In 1975, French race car driver and auctioneer Hervé Poulain had an idea. What if the finest vehicles in the world, he thought, could be turned into canvases? What if some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century were invited to transform automobiles into one-of-a-kind works of art?
Poulain approached sculptor Alexander Calder, a friend of his, and commissioned him to transform a BMW 3.0 CSL into a moving piece of art. This car would not simply be for show; Poulain had grand plans, which involved the unveiling of the BMW at the 1975 Le Mans endurance race, where he would drive it himself. While the vehicle suffered technical issues and never did finish the race — or race again, for that matter — history was made. Calder would pass away the following year, making the brightly coloured BMW his final work. But in the wake of his death, something else was born: the BMW Art Car would not be a one-off, but a yearly tradition.
Over the years, the biggest names of the art world have been approached to put their own unique spin on the project. 19 BMW Art Cars have been produced, first appearing annually and then once every few years (with the exception of 1989–1991, a period during which the project produced two cars each year). Below we take a look at our favourite creations from a long list of entries. From the famous American icons to the international rock stars of the art world, these artists have created some truly stunning sports cars.
Frank Stella (1976 BMW 3.0 CSL)
American artist Frank Stella created the second BMW Art Car. Needless to say, living up to the international sensation of the first would be no small feat, and Stella answered with a car that was seemingly a polar opposite of Calder’s primary colours. Stella’s black and white BMW is inspired by graph paper, and the artist has likened it to a sort of oversized blueprint overtaking the entire body. It’s a departure from some of his brighter work in the 1970s, and one that works perfectly.
Esther Mahlangu (1991 BMW 525i)
South African artist Esther Mahlangu was the first woman to participate in the BMW Art Car project. Her vehicle pays homage to her Ndebele heritage, drawing inspiration from the colourful, often geometric patterns found in Ndebele textiles and jewellery. We love that the colour palette is also so quintessentially ’90s (remember those bright windbreakers?).
Robert Rauschenberg (1986 BMW 635 CSi)
American painter and graphic artist Robert Rauschenberg was a Neo Dadaist known for his penchant for challenging the line between art and life. He was a natural choice, then, for the BMW Art Car project, and his entry doesn’t disappoint. Perhaps more than any other Art Car, his vehicle plays with the idea of traditional art and flaunts the juxtaposition between the classic material and the contemporary canvas. The first artist to use photographic material for an Art Car, Rauschenberg combined his own images of the Everglades with the works of Bronzino.
Cao Fei (2017 BMW M6 GT3)
Cao Fei’s BMW is the most recent addition to the project and also undeniably the coolest. The Chinese multimedia artist (who also happens to be the youngest of the cohort) created a vehicle that uses video and augmented reality, while presenting the BMW itself in a matte black reminiscent of its carbon fibre frame. This vehicle pays tribute to Fei’s Asian heritage and its ancient spiritual wisdom, presenting the world with both a car and an experience, wherein the environment around the car is just as important as its structure.
Roy Lichtenstein (1977 BMW 320i Group 5 Race Version)
One of the most iconic Art Cars of the entire series, Lichtenstein’s vehicle is exactly what one might expect from an artist commonly regarded as the father of pop art. In his signature dotted, comic strip style, Lichtenstein developed his vision based on the view from inside the car. Observing it from the outside, one sees what a driver often sees: the landscape, the sun hanging low over the horizon line, and roadways, the latter of which are represented by those dotted strips.
Andy Warhol (1979 BMW M1 Group 4 Race Version)
Perhaps the star of the collection, Warhol’s name has as much to do with the car’s fame as the vehicle itself. Designed less than a decade before the artist’s death, this vehicle, like most of Warhol’s work, challenges public perceptions of art. In creating it, he reduced the idea of artwork to its most clichéd form, and this BMW M1 is covered with brush strokes and fingerprints (he was the first BMW Art Car artist, in fact, to paint everything himself). Hervé Poulain sat behind the wheel of this car that year at 24 Hours of Le Mans. It finished in sixth, but undoubtedly stole the show.