention on people and their environment, observing the internal elements of the car.

There are elements on the bonnet that represent the engine, as well as a driver and his pet dachshund.

The green elements represent the travelling aspect of the car, experiencing landscapes. Hockney clearly had a lot of fun painting the car, but also admitted to ‘destroying the car’ depsite being an avid driver.

I n a dramatic return back to its Motorsporting roots, the 15th car in the series is certainly a change to the norm. The starkness in its functionality suits the message that Jenny Holzer had seeked to deliver. Holzers speciality is difficult to define, as she delivers her medium of communication through complex installations as well as traditional mediums. Revelling in uncertainties and contradictions with her experience with the car she has clearly understood the importance of using a race track car.

‘Protect me from what I want’ is the message, a message from her decidedly anti-capitalist manifesto.

The BMW V12 Le Mans Roadster carries six messages altogether;

Protect me from what I want
The unattainable is invariably attractive
You are so complex you don’t respond to danger
Lack of charisma can be fatal
Monomania is a prerequisite of success
What urge will save us now that sex won’t?

The V12 powered car, made with Williams collaboration took part in the pre-qualifying race, and another car won the 24-hours Sarthe marathon.

T his is sadly the final car that appeared in the 2012 London display, there have 19 cars to date, with three cars; Olafur Eliasson 2007 Hydogen powered H2R, John Baldessari 2016 BMW M6 GTLM and Cao Fei 2017 BMW M6 GT3 missing from this round up. However car 17, offers a climatic close to Reallylouds series of BMW Art cars.

Jeff Koons’ work is instantly recognisable, with his devisive popular culture pieces. However his application of the 2010 BMW M3 GT2 suited his conceptional remit. Koons has captured a spirit of vibrant colors, speed and explosions, which instils a dynamism that was perfect for the race bred car.

A sence of power, motion and bursting energy is clearly conveyed on the car, and successfully connects to the power of the BMW.

Working very closely with the BMW race development team, Koons utilisedc3-D computer-aided design (CAD) to observe dynamics and airflow traits to help accomplish his vision.

Furthermore Koons experienced first hand of the power and “the raw unfiltered performance” of the race car, as well as driving a road going M3 on a circuit as a dynamic exercise. Digital print on car wrapping was used, due to the narrow time constraints.

Lumps resembling lava represent the power of the car, with the swirls of lines decipting the aesthetics of power.

The car, naturally, competed in the 2010 24 hour Le Mans race. The car bears the racing number 79 – a tribute to the Andy Warhol BMW M1 in 1979.