The rise of Art Cars at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (1/2)

The rise of Art Cars at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (1/2)

Art Cars are a fan favorite at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and serve as proof of the inexorable link between art and automobile. In celebration of World Art Day on Thursday 15 April, the first installment in this two-part series takes a look back at the beginning of this adventure.

From the first 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1923 until the late 1950s, the liveries of racing cars were typically painted in solid colors representing their respective countries. Starting in the 1960s, stripes on the hoods and sides became the new trend.

The choice of design colors at the 24 Hours of Le Mans began evolving in 1970. Porsche surprised the public with a fluorescent blue and green car in the “psychedelic” style, and the following year, the famous "pink pig" Porsche took the start. Former driver and art auctioneer Hervé Poulain describes the cars: "[They were} interesting experiments. I found the psychedelic Porsche quite beautiful, but it's just decoration."

Hervé Poulain initiates and drives the first Art Car

Poulain is a true enthusiast of "beauty and speed. To me, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is the crown jewel of auto racing. The 24-hour time frame is magical, like taking part in something cosmic." He decided to combine his two passions, bringing together "two worlds that were ignoring each other, proving to spectators at the race that contemporary art was not out of reach."

In 1975, Poulain set out to demonstrate just that. BMW Motorsport showed interest and entrusted a BMW 3.0 CSL to the enterprising young man who in turn gave carte blanche to American sculptor and painter Alexander Calder. The artist was the "right guy at the right time." He used solid colors – blue, red and yellow – and the car seemed "like it came straight out of a child's coloring book. It was very easy to recognize and understand." On top of that, the car "raced like a bat out of hell." The media impact was extraordinary. But this wasn't a publicity stunt. We really wanted to win and the public knew it!" 

Three more stunning BMW Art Cars

The car failed to finish the race, but the crowd was won over and the rise of Art Cars was launched. The next year, 1976, artist Frank Stella took on a BMW 3.0 CSL. A minimalist, he decorated the car with a graph paper livery (also did not make the checkered flag). On the other hand, in 1977 the BMW 320i Art Car driven by Hervé Poulain and Marcel Mignot finished ninth! The car was decorated by Roy Lichtenstein, one of the most important American pop art contributors in history, who chose yellow and green lines, and with blue dots and suns on the doors "to illustrate the magical cycle of 24 hours."

Poulain considers the last "true BMW Art Car" the M1 signed by Andy Warhol. The car with the large red, sky blue and green patches was shared by Poulain, Manfred Winkelhock and Marcel Mignot at the 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans, finishing second in its class and sixth overall! Soon thereafter, the marque decided to make a switch into Formula 1. 

Don't miss the second and final installment of The rise of Art Cars at the 24 Hours of Le Mans on Monday 19 April.