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The BMW Art Car project: Art of Speed

The BMW Art Car project is a remarkable collection of modern works by the likes of Warhol, Hockney and Lichtenstein. But where to find them? 

Sometimes the best things in life happen by accident. It was back in 1975 that the well-connected French auctioneer and racing driver Hervé Poulain decided to invite an artist to use his car as a canvas. He commissioned his friend, American artist Alexander Calder, to paint a BMW 3.0 CSL ‘Batmobile’ that Poulain himself was to race in that year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The red, orange and blue machine looked stunning but, alas, retired from the race early with drive-shaft problems and was never raced again. It also proved to be Calder’s last major work, as he died the following year.

From these inauspicious beginnings grew the remarkable BMW Art Car project. The official BMW line is that, in the beginning, the cars were simply unusually painted racing cars and there was little or no public relations programme built around them. But that changed as some of the world’s best known artists – Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and David Hockney – started painting the latest BMWs.

Today the Art Cars – 18 official examples have been created so far – are very much part of BMW’s promotional effort. They are used in adverts and displayed at exhibitions to underline BMW’s involvement as a major sponsor of the arts. And they are still raced.

Although the original Calder car had a less than successful time at Le Mans, Poulain drove a BMW 320i painted by Lichtenstein to second in class in the 1977 epic, and he also managed sixth overall and second in class in the Warhol-painted BMW M1 in 1979.

Bearing in mind that motor racing is sometimes a contact sport, Warhol also painted several extra bumpers and body panels just in case. His M1 was the fourth Art Car but unlike the three who went before him, Warhol didn’t use a model car to practise on first. Instead, he went straight for the real thing. It is said it took him just 23 minutes to finish the job.

What might have been the most successful BMW Art Car of all – in racing terms – was the 1999 V12 LMR, a sports prototype built by BMW and Williams Grand Prix Engineering. Three cars were involved in that year’s race, one of which was worked on by neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer. Although it appeared at the traditional Le Mans test a month or so before the race, it was dropped from the 24 Hours itself. The event was won by another, conventionally stickered, V12 LMR – the only time BMW has taken outright honours at Le Mans.

If an unofficial Art Car was worth around £700,000 six years ago, what does that make an official one worth today? That’s an impossible question to answer – each one is priceless. Besides, they’re not for sale.

The tradition continues today. The latest Art Car, an M6 GTLM painted by John Baldessari, is due to make its race debut in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona on 28 January.

Not all the Art Cars have made it to the race tracks, however. A comparatively sedate 7-Series saloon was finished by African artist Esther Mahlangu in 1991. Her bold geometric patterns and colours were influenced by the clothing and jewellery of the Ndebele people of South Africa, and the car is currently on display in the British Museum as part of its South Africa: the Art of a Nation exhibition, which closes on 26 February.

The other Art Cars are no strangers to exhibitions either. BMW regularly gathers them together and sets them off on countrywide tours: the Institute of Contemporary Arts displayed a selection of the vehicles in a Shoreditch car park as part of the London 2012 Festival under the title Art Drive!.

To confuse issues somewhat, there are several unofficial BMW Art Cars, too. The German artist and graphic designer Walter Maurer, who assisted Andy Warhol and Frank Stella on their art cars, created his own collection in collaboration with BMW.

Stella also bucked the trend when he went on to decorate a BMW M1 Procar outside of the Art Car programme, the only person to have an official and unofficial version. His original car, a 1976 ‘Batmobile’, has a wonderful graph paper design that becomes “interesting when morphed over the car’s form”, said the artist when it was revealed.

Stella’s unofficial car was commissioned in 1979 by American racer Peter Gregg and formed part of Stella’s Polar Coordinates suite of works, commemorating his friend, Swedish racing driver Ronnie Peterson who died in an accident at the start of the 1978 Italian Grand Prix. The car was sold by Gregg’s widow in 1990 and donated to the Guggenheim Museum in 1999. It was then sold, in 2011, at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance auction for $854,000 to Jonathan Sobel, an art and car collector who also happens to be a BMW dealer.

If an unofficial Art Car was worth around £700,000 six years ago, what does that make an official one worth today? That’s an impossible question to answer – each one is priceless. Besides, they’re not for sale.

“They are a collection and won’t be split,” said a BMW spokesperson. “But if you look at the stature of the artists involved in the programme, it’s easy to see why putting a value of them is virtually impossible.”

If you’re in the market to invest in Art Cars, the only way to do it is to find some of the models produced by Minichamps for BMW in around 2005. But even that is easier said than done. The 1:18 scale miniatures were made in comparatively small numbers. The early cars were produced in runs of 3,000 while some of the later cars, notably the Jeff Koons 2010 BMW M3 GT2, have a run of 5,000.

They’re pricey now. An American model car dealer is currently advertising the BMW 535i Matazo Kayama Art Car at an eBay buy-it-now price of more than £300, while another collector is selling a boxed example of the Andy Warhol M1 at almost £750. Not bad for a toy car.