Six Best BMW Art Cars

The first of BMW 17 art cars to date, the 3.0 CSL entrant in the 1975 Le Mans 24-hour race was a sensation.

1. BMW 3.0 CSL Le Mans racer – Alexander Calder (1975)

The first of BMW 17 art cars to date, the 3.0 CSL entrant in the 1975 Le Mans 24-hour race was a sensation starting with its charismatically menacing and predatory design. All the more outlandish with its giant rear and roof wings, the CSL was also a hugely successful touring car racer. Beguiling as both race car and art car at the same time, the first of BMW’s two CSL art cars of 1975 and 1976 was the creation of American sculpture and painter Alexander Calder.

Calder had previously been commissioned to paint DC-8-62 and Boeing 727-291 flying art pieces, and as such was no stranger to the notion of a vehicle as canvas. The 480HP Calder Le Mans CSL is a striking-looking piece painted with swathes of bold primary colors painted across various elements of the BMW to create the impression of movement within the car itself. The CSL was one of Calder’s last works before he passed away in 1976.

Engine: 3.2-liter 6-cylinders; Power 480HP; Top speed: 291km/h

2. BMW 320i Turbo Group 5 racer – Roy Lichtenstein (1977)

Successor to the 3.0 CSL in Group 5 touring car racing, the E21-generation 320i Turbo racer was a smaller and stark and brooding looking machine with a wild and angular aerodynamic kit and extended wings which earned it the nickname ‘flying brick’. Using a Formula 2 turbocharged 2-liter 4-cylinder engine, the 320i racer developed 300HP and was good for 257km/h.

The third BMW art car, the 320i was the work of Roy Lichtenstein, another pop artist, who in this case produced a study of what happened to a car, including representations of aerodynamics at work, set against bodywork aesthetics. Painted with a comic book style, the 320i also features lines symbolizing the road the car has to follow.

Engine: 2-liter turbocharged 4-cylinders; Power 300HP; Top speed: 257km/h; Weight: 878kg

3. BMW M1 Le Mans racer – Andy Warhol (1979)

BMW’s only production mid-engine super car had a tumultuous development before it was launched, and has since achieved a legendary status. Working with an already artistic canvas in the form of a body styled by celebrated Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, legendary pop artist Andy Warhol sought to “portray speed pictorially” with blurred lines and colors to reflect motion.

A spectacular sight at its only Le Mans race in 1979, the spectacularly swift 470HP Warhol M1 Le Mans racer was not short on actual speed, with a 0-97km/h time of 4.4-seconds and a 310km/h top speed, and was the only BMW art car actually painted by the artist directly on the canvas. Others used scale models, with technicians replicating the print, but Warhol’s creation was a more involved piece, despite a reputed 23-minute completion. Dipping his fingers in the paint and swathing the car with bold and lucid finger strokes to complement the brushwork.

Engine: 3.5-liter mid-mounted 6-cylinders; Power 470HP@9000rpm; Torque: 288lb/ft@7000rpm; 0-97km/h: 4.4-seconds; Top speed: 310km/h; Weight: 1020kg

4. BMW 3-Series prototype racer – Sandro Chia (1992)

One of the weaker and more introspective cars on this list, the 1992 3-Series prototype racer by Sandro Chia was however probably the best of the more pretentious examples of BMW art cars that were produced during the 1980s and 1990s. Some art cars seemed to try to reflect a more decorative style or offer commentary on social and environmental aspects losing the passion, essence and celebration of the automobile.

The Chia 3-Series however managed to look aesthetically pleasing, as its busy and condensed motifs worked meshed well with the E36 generation 3-Series’ slender and elegant lines. In terms of expression and meaning, Chia’s many silhouettes and portraits adorning the body were meant to be mirror-like in their reflection to the audience of the car’s position as a coveted item in society, and the stares it inspires.

5. BMW 850 CSi – David Hockney (1995)

Unlike Warhol’s spontaneously inspired interpretation of speed on an M1 Le Mans racer, British pop artist David Hockney’s BMW art car is a carefully deliberate work of several months that studies the inner workings of a stock BMW 850 CSi grand tourer. A sophisticated, high tech Autobahn cruiser and personal luxury coupe, the 381HP 5.6-liter V12 BMW 850CSi was a luxurious way to experience the world.

The 850CSi’s role as grand tourer is reflected with Hockney’s use of green palates and abstract designs over the right side, roof and boot to represent the experience of landscape. A piece that looks at the innermost depths of the car, the Hockney 850 CSi features stylized intake manifolds on the bonnet, as well and the silhouette of a steering column, driver and dog in the back seat on the left flank.

Engine: 5.6-liter V12-cylinders; Power 385HP@5300rpm; Torque: 406lb/ft@4000; 0-100km/h: 6-seconds; Top speed: 250km/h (electronically governed); Weight: 1975kg

6. BMW M3 GT2 – Jeff Koons (2010)

A return to form for the BMW art car, the 500HP M3 GT2 is seen as a tribute to Andy Warhol’s M1 art car. Like the Warhol, Calder and other cars, the Koons M3 GT2 also raced at Le Mans, and captures the expressive and dynamic themes and celebration of BMW race cars for their essence and singular determination to race. With a striking and bold palette of primary colors, Koons’ M3 projects a boisterous and enthusiastic image of motion, speed and energy.

Having studied pictures of race cars and explosions, Koons’ art car captured the power and life-like energy of a race car with streaks and multi-color lines emanating from the centre of the M3’s fascia, running across its flanks and roof, and culminating with seemingly blasting debris and supersonic rings around the rear. Of the M3 GT2, Koons’ says that “there is a lot of power under that hood and I want to let my ideas transcend the car – it’s really to connect with that power”. The Koons’ car was also unique in that it wasn’t painted but is sheathed with a vinyl wrap that was created from a CAD design.

Engine: 4-liter V8-cylinders; Power 500HP; 0-100km/h: 3.4-seconds; Weight: 1245kg