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Exclusive Interview: 40 Years of the BMW Art Car

BMWs as artistic expression.

The first BMW Art Car was conceived 40 years ago by French-born art dealer and race-car driver Herve Poulain, who was working at the time with BMW motorsports director Jochen Neerpasch and others at the brand. Poulain convinced BMW to let him commission the late American pop artist Alexander Calder -- best known for his whimsical "mobile" kinetic sculptures -- to paint a race-prepped BMW 3.0 CSL with 480 horsepower in the artist's signature palette of primary colors.

Poulain would later campaign the car at the 1975 running of 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the resulting attention Calder's creation garnered from the outside world would eventually spur BMW to create a series of 17 cars over the next four decades. Several renowned artists, including Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Jeff Koons, have made a BMW their canvas.

As part of a 40th anniversary celebration of the first Art Car, Poulain and Neerpasch made a special appearance at this year's Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este in Lake Como, Italy. They were accompanied by a selection of five Art Cars, including the Calder car that started it all. In an exclusive interview, AUTOMOBILE magazine talked with both men about the legacy of the BMW Art Car program.

AM: Why ask an artist to paint a race car?

Herve Poulain: In the 20th century, the car was a mythic object. And then the myth in the '70s decreased more and more. People didn't even dare to drive their cars on the highway because they were perceived as bad citizens. That myth was falling apart and we … wanted to revive the myth, we wanted to give it a cry of hope.

Jochen Neerpasch: The first thing I thought was, why should a painter paint the car? Because there are very strict regulations in motorsport: Form follows function. And when I got the message that it was Alexander Calder … I thought that this could be an idea that could happen.

AM: How did the Art Car program change that perception?

HP: In the '70s, the models were trivialized. A new model would come out of the factory, you would park the car nearby, and you wouldn't even see it. And then (with the Art Car concept), Jochen and I gave back the notion that the beauty of the car itself is a sales argument.

JN: This was a complete program; it was not only to design the car. It was the whole program to see the car racing in competition at what I would say is the most important race in the world, 24 Hours of Le Mans. So this was art happening.

AM: Clearly the initial focus was on racing. After the first four Art Cars, BMW primarily moved away from race cars and used production cars. Was that a mistake?

JN: No, certainly not … but I would love to come back to the racetrack and to come back to the original idea.

HP: Me too.

AM: We hear a new Art Car is in the works. What's on your wish list for the next one?

HP: It's a modest but a big wish that we have the pilot's name on the car. It's not artwork for museums. … They had a life, and we need to respect that.

JN: The only wish I have is that the next Art Car should race at a race as important as Le Mans, if it is not Le Mans.