Thirty Minutes

Andrew Miles takes the M1 to model nirvana.


Scrubs up well for a forty year old. She’s kept her figure, had her wild years, now slowly gravitating toward middle age with maturity and style. 

As a child I was mesmerised by the BASF colour scheme on the BMW M1. The car screams out speed, aggression, power; language that only red can truly deliver. The white circles emanate a sense of power, creating reflections akin to water ripples or the blast wave of an explosion, placed on the bodywork at jaunty angles.

Maybe on my tenth birthday the model arrived, not to be raced or hurled into the garden with abandon. No, this Red Devil was for cherishing, made centre stage, set apart from all those lesser model cars; pretty well untouched. My memory does not serve me well, did I want this model or was it bought for me?

Years before the internet and with the local and even city-based library service having too few books on the subject of cars (mainly “transport”, the odd supercar and even then obscure Haynes manuals) I knew little of the M1. And being of that age, after a short while, far newer and better interests reared up leaving my favourite red model to sit on shelf, gathering dust. 


Over time, the odd magazine article would be devoured but these were in reality few and far between. It had to be the French influence of Le Mans where in the early 2000’s I was lucky enough to attend both Classic and the mid-June event. There in the paddock area in bright sunshine stood the…well, what was it? Fortunately, my friend knew exactly what this was; Alexander Calder’s Art Car. 

Transfixed. Followed by a lot of photography. And on returning to Blighty, finally a chance at information gathering. With some knowledge gleaned from my culture vulture friend who knows more about art than Le Mans, my search could begin. 

Sadly it was one of Calder’s final pieces; created in 1975, he died a year later but did witness the car at Le Mans in 1976. Also rather sadly, the art car only managed seven hours racing before driveshaft failure forced its retirement and subsequent “modelling” duties ever since. With extravagant use of bold and bright colours, this “defacing” of the bodywork is as beguiling as it is divisive. I can fully appreciate the artist’s thoughts here of speed, an illusion maintained when standing stark still.

Known more for sculpture than painting, although he had a similar theme going when he slapped paint on an aeroplane in 1973, Calder’s car proved something of a catalyst for other artists who fancied their own slice of the art car cake and this continues today. Of course the CSL was soon to become obsolete in racing form, yet take on a mythical status due to its Batmobile touring car sister having far better results. Step forward then, M1.

(c) bmwartcarcollection

Over an eight year period, the M1 and its mid-engined yowl attempted Le Mans twenty two times but poor reliability and stronger competition proved the cars track downfall – engine and clutch issues being the frequent cause of failure. Also, the weight of the car. In race trim, the M1 was something of a porker; around 1130 kg where it’s main rivals, the Ferrari boxer was 10-15 less and, paradoxically the Porsche 935 an elfin 970 kg.

My boyhood favourite BASF entry managed a high of 8th place in the 1981 running before the clutch started slipping and then an ignominious crash halted proceedings. It had won earlier in the year at the Nurburgring, mind.

Whilst the M1 never really set the racing world alight, though the single make Procar championship it ran as a Grand Prix sideshow with inaugural winner Niki Lauda helped sell one or two, the car once more became lifted to the dizzy heights of worship.

None other than Andy Warhol wanted to share his artistic bent with bodywork of the M1. While previous artists had “practised” on a scale model before having the effect applied to the real car, Warhol naturally wished to be different. Commissioned by BMW in 1979, Warhol and an assistant took a mere thirty minutes to apply by brush and finger this livery. After it finished 6th overall at La Sarthe, Warhol stated that he “adored the car, it is much better than a work of art,” saying he wanted to portray a “sense of speed for everything blurs then.” 

(c) Rob

Entering its fourth decade, the M1 still has a distinct pull on the senses. Artists still use the wedge shape along with judicious locations to evoke some quite beautiful imagery. Take this example from a disused Cologne factory where once more the fourth Art Car is the star. Stephan Bauer had won a social media competition in 2018 with his dream of photographing the M1 realised. 

Up to press there have been nineteen Art Cars. A far cry from that now dusty 1/32 scale example in red and white all those years ago. Still as fond, though. Did he really say 30 minutes to paint that car?

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

8 thoughts on “Thirty Minutes”

  1. I do not know much about the BMW M1 either, besides the fact that the “wedge-like styling” sets it apart from any of the BMWs from the era. Regarding the skill of creating an art car, I have always thought that the work Esther Mahlangu has done is commendable. Although, I doubt it took her 30 minutes to paint the BMWs she worked on.

  2. Another great article. I never knew about the presence of the Art Cars. I’ve meant a lot since finding DTW.

    1. I don’t have a great knowledge of contemporary art, so I’m in no position to critique, but I always thought the art car idea had merit and was something of a PR masterstroke for BMW. Can’t say I think much of Mr. Warhol’s effort though. For me, Frank Stella’s 1976 3.0 CSL, and Roy Lichtenstein’s 320i from the following year (which was very Roy Lichtenstein I would say) were personal favourites, but Jeff Koons’ 2010 M3 GT2 takes it for nailing the whole, ‘going fast while sitting still’ aesthetic. But while outside of this group, that BASF livery is very effective – and evocative.

  3. One of Peter Stevens’ favourites, the BASF livery. I can see why. Very striking – from any distance you know exactly what it is – and well-resolved too.

  4. An excellent article Andrew. If I recall correctly there were a whole series of BMW art cars that were on display in a car park in Whitechapel in London some years ago. I should have pictures somewhere so will try and find them.

  5. Great article, which led me to the detection of a possibly ironic detail: BASF tape cassettes are the sponsor, and the word “Cassetten” has the appearance of being applied to the opening lid of a cassette tape recorder…

  6. In autumn 2010, the expanded BMW Museum opened with the – for the first time complete- collection of Art Cars.
    I was accompanied on this visit to the museum by the 16-year-old daughter of friends – a disinterested teenager in her main profession. I think she suffered a lot. The „Art” didn’t mean anything to her and cars were, in her opinion, some fetish of her parents’ generation. Well, either I’ve caused her a trauma or she remembers visiting art in later years, chances are 50:50.

    The first ones – Calder, Stella, Lichtenstein, Warhol – were real art for me. Even if the artists actually only did what they had always done on objects and canvas.
    (Warhol’s M1 on the first looks seems just a paint-smeared car. However, next to the exhibit, there were sketches and a model in 1:8 scale. This made it clear that Warhol didn’t just slather on paint for 30 minutes in the paint shop, but that the whole thing was based on a planned concept.)

    The next one on the timeline, Rauschenberg, was already boring.
    And the following objects – even if some of the artists were already known to me and I liked their work – were simply using a vehicle instead of canvas.

    The exceptions:
    Jenny Holzer I thought was ok. But her art works on any object anyway, be it a house, be it a car.
    And yes, Jeff Koon. Great. He managed to bring his own style and the object car into a wonderful (dynamic) connection.

    And it shows that if the cars don’t race too, they’re just colourful cars.

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