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Car Art

Updated on April 21, 2021
Paintings at Chauvet
Paintings at Chauvet

- and John Lennon's psychedelic Rolls Royce

Since the dawn of days man has expressed himself through art. The first traces of evidence are found on cave walls. The paintings at Chauvet, France are more than 35,000 years old.

As time went by new forms of expressions were used and there are several reasons for that. First, man's way of living changed, especially during the transformation from the hunter-gatherer society to the agricultural society. Second, new ways of thinking emerged from primitive religion to modern days postmodern philosophies. Third, new technologies were invented, which in turn made new art forms possible.

A telling example of the latter is the subject of our article: the so-called Car Art. That this art form is relatively new should be no surprise!

"Animal print" art car Niteowlneils from English Wikipedia (original source)
"Animal print" art car Niteowlneils from English Wikipedia (original source) | Source

Car Art

An Art Car is a car which is painted or in other ways changed as a result of an artistic expression.

You may say that car art is art "from below". Most Art Car artist are autodidact, though famous artists like Andy Warhol has also contributed to this special genre.

The origin of this art form is somewhat unknown, but among the first more general tendencies you got the psychedelic hippie cars. The most famous of them all, John Lennon's psychedelic Rolls Royce, will be thoroughly described below.

The Wienermobile
The Wienermobile
BMW art car
BMW art car

Underground community

Typical for "art from below", an underground community began to evolve during the '90s. One of the leading forces here are Harrod Blank. Being a filmmaker too, Blank has created several documentaries about this subject. Festivals and events are arranged all over the world, sometimes with a special profile, like the Gloworama in Houston, where only illuminated cars are allowed.

Art Cars and Business

One might say, that a forerunner of the art car is to be found in the world of business. Oscar Meyer's famous Wienie Mobile, the rolling hot dog, was created in 1936. Today the art car is very popular for commercial use.

Car stuffed with political messages
Car stuffed with political messages

Different Styles

When beginning to discuss the different artistic styles you might hear some critical voices, asking: Is this really art? As I've discussed in another article, What are the arts?, if a group of people agree with the artist, that a given object is art, then it is art - at least within this group of people. So, let's discuss here the different styles on the premises of this consensus of art:

One might think that car art is primarily about pop culture. Indeed, this is true in many respects. Many monsters and science fiction scenes have been depicted on art cars But at the other end of the scale you also find art cars with political messages or even philosophical ideas. Often satirical effects are used. Often the message is embedded in a surrealistic universe.

The most legendary of them all: John Lennon's psychedelic Rolls Royce

Lennon's Rolls Royce Phantom V was manufactured in 1965. It is 19 feet long and weighs 3 tons. It featured a sound system as well as a TV, telephone and a refrigerator. Originally it was painted in a matt black. In this finish it was used to transport the Beatles to Buckingham Palace to receive their orders of the Empire.

The scrolls painted by gypsies
The scrolls painted by gypsies
The psychedelic caravan with the Sergeant Pepper logo
The psychedelic caravan with the Sergeant Pepper logo

As time went by John was getting dissatisfied with the black color, and accordingly, in 1967, went to a coachwork company, J. P. Fallon Limited, suggesting that they created a psychedelic finish for his car. The scrolls and flowers were designed by Steve Weaver. It was painted by gypsies and the price was 2,000 pounds. The design was inspired by a gypsy caravan which John had bought to his son Julian. The caravan was bought at the time when The Beatles were recording Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the album's logo is painted on it's back.

To many people in England, a Rolls Royce was - and is - a car of dignity, and consequently Lennon's art car caused people's anger: "You swine, you swine! How dare you do this to a Rolls-Royce" a woman yelled one day in London downtown, attacking the car with an umbrella!

The Design

With Weaver's design the Phantom V was transformed from a noble black limousine to a bright yellow hippie-car. The floral motifs where Romany-inspired. Though uncertain, it has been said, that it was artist Marijke Koger - member of an artist group called "The Fool" - who suggested that John had i painted in a style similar to the caravan. The painting of the car was completed within 6 weeks.

One might say that the car is in itself a statement of the ideology of that time, and being shown to the public only few days before the release of Sgt. Pepper on June 1st 1967, it was a perfect stunt.

After The Beatles era

In 1970 the car was shipped to USA. Hereafter many famous people borrowed it from John and Yoko, such as The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Lennon only seldom used it, an though having considered selling it, the car was finally put into a storage in New York. It was there several years, until 1977, where the couple donated it to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum.

It was displayed publicly for only three months in 1978-79. Then it was stored again in Maryland, as the museum could not afford to pay the insurance for public viewing. Several years after, in 1985 the Cooper-Hewitt Museum decided to auction the car. Sotheby's estimated it to $200,000-300.000. It was sold for $2,299,000!!! This made the Psychedelic Rolls Royce the most expensive car in the world. The buyer was Jim Pattison’s Ripley International Inc. It was then displayed at Ripley's "Believe It Or Not" Museum.

The Psychedelic Rolls Royce now moved to Canada for the Expo' 86 in Vancouver. in 1987 Mr. Pattison presented the car as a gift to Queen Elizabeth. It was then displayed in the Transportation Museum in Cloverdale, British Columbia. Here it stayed until 1993, where it was moved to the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria for storage. Since then it has only occasionally been displayed.


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