How BMW built its Art Car to race

The BMW Art Car program is built on a minor contradiction. Since the program was launched in 1975 by French driver Hervé Poulain, the majority of the vehicles produced—each wearing one-of-one art from names like Andy Warhol, Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons, and Cao Fei—have been race cars competing in high-stakes events like the 24 Hours of Le Mans and GT World Cup races. 

“The artist can do anything they want,” says Thomas Girst, an art historian who, since 2003, has been director of cultural engagement for BMW. “But they can’t mess with aerodynamics or with the weight of the car.” 

That’s the moment some tension enters the equation. If artwork exists to express an uncompromised vision, but a race car exists to go fast while tempting ruination, which one wins out when a BMW Art Car lines up for the contact sport of professional racing? 

Artist Julie Mehretu with her BMW M Hybrid V8 Art Car

Artist Julie Mehretu with her BMW M Hybrid V8 Art Car

As it turns out, the latest Art Car, made by acclaimed Ethiopian-American artist Julie Mehretu, holds the answers. The 20th car in BMW’s series is a dizzying, nearly hieroglyphic array of color and form. Mehretu wanted the car to appear as if it had passed through her large-scale painting “Everywhen.” The first challenge: translating her work from two dimensions to the chaotic 3D form of a Le Mans Hypercar entrant.

The brand’s purpose-built M Hybrid V8 race car is a riot of arched fenders, shark fins, gulping intakes, and a balance-beam wing. “There’s a whole process that we have when we do race car liveries—getting everything to read cohesively across such a diverse set of geometries,” says Michael Scully, head of design for BMW M. It involves making straight lines look the part despite curved panels, arranging visual elements to align from key perspectives, and using placement to accentuate certain features.

At first, Mehretu wanted to paint directly onto the car, like Andy Warhol famously did in 1979 to a BMW M1 racer, the fourth in the series. “She asked, can I airbrush the car? Can I paint the car?” says Hussein Al-Attar, the lead exterior designer of the M Hybrid V8. “And the answer to both of those questions was no. Because there are a lot of regulations around Le Mans. It doesn’t matter how thin that layer is, it might actually affect aerodynamics.” 

A foil wrap was applied instead—avoiding critical areas like the wings, the leading edges of the splitter, and any active aerodynamic devices, especially in the back of the car. Mehretu came away satisfied with the translation. “I think somebody from [BMW] Motorsports said, ‘Look, Julie, if you come up with a better way to make this car lighter with your art, we’ll take your idea,” Girst says.

Mehretu is not precious about her art—she’s compelled by the ways in which the car, and its livery, will change throughout the race, gaining the badges of honor in the form of dirt, rubber, cracks, and wear. As she puts it: “My car will only be done when the race is over.”

The Art of Racing: 3 More BMW Art Cars That Saw (Some) Action 

Jenny Holzer's Art Car #15: a BMW V12 LMP

Jenny Holzer’s Art Car #15: a BMW V12 LMP

Photo by: Courtesy BMW

In 1999, Jenny Holzer was provided with a BMW V12 LMP racer for her Art Car, #15 in the series. She covered the car in her signature aphorisms, including phrases such as “Protect Me From What I Want,” and “Lack of Charisma Can Be Fatal.” The lettering was both reflective and glow-in-the-dark, so it would stand out day or night. 

FINISH: DNF — one lap recorded. “It ran just the honorary lap [at pre-qualifying], because the letters that would light up at night in this fluorescent greenish color, they were not allowed to be fluorescent,” Girst says. “It was against regulations.”

Jeff Koon's Art Car #17, a BMW E92 M3 GT2

Jeff Koon’s Art Car #17, a BMW E92 M3 GT2

Photo by: Courtesy BMW

In 2010, Koons created Art Car #17 on a BMW M3 GT2 racer slated to race in Le Mans, with a design that visualized speed and motion even while parked. His initial proposal included a lenticular design, like those postcards that show two different images when you tilt them from side to side. “They had to let that go because of concerns of weight and aerodynamics,” Girst says.

According to Girst, the artist also told the drivers that he hoped while they were racing, they wouldn’t think of the car as a valuable rolling sculpture by the Jeff Koons (whose sculptures soon after set auction records for a living artist, hitting $91 million USD). “The driver essentially said, ‘I don’t give a f***. The moment I’m in the car and I hit the gas, I forget that this is an art car, and I forget how much it might be worth,’” Girst remembers. “Jeff was relieved to hear that.” 

FINISH: DNF. Koons’ M3 retired after 53 laps, besieged by technical issues, then finally running out of gas mid-lap.

John Baldessari's Art Car #19: a BMW M6 GTLM

John Baldessari’s Art Car #19: a BMW M6 GTLM

Photo by: Courtesy BMW

California conceptual artist John Baldessari completed Art Car #19, a BMW M6 GTLM meant for the 2017 running of the 24 Hours of Daytona, a few years before he died. He combined words (the truism “FAST”), a portrait of the unpainted car in profile, and his signature colorful (and, unlike Mehretu, hand-painted) dots—including a giant red dot against a white background that nearly covered the roof’s surface, which confusingly resembled the Japanese flag. 

“So I asked him, ‘Why did you put the red dot so pointedly on the top of the roof, with a white background?’” Girst says. “And he said, ‘Thomas, I cannot come to 24 hour race in Daytona. I’m going to sit in my La-Z-Boy in Santa Monica and watch the race. I want to know which is my car.’”

FINISH: In a relative victory for BMW Art Cars, the No. 19 M6 run by Rahal Letterman Lanigan took 12th overall at Daytona in 2017, and placed 8th out of 11 in the GTLM class, beating out its BMW M6 GTLM garagemate. 

Watch: 2024 Le Mans Preview With Allan McNish – Will Porsche Take Their 20th Win?

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