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Herve Poulain art cars: colorful cars

The legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France (24 Hour Endurance Grand Prix) has always attracted attention since its creation in 1923. However, in its first editions, the races lacked color, for good reason, the cars are adorned with solid colors associated (as a general rule) with the competing countries. We had to wait until the 1960s to see the first customizations with stripes decorating the hood and sides.



1970 is the year to be marked with a red iron for Le Mans and Porsche, after some setbacks (including the one which pitted it against Ford) Porsche definitely wants to put its name in the circle of winners of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, to clash with the minds, Porsche paints its 917 in a “psychedelic” style with fluorescent blue and green. A double win, even if Porsche ultimately wins this edition with another Porsche, a semi-official one.



Building on its success, Porsche is doing it again the following edition with an even more daring livery, a “Pink Pig”!



Porsche designer Anatole Lapine opted for the pink body color and labeled each of the body parts according to the butcher-style cuts. This action originally did not have an artistic aspect, as it arose from a conflict, legend has it that when the car made its first test lap, one of the sponsors of the team – Count Rossi of the drinks company Martini & Rossi – was not very enthusiastic. The wider 917/20 was not what he had imagined and so he refused to let it race in Martini's blue, red and white colors. This meant Porsche had to think quickly and design a new racing livery quickly. In the end, it was Porsche designer Anatole Lapine who stepped in to save the day with a now-famous livery, even if the car didn't take victory.



Hervé Poulain: the man who drives Art


The Stüttgart brand thus inspired Hervé Poulain, his name may not mean anything to you, but he is the man who transformed the racing cars into animated works of art, he made them and the drivers, his painting; the 24h Le Mans endurance races (France). His works of art are signed by Alexander Calder, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol.


Like a children's story, here is his story.


In 1975, Hervé Poulain held the position of art auctioneer (then founding president of Artcurial), he was 35 years old, he organized his first sale and since then more than 10,000 cars have been sold at the rate of his coup. hammer., his passion; motorsport. In his quest for self-fulfillment, he had the idea of ​​combining his two passions: art and automobiles.


The challenge and at the height of Man, if making a car which is an already designated work, making it even more artistic is a challenge in itself, finding a manufacturer who adheres to this vision and a second even more enormous challenge to a point where the man begins to doubt its feasibility, but he says to himself: “If Phidias dared to paint the Athena of the Parthenon, we could well paint a racing car!”


To make all of this a reality, we had to find a stage that matched the works of art. At that time the 24 Le Mans circuit was the flagship place which was the center of all attention, its hardness and endurance made this setting magical.


The magic happens, and it is BMW Motorsport which is enthusiastic about entrusting a BMW 3.0 CSL as its master canvas. Hervé Poulain, inspired, confided, for this experimental essay, carte blanche to the American sculptor and painter Alexander Calder. The artist, inventor of movement in sculpture, was “the man for the job”. He uses solid colors – blue, red and yellow – and the car looks like it “came out of a children’s coloring book. It was very readable, very easy to understand.” In addition, the vehicle “walks with the fire of God” but the car does not finish the race, a detail because the public is so won over by the exhibition offered. The media impact was then extraordinary, it was not a publicity stunt, but an art exhibition.


Alexander Calder and Hervé Poulain, playing with the first art car project, in 1975


Original model - Estimated value of the model: 3 million euros

Estimated value of the BMW 3.0 CSL: 1.2 million euros


Motivated by this success and the plaudits, Hervé and his sponsor BMW decided to continue the BMW Art Cars experience, the Art Cars epic was launched.



The following year, the artist Frank Stella signed on another BMW 3.0 CSL. This precursor of minimalism affixes a graph paper decoration to the bodywork so that it resembles a technical drawing. The car will not finish the race either.



In 1977, however, the Art Car BMW 320 i, driven by Hervé Poulain and Marcel Mignot, finished 9th! The work that year was by Roy Lichtenstein, one of the most important American pop art artists. The car is decorated with yellow and green lines, blue polka dots and suns on the doors "to illustrate the magical 24-hour cycle."



The one that Hervé Poulain considers to be the last “true BMW Art Car” is the M1 designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro and signed by Andy Warhol, a great representative of pop art. The car with large flat areas of red, sky blue and green was driven by Hervé Poulain, Manfred Winkelhock and Marcel Mignot at the 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans. It crossed the finish line in 6th position and 2nd in its category! Shortly after, the manufacturer decided to enter Formula 1.



Return to Le Mans in the 1990s

BMW left for Formula 1. But this is neither the end of Hervé Poulain's driving career nor the end of Art Cars. BMW has 19 in total, including one which ran the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2010, signed by the American artist. The Venturi 600 LM, named “Reptuiles”, is covered with tile designs, giving the impression of 'a dinosaur covered in scales'. The artist Arman, known for his accumulations, thus included the sponsor - a tile manufacturer - in his work.



The following year, the sculptor César produced a drawing of the compressions of the cups that Hervé Poulain had won at Le Mans, to display it on a McLaren F1 GTR. Then, the driver's last Art Car: in 1998, the auctioneer asked the designer Georges Wolinski to create a work for a Porsche 911 GT2. A woman sunbathing is then displayed on the bodywork.



The Calder in 2025 for its 50th anniversary?

Now a spectator of the race, Hervé Poulain returns every year to Le Mans, an “exceptional spectacle”. The art enthusiast “noticed a few well-decorated cars,” but no works. The Art Cars period “was so strong, the artists were so renowned that it was complicated for another brand to take up the torch, and also under penalty of plagiarism”. Furthermore, it becomes difficult to decorate a car because the lettering and sponsor products “invade” the bodywork.


Today, the cars of the 24 Hours of Le Mans are very decorated, display beautiful colors and always delight the spectators. As for Hervé Poulain’s Art Cars, they have become a collection of works of art. The former driver hopes to see them again on the track. Especially “the Calder”. “My dream would be for it to open the 2025 24 Hours of Le Mans for its 50th birthday.” Because this first experience with an artist remains the most “magical”. The start of an epic that the faithful Le Mans spectators still remember very well.



To conclude, BMW and the artist Julie Mehretu have just presented the M Hybrid V8 which will participate in the 2024 24 Hours of Le Mans in a livery designed by the American visual artist. This is the 20th BMW Art Car in 49 years, and it will mark the brand's return to Le Mans after 25 years of absence, to say that art never dies.



To read :

Automotive art: Hervé Poulain, itinerary of a man accelerated

Patrick Lesueur

Jean-Marc Thévenet


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