Back in August, I went to the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles to witness the prestigious BMW art car collection being installed. Within the first few minutes, I was allowed to break the biggest rule of art car handling: no one sits inside the car.
Holding my breath, I sat behind the wheel of a bright red, yellow, white and sky blue BMW 3.0 CSL, the very first BMW art car, designed by the artist Alexander Calder in 1975. I had to wear white gloves to climb inside the one-time race car and maneuver the steering wheel. The inside was snug and more utilitarian than I thought, designed to serve the car’s original purposes of handling a 24-hour endurance race.
Each art car is wildly imaginative
The Calder car is one of a handful of art cars that was on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum for a special exhibit in honor of BMW’s 100th anniversary. I was there to observe as the Calder car was swapped out for the airbrushed 1990 BMW 535i by Matazo Kayama. The ongoing exhibit also features art cars by Jeff Koons and David Hockney. The vehicles in the art car collection are one of those rare corporate commissions that works in concept and has endured the decades. The idea arose when French racecar driver Hervé Poulain invited Calder to paint the car he would drive at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Calder, who was trained as an engineer, had already painted a Braniff International Airways DC8 jet plane and his work on the BMW drew the attention of the art world. Frank Stella, a racing fan, was eager to create the next art car, followed by Robert Rauschenberg’s 635CSi. Andy Warhol and Jenny Holzer are among the 17 artists who've created art cars for the collection permanently housed at the BMW Museum in Munich.
Each art car is wildly imaginative, playing with color, form, and ideas about speed, gesture, and matter — and is the very definition of precious metal. While a mint condition BMW from the mid-seventies is typically a six figure car, there’s much more at stake when it comes to assessing the value of an art vehicle. "Flying Fish," a mobile created by Alexander Calder broke auction records in 2014, selling for $25.9 million. Warhol's works sell for hundreds of millions of dollars. Add in the historical value of the one-of-a-kind art cars, and the estimate on these custom vehicles skyrockets.
But don’t think you can drive these jewels around. Most engines have been stripped of invasive fluids and no longer run. The process, called mummification, is meant to protect the work of art from rust and decay. Only one person in North America is authorized to move the art cars: Bill Cobb of BMW. "It’s a trust issue between myself and Munich," he told me. "They always have to be handed off from person to person. They always have to be displayed in a certain manner. There has to be at least a meter of distance or 24-hour security around the cars. The car should always be displayed as piece of art."
When the art cars are exhibited around the world, they fly from Germany in special aluminum car containers. Cobb told me that the older cars are easier to transport, because they are smaller and more maneuverable. For example, he was able to remove the front spoiler off the 1975 Calder car for transport. The spoiler is kept in an oblong handbag that travels with the car. Cobb said he has hoisted the art cars up the steps at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, and worked overnight to install the art cars at Grand Central Station in New York.
There’s a long tradition of cars and museum exhibitions. The Museum of Modern Art collected its first car, a Cisitalia 202 GT, in 1946. In 1951, the museum opened the show "8 Automobiles," which also included a 1939 Bentley, a Willys Jeep, a 1937 Cord, a Lincoln Continental, and a Volkswagen Beetle. In the heady post-war days, cars were broad symbols of Western audacity echoed in the architecture and design of the mid-century. MoMA showed automobiles in nine subsequent exhibitions. What spearheaded these exhibitions was the populist nature of transportation that drew audiences to the museums. As a reflection of the cultural climate, these exhibitions did not attempt to investigate beneath the aesthetic line of the automobile, but rather to display the progress of designers and the studios they commanded.
In that tradition the Petersen Automotive Museum is a physical ode to the beauty and advancement of the driver’s car. Housed in a former department store adjacent to LACMA, it’s been renovated into a breathtaking stainless steel ribbon structure and houses hundreds of iconic cars. What sets BMW’s art cars apart is that they have become intentional objects of art, rather than idle classic cars — a testament to a bygone era.
"Most of the museums know the artist and appreciate what BMW brings," Cobb says, peeling off his white gloves as he finished another flawless installation.
After the Calder car was safely loaded on the truck off to its next display, and everyone left, I took some time for myself at the museum. I kept wandering through the halls of the Petersen to marvel at the Bugattis, Batmobile, and hot rods in the collection. I couldn’t help but think about how the 20th century automobile, as an inventive and visceral form, had once changed the world. With self-driving cars on the horizon, I wondered if they would again.
Photography: Vjeran Pavic