Painted to the road

For a brief period, national colours and sponsor logos were supplanted on the racetrack by high-speed art. Gordon Cruickshank turns art critic

Car lovers sometimes insist that any beautiful automobile is in itself art. It’s a recurring pub discussion, with no outright answer — except in the galleries of BMW Mobile Tradition, the German make’s museum. Here is a squadron of cars which must qualify — they have been decorated and signed by known artists. Most were plucked off the assembly line and delivered to the chosen artist, and ever since have been moved only from gallery to exhibition and back. Ironic — a means of transport which is permanently static.

But one group of these art cars had a brief life outside the gallery — pitched right into the risky world of racing. Valuable pieces designed and signed by iconic names from the vibrant Pop Art movement, enduring the sand-blasting of hours on the track, risking being crumpled against the Armco or charred by fire, these exhibits were on display for one day only, a mere 24 hours. But those just happened to be the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

It was a man who splits his attention between racing and the art world who bridged the gap — Hervé Poulain, art dealer, amateur racing driver and the name behind of one of France’s best-known auctioneers. A frequent private entrant at Le Mans, he had the inspiration to make his 1975 vehicle noticeable by inviting his friend Alexander Calder to design its paint scheme. Calder is best known for devising the mobile, that ever-shifting decoration hanging in so many kids’ bedrooms, though his own were on a far grander scale; but as a sculptor working in three dimensions, including movement, a car wasn’t such a long leap.

When Poulain’s team unloaded their 3.0 CSL in the Le Mans paddock in 1975, it startled everyone. It wasn’t just the bright colours — scarlet, blue and egg-yolk yellow — but the pattern which shocked. In a sport used to national colours or brash commercial logos, here was a daring experiment. Calder completely ignored the shape of the car, laying diagonal swathes of colour across bonnet, door and wing; and it was asymmetrical. Hardly rare today, but then it was ground-breaking. Calder’s scheme was the first of a line of art cars, but it remains the most influential. Whenever you see a race car with colours boldly slashed diagonally across a corner, think of Calder and his CSL.

Some saw it as a stunt, but this was a serious race entry, driven by Poulain, Jean Guichet and Sam Posey. Sadly it broke a driveshaft after seven hours, but it collected nearly as many column inches as the victorious Gulf-Mirage. Everyone noticed — including BMW. Munich had no contender for outright LM victory; the CSL, even twin-turboed to 750bhp, was ageing fast. Another mobile artwork could keep BMW in the frame. And commissioning an artist, even a famous one, would cost less than developing a competitive sports-prototype…

So BMW approached American artist Frank Stella. Although he had never owned a car, he was a racing enthusiast; controversial author of ‘the black painting’, he had an exciting whiff of controversy and had recently begun to work on three-dimensional paintings, so an object like a car was a logical progression.

Taking a technical cue from the design studio, he scribed graph-paper over the CSL. “A blueprint applied to the car itself,” he declared, which makes sense of the sinuous curved black shapes across it: they recall the French Curve templates designers use to draw irregular curved lines. It was a perfect complement to a company which wanted to stress its engineering excellence.

Its black-and-white precision was a major contrast to the Calder car, but it too brought plenty of PR cover. Driven by Brian Redman and Peter Gregg, it only lasted for four hours of the 1976 LM before an oil leak halted it, but unlike most of the one-shot art cars it did go on to race again, at Dijon, Ronnie Peterson driving. It also sparked a friendship between Gregg and Stella, who came to his races. Both men were mates with Peterson too, and were present at Monza in ’78 when the Swede died after his crash. Upset by the tardy accident response, Stella became involved in trauma care for crash victims, made prints commemorating Peterson and later painted a series of works named for race circuits.

Nor was that the end of Stella’s racing link. In 1979 Gregg, a highly successful Trans-Am and IMSA racer who had won the Daytona 24 Hours four times, bought a Procar M1 from BMW and ‘illuminated’ it to Stella’s design, with a curved line grid and strips of translucent colour in BMWs sport livery. But it never raced. Gregg committed suicide in 1980, and after 10 years the car was sold; it was shown at some historic meets before being donated to the Guggenheim Museum. Sadly it doesn’t seem to fit the collection, and it has sat dormant (though well cared for) in the workshops of a US BMW specialist ever since, neither official artwork nor raceable historic artefact. Ironically, the Guggenheim has sometimes put other BMW art cars on display…

Excited that people were talking about its high-speed art projectiles, the Munich marque stayed with the outer edge for 1977 and contacted Roy Lichtenstein. Godfather of American Pop Art, Lichtenstein was known for his huge blow-ups of cartoon illustrations, sometimes a single frame so expanded that the dot-screen of the printing itself became a feature.

Those dots, a Lichtenstein trademark, spread like a rash all over the next project, a 320i to be driven again by Poulain, with Marcel Mignot. Its shreds of yellow and grey only come into focus with Lichtenstein’s comments. He said “the car shows the scenery as it passes by. Even the sky and sunlight are to be seen.” And sure enough, the vehicle seems to be reflecting its surroundings: black Tarmac with broken white lane stripes below, a yellow sun rising on the door, its rays breaking through a field of black dots reminiscent of a misty dawn over the circuit, while slivers of green could be the treetops bordering the Mulsanne Straight.

It was another visual success for BMW, and a racing one too: the 320i took its class and an impressive eighth overall. Even better, the little saloon crossed boundaries back into the art world: its debut had come not in the Sarthe paddock, but at that cultural hot-spot, the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Instead of a livery, it had become Art with a capital A.

So what next? Well, nothing: BMW had no valid LM contender in 1978; the mid-engined M1 had hit production problems and wasn’t homologated in time. But the firm burst back in ’79 with the biggest art name in the world. Even if you’d never heard of Calder or Stella, you certainly knew who Andy Warhol was. Notorious for insisting that art was simply a product and labelling his studio “The Factory”, he would sometimes sign blank paper and let his associates add the artwork. So it was a pleasing reversal that here was a product, made by others in a real factory, which he decorated and signed himself. Where the previous artists had worked on a maquette and let others transfer the design to the metal with religious care, this was the first art car to be physically painted by its creator.

You wouldn’t think so. Even racing cars normally boast beautiful, deep glossy cellulose with pin-sharp delineation; Warhol took a paintbrush to the car, reportedly spending 23 minutes coarsely patching it with green, maroon, blue and yellow, smudging and overlapping and using a stick to score through to the white underneath. It was typically Warhol: unexpected, subversive. And ironically, if crashed, probably the hardest one to repaint. But it didn’t crash; Poulain, Mignot and BMW works pilot Manfred Winkelhock drove it to sixth overall. It was the highest art car finish, and the last of the factory cars to compete at Le Mans. Hobbled by homologation disputes, the Ml’s racing career was stillborn, and Poulain turned to Porsche for his LM mounts.

For the next few years these four vehicles sat gathering dust, an oddball excursion for such a rational company. It was not until 1982 that BMW’s cultural activities, including setting up galleries in several cities, revived the art cars, but this time the car would stay in the gallery. Ernst Fuchs’s 635 coupe, set alight with red and blue painted flames, was a plain road car. Poulain’s irreverent gesture of putting art into the bullring had backfired; with rocketing prices in the avaricious Eighties, art cars were too valuable to be let loose.

More cars were commissioned: in ’85 Robert Rauschenberg worked on the last of the American Pop Art BMWs, photo-printing classical paintings on the flanks of a 635CSi, the demure heir to the outrageous Seventies Batmobiles. But even that tenuous sporting link soon snapped: the next ‘canvasses’ were weighty, comfortable saloons carrying applied decoration rather than any sort of pure automotive concept. David Hockney returned to the idea of playing with the vehicle itself, making an 850i ‘transparent’, covering the bonnet with vague machinery and showing the driver’s profile on the door, but it was 1987 before an art car again hit the circuits.

The Australian Aborigine artist Michael Jagamara Nelson applied abstract patterns with an Outback colour palette to the M3 which Tony Longhurst piloted to the ’87 AMS CAR title. Two years later the Australian GpA championship fell to another M3, in a dazzling scheme by Ken Done deriving from the gorgeous colours of parrots in his Ozzie homeland. It was a return to Poulain’s concept of exposing art to danger — and to people who might never want to go to a gallery. After all, this is the only sphere in which you stand still and the artworks come past you…

The Frenchman himself has upheld his inspiration with several more commissions: in 1994 he drove a Venturi 600LM painted in a roof-tile effect by the artist Arman, though this was as much an advert for a tile company as pure art; the following year, re-establishing the BMW connection, he finished 13th in a McLaren F1. This was decorated by Cesar, famous for his crushed-car sculptures; this time, instead of crushing cars, Poulain gave Cesar his huge collection of racing trophies to squash, images of the resulting agglomeration being photographically mapped onto the McLaren’s flanks.

After that Poulain also raced decorated Lamborghini and Porsche cars at Le Mans before quitting the endurance classic after 13 entries — only to reappear for Classic Le Mans 2004 in an outrageous Penelope Pitstop pink lightweight E-type, designed by Frenchwoman Chantal Thomass, complete with lipstick mouth and eyelashed headlamps.

BMW has not completely abandoned Le Mans: in 1999 the firm brought a factory art car back to the circuit. Aphorist poet Jenny Holzer applied some of her cryptic maxims to a V12 LMR, the huge chromed messages reading “Monomania is a prerequisite of success”, “Lack of charisma can be fatal”, and “Protect me from what I want”. But money got in the way again: the car ran at the prequalifying weekend but, while another LMR took victory, the poetic billboard stood in BMW’s exhibition marquee through the race, too valuable to risk on the track.

And now BMW’s art project has taken a new direction: Icelandic sculptor and installation artist Olafur Eliasson has been asked to decorate BMW’s H2R hydrogen-powered roadster prototype, a car which, unlike its predecessors, will remain a one-off. When it’s unveiled in March, the 16th art car will focus attention on energy concerns, not on dangerous, glamorous racing. No doubt that’s the correct business decision. Shame. We may have to go on relying on Monsieur Poulain to illuminate the racetrack for the forseeable future.