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40 Years of BMW Art Cars

A canvas for creativity for the world’s foremost artists.

Lake Como, Italy -- Forty years ago, art dealer Hervé Poulain not only persuaded BMW to let him drive a 3.0 CSL in the 1975 24 Hours of Le Mans, but he also talked the automaker into it being painted by American artist Alexander Calder, better known for his whimsical mobile sculptures than for using 480-horsepower race cars as a canvas. Poulain's clever proposal to transform the CSL into rolling art set the stage for what unexpectedly became a series of vehicles now known as the BMW Art Cars. And as we looked over five of our favorites at the Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este on the shores of Lake Como in Italy, we saw past the clever marketing ploy and instead reflected on the powerful cultural force that Art Cars has become.

Poulain hatched his plan in the midst of the oil crisis of the 1970s, when public opinion had largely turned against automobiles and racing. "In the 20th century, the car was a mythic object," the Frenchman told us. "And then the power of the myth decreased more and more in the 1970s. Artists were attacking the car in their paintings because it was the object of a consumer society."

Working with Jochen Neerpasch, BMW's first motorsports director, and Horst Avenarius, BMW's senior vice president of corporate affairs, Poulain commissioned his friend Calder to paint the CSL in the artist's signature palette of primary colors. As Avenarius later recalled in "Jochen Neerpasch: Denker und Lenker des Motorsports" ("Thinkers and Leaders of Motorsports"): "Unusual groups of visitors came to Neerpasch's place in the paddock, so that it began to resemble a gallery opening. Art dealers and critics mixed with stray fans of the brand. ... [They were] unique examples of the interaction between the arts and the automobile."

Together Poulain and Neerpasch understood that cars painted by artists could not only revive interest in racing but could also be used as a tool to boost brand awareness. Indeed, Neerpasch was no stranger to motorsports marketing, as he was the first to suggest selling BMW-branded merchandise to race fans, now a huge revenue source for the automaker.

After the Calder 3.0 CSL, two more Art Cars followed in rapid succession. Frank Stella was commissioned in 1976 to create the livery for another 3.0 CSL that incorporated gridlines of graph paper and curves meant to represent drafting tools. Next came Roy Lichtenstein's BMW 320i in 1977, with his trademark comic-book-style Ben-Day dots. One rule applied: Designs could not interfere with racing regulations. "For me, it was very important to have the artists involved not only with the car but with the action [movement] of the car," Neerpasch said.

In 1979, Andy Warhol painted a BMW M1. With the previous Art Cars, artists created their designs on scale models, which were then transferred to the vehicle by another artisan. But Warhol, after submitting two scale models that BMW rejected, showed up at the studio and proceeded to paint the M1 freehand in 23 minutes.

BMW's collection currently has 17 Art Cars, the most recent of which is a 2010 M3 GT2 painted by Jeff Koons. To the untrained eye, the design scheme can appear to be a dynamic but innocuous burst of color that runs the length of the car. But we've been told that other interpretations suggest something else, a seminal explosion that begins at the rear and culminates in a single, tailed droplet that seems to penetrate the BMW roundel.

As we walked the grounds of Villa Erba, where the Art Cars were displayed during the concours, rumors of the next Art Car were percolating, with some at BMW hinting at an announcement before the end of this year. Poulain and Neerpasch remain insistent that any future car should return to its racing roots. "I would love to come back to the racetrack and to come back to the original idea," Neerpasch said.

We think the most logical canvas would be the forth­coming BMW M6 GT3, which is due to replace the current Z4 GT3 in sports car racing in 2016. When we asked about the next Art Car, Neerpasch told us, "The only wish I have is that the next Art Car should compete at a race as important as Le Mans."

There are those who still see in the BMW Art Cars only a marketing gimmick, but we see something more, as one always does in art. When you consider the plight of the automobile in the 1970s and the status of the automobile today, you can see that almost every car manufacturer is now trying to build art, not transportation. And it was Hervé Poulain and Jochen Neerpasch who saw the future in 1975. As Poulain confided to us, "Jochen and I gave back the notion that the beauty of the car itself is a sales argument."

Modern Art: The BMW CSL Hommage Concept

"For now, at least, it's only a design exercise," says Karim Habib, the BMW brand's chief designer. Then he adds with a broad smile, "But of course we would be delighted to take it to the next level."

Like almost all BMW concept cars, the CSL Hommage is a runner. True, the only location where we're allowed to run this unregistered, hand-built coupe is Villa Erba, next door to the site of the BMW-sponsored Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este, where the car will debut. And since it's just eight hours before the debut, the speed will be limited by hand signals (occasionally frantic) from our BMW nanny.

Despite these restrictions, the first encounter with this stunning reinvention of the BMW coupe of the early 1970s earns 10 points out of 10 on my personal show-car hit scale. When the six-cylinder engine fires up, the single-outlet exhaust nestled within the rocker sill on the passenger side of the car tattoos the pavement. It's a totally addictive noise: vibrant, impatient, and loud. Very loud. This twin-turbo engine with electric powertrain boost—said to be 500 hp altogether—sounds like something you'd expect to hear at full cry on the Nürburgring Nordschleife.

The BMW 3.0 CSL Hommage harkens to the 1968-1975 BMW E9 CS. The CSL (coupe, sport, lightweight) appeared in May 1972 as what became known as the Batmobile, a winged, limited-production homologation special for a racing program. The CSL featured lots of aluminum to reduce weight, but 40 years later carbon fiber is the material of choice for the Hommage. A carbon-fiber aero splitter gives way to a low-flying cooling inlet beneath the twin-nostril grille, while carbon-fiber fender blisters shroud 265/35R-21 tires in front and 325/30R-21 tires in the rear. There's a ring-type foil at the rear of the roof to reduce aero turbulence, while the rear wing is designed to make the most of the cleaned-up airflow to produce downforce.

Our driving pace is slow to protect the virginal bodywork in Golf Yellow, one of the five original CS colors. After all, one stab at the throttle is all it takes to make this beast growl and leap forward, and the car rides so low that mice would have to duck to get out of the way. It all comes to an end after an hour of photography, as this modified BMW 4 Series begins to percolate in the heat of Italy, and the car emits its own eau mechanique, a scent composed of fresh paint, polish, glue, and unspecified lubricants.

We're completely in love with this semi-retro work of art designed by Joji Nagashima (exterior), Doeke de Walle (interior), and Patrick McCormack (color and trim), naming only three of the eight designers involved in this project. C'mon, suits in the BMW boardroom, build some more!

-- Georg Kacher

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