Helen Stanley discusses what an art car is, the link between popular culture and the automotive world and how street cars with vinyl graphics are continuing the subculture today.

By Helen Stanley. IG: @helenstanleyofficial

The link between the automotive world and popular culture has always been compelling. Whether it’s art, fashion, music, movies or urban legends; the fusion between cars and society is hugely influential and enormously important to our culture.

Despite the fact that it’s 2022, the car industry remains a bit “dusty” in attitude; so most people, whether they’re hardcore petrol heads or not, just don’t make the connection. Paint-by-numbers, factory spec restoration tv, doesn’t help; it has its place, but diversity is how we’ll collectively grow the industry.

As an automotive artist, columnist and presenter, I live in the middle of this exciting convergence. I geek-out over cars-in-pop-culture every day and make it my ongoing mission to inflict this maxim on anyone who will listen; as well as those who won’t.

What is an art car

As part of the custom and modified car community we create and maintain the “pop” in car culture; we just need the cardigans on four wheels to jump onboard for the party.

The most identifiable car-pop-culture connection is the Art Car. Most people will have seen or heard about this concept whether they know the history behind it or not. It’s widely agreed that BMW started the Art Car movement in 1975 with the 3.0 CSL.

US artist, Alexander Calder, used bold primary colours across the striking bodywork to create an avant-garde motoring sensation. Calder’s BMW Art Car competed in the 24-hour race at Le Mans; so this was functional, fast and made headlines, which is now the definition of an authentic Art Car.

What is an art car

Calder initiated the Art Car series and then BMW continued to carve a path, make waves and actualise all other inspirational, creative clichés with the concept. Taking it from a potential one-hit-wonder to a world renowned pop culture phenomenon.

The BMW art cars that followed were created by other incredibly influential artists, from Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol to David Hockney and Jeff Koons; with 19 unique works to date. Furthermore, this initiative has inspired hundreds of other art cars which have been steadily motoring around the ether for years; but recently there’s been quite a resurgence. Race cars continue to look epic with custom aesthetics of course, but it’s street cars pushing those imaginative boundaries now.

What is an art car

With the ability to incorporate graphics into vehicle wraps, petrol heads have taken this idea and really run with it. Not only can folks add visual fireworks to their pride and joy, they can change it when they see fit. Although this erases the heroic permanence of art on a car, it does encourage people to customise. Then you’ve got the hybrid-hand-painted-wraps; covering a vehicle in a blank white wrap which is then painted onto. The point is, the possibilities are endless, creativity is key and art cars are on the streets.

To me this is the absolute example of cars imprinting on pop culture; adopted by design houses, celebrities and other artists as a high-end canvas. But most importantly for me, we can all create art with our cars.