1979 BMW M1 Art Car fetches $854 000 at Bonhams Quail Lodge Auction
The 1979 BMW M1 Frank Stella “art car” just sold for $854 000 (inclusive of Buyer’s Premium) at the Bonhams Quali Lodge Auction. The car has spent the past 12 years residing at the famed Guggenheim Museum in New York, after originally being ordered new by IMSA GTO champion Peter Gregg.
The car is one of the stars of the Monterey Auto Week auctions and was expected to fetch $450 000 – $600 000.
Below is the detailed history of the car as it appears on the Bonhams website.
1979 BMW M1 Pro-car
Chassis no. 9430-1053 If there is one question that pervades the car collecting hobby it is ‘is it Art?’, in this case, there can be no denying it, in fact it is arguable that this is one of the greatest expressions of the car as art that exists anywhere in the world. Bonhams is truly honored to present this fabulous BMW on behalf of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Its proceeds will be used to fund other acquisitions.
The BMW M1
A proposed Group 5 ‘Silhouette Formula’ for production-based cars triggered the ‘M1’ program in the mid-1970s, a mid-engined concept car designed in-house at BMW by Paul Bracq providing the basis. Ex-racing driver Jochen Neerpasch was responsible for initiating this ambitious project, whose aims included taking on rivals Porsche in the World Sportscar Championship and, ultimately, victory at Le Mans. Development was contracted first to Lamborghini and then to Giorgetto Giugiaro’s ItalDesign, although almost all cars ended up being finished in Germany.
Giugiaro’s compact coupé bodywork in fiberglass was wrapped around a multi-tubular spaceframe chassis, while a twin-overhead-cam, four-valves-per-cylinder, race-developed version of BMW’s 3.5-liter six, driving via a five-speed ZF transaxle, provided the motive power. The wedge-shaped coachwork proved highly efficient aerodynamically, needing very little in the way of additional spoilers and wings in race configuration. Lamborghini’s Gianpaolo Dallara was responsible for developing the suspension, which followed racing practice by using unequal-length wishbones at front and rear. Soberly trimmed in black and gray, the interior was exceptionally well equipped for a sports car, featuring Recaro seats, air conditioning, electric windows, remotely operated door mirrors and heated rear screen.
Lamborghini’s withdrawal from the project complicated the production process, which involved the space-frame being built by Marchesi and the glass-fiber-reinforced plastic body shell by TIR, both in the Italian town of Modena. ItalDesign then assembled these two units and added the interior trim and equipment. From there the car went to Stuttgart, where Karosserie Baur fitted all the mechanical systems and components.
First shown at the Paris Motor Show in 1978, the road-going version came with 277bhp and a top speed of 160mph, making it Germany’s fastest production sports car. By that time the car had acquired the model designation ‘M1’, standing for the first car developed and built by BMW Motorsport GmbH. BMW’s long awaited new supercar was rapturously received; one American enthusiast was reported to have ordered three, which was perhaps all the more surprising given the price: DM 100,000, enough to buy four BMW 323i models with enough left over for some optional extras.
The BMW M1 Procar Series
By 1977, halfway through the development of the M1, FISA altered the rulebook and stipulated that some 400 cars would have to be built for them to allow the homologation for Group 4 to be upgraded to Group 5. Faced with this problem, and using his contacts with Max Mosley, Neerpasch cleverly engineered their own series, which would run as a support race to the current Formula 1 Grands Prix. It would pitch those same drivers against each other in virtually identical machinery, it was a well organized and ingenious marketing exercise for the brand, all the while increasing the number of M1s being built to reach homologation.
It was a win-win, the spectators got to find out the answers to the perennially pitched question of whether the result is down to the car or driver, and BMW garnered more marketing for their company and for the M1 production car – another coup following hot on the heels of the birth of the ‘Art Car’ series.
The reality was that what spectators saw on the track and what could be bought for the road were night and day different. The Procars produced some 470hp at 9,000rpm from the heavily reworked 210 cubic inch motor built by Paul Rosche’s team. The transmission, while still within the ZF casing had multiple gear ratios and its own oil cooler. The suspension was all new and had adjustable anti-roll bars. To save weight, it was back to basics with the brakes and the steering rack, the former now carrying a pressure balance that the driver could adjust, and the servos and power assistance were gone. The cockpit was completely stripped out, with none of the creature comforts of the road cars, only a sturdy roll cage to protect the driver in its single seat. Honed with precision by its engineers, the total weight came in at 2,200 lbs, 800 lbs less than the road cars.
The shape of the car was the least disguised or altered aspect of it all, the svelte wedge already producing considerable downforce, but to counter the fire breathing performance a spoiler was added below the nose and a large wing sat on the rear engine cover panel. The refinements of enhanced performance, lighter weight and increased down-force stretched the outright speed from 162 to 193 mph.
The series would run for two years, Niki Lauda winning in 1979 and Nelson Piquet in 1980. In the USA the M1 dominated the 1981 IMSA GTO Championship, Dave Cowart’s example winning 12 out of the 16 races, a fitting sign-off at the end of the M1’s final year of production.
All Procars carried ‘9430’ prefixes to their chassis number, a simple way to establish if a car was an original race car, or one of the few that have been rebuilt to racing specifications from standard road cars.
The Art Cars
Before the genius of the Procar Series had drawn attention to BMW, another series had begun which will forever be associated with its brand – the ‘Art Car’. It is said that the original inspiration to treat a BMW as a canvas came from a French racing driver to Alexander Calder, who decorated a 3.0 CSL Batmobile racecar that would be raced at Le Mans in 1976. The painting alone raised eyebrows and when it took to the track it caused a sensation.
Realizing the power of this medium of marketing BMW commissioned a handful of other prominent artists to paint their cars. Frank Stella was the second artist to do this, again on a CSL, followed by Roy Lichtenstein. Andy Warhol became the fourth in 1979 when he penned a design for the new M1.
Over the last 35 years, an established committee has bestowed on artists the honor of attributing their work to a BMW, with total amounting to a mere 17 cars, the latest being Jeff Koons. All remain with BMW themselves, and while they frequently travel around the world on promotional tours, at present all are back at the factory for their anniversary year.
A brand new visual presentation of these cars has been created by the factory and can be found here.
It could be argued that none of the artists were closer to the project than Frank Stella, who was influenced strongly enough by the cars to reflect this in his artwork and became a true car enthusiast, which he remains to this day.
Intertwined with the program from the early days, having painted the second 3 Liter CSL that campaigned Le Mans in 1976, ‘his’ car was driven by Swedish racing driver Ronnie Peterson. According to the book ‘Frank Stella 1970-1987’ by William Stanley Rubin and Frank Stella, in the Spring of 1977 Stella traveled to the Nürburgring to attend a race meeting and it was there that he met both Ronnie Peterson and Peter Gregg and they would become friends. The following season, he regularly toured to a host of Motorsport events. In February he was at the Daytona 24 hours to see Peterson race, and while his latest ‘Polar Coordinates’ series was in its incubation European tours would see him venture to the Vallelunga race circuit outside Rome. On his next excursion to Europe he would travel with the BMW Formula II racing team charter, and in the fall he and Peter Gregg would both be present at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza. On that day a tragic accident would befall Peterson, which would ultimately take his life.
This motivated Stella to dedicate his ‘Polar-Coordinates’ series in Peterson’s memory.
Peter Gregg, owner of the Brumos car dealership in Jacksonville, Florida, began his sports car racing career in 1958, becoming inexorably intertwined with Porsche, and often co-driving his Brumos-sponsored racers with Hurley Haywood. During his racing career, he racked up an impressive two Trans-Am championships as well as six IMSA GTO championships, with four overall wins at the Daytona 24 Hours, leading to his nickname “Peter Perfect”. Reputedly, whilst traveling in Europe with Ronnie Peterson in 1977, Gregg met Frank Stella who had been contracted by BMW to participate in their art car program; a friendship ensued.
Unfortunately, en route to Le Mans in 1980, Gregg, suffered a road accident leaving him with head injuries. As a result Gregg suffered from diplopia, or double vision. Due to his vision problems, IMSA banned Gregg from competition. Presumably distraught over the prospect of never driving a racing car again, Peter Gregg committed suicide in December 1980. He was only 40 years old, yet had accomplished so much.
The tale of this special automobile began in August 1978, when Peter Gregg wrote to Jochen Neerpasch at BMW Motorsport GmbH in Munich stating ‘Please accept this letter as our firm order for a BMW M1 racing coupe to Group 4 Specifications. We would like to have this car as soon as it is convenient’.
On file are copies of this letter, and the subsequent correspondence and invoices that detail the completion of the purchase. Gregg was clearly precise about every detail, letters note that the car should have a passenger seat of equal comfort to the drivers’ as well as a harness. In June 1979 as the car neared completion, Gregg wrote requesting that the car be delivered ‘with both seats covered in Black Watch Tartan pattern’ ‘also’ ‘please deliver the car with the exhaust system making the nicest, most sporty sound’.
Roughly one year from the original order chassis 9403-1053 was ready, and on August 28 was flown by Lufthansa from Munich to New York. The fastidiously recorded documents even include copies of the invoices for import duties paid.
Throughout this year, Gregg and Stella remained friends, they were together again at Daytona and as 1979 closed Stella penned a design for Gregg’s M1 which would mean something to them both, in that it was a version of the ‘Polar Co-ordinates’ theme.
As verified on its acquisition by the former owner in 1990, the car would subsequently be liveried with this design. The well known manager of Brumos, Robert F. Snodgrass Jr. was present when Stella traveled to Jacksonville to inspect the completed paintwork on the car. At that time Stella traced his name on carbon paper which was transferred to a rear window louver and was then permanently painted over by a sign writer in Stella’s presence. The artwork was complete, it was early 1980.
On his death, the car passed directly to his widow, Deborah Gregg.
In April 1990 the car was sold by Mrs. Gregg to Stephen and Barry Tenzer of New York, at which time it was described as ‘in as new condition’ when she had inherited the car and ‘has covered less than 50 miles since my acquisition’.
Early on in Mr. Tenzer’s ownership, the car suffered a minor set back when the garage in their Long Island coastal house became waterlogged. Realizing the risk of longer term damage that its exposure to any salt water might have lead to without attention, Mr. Tenzer searched for an appropriate expert to check the car over.
One of the best and most respected mechanical specialists in this country is Ray Korman of Korman Autoworks in Greensboro, N.C. and it was to this garage that the car was wisely sent to. They systematically went through the car and returned it to driving and usable condition. Always respectful of the importance of the artwork that adorned the car, Korman sympathetically cleaned and polished this, revitalizing its luster.
On completion of the work, the Tenzers decided to share the car with other enthusiasts and began lengthy tour of BMW and other Concours events around the country. This included display at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, and in 1996, when BMW was the featured marque at the Monterey Historics, the Stella M1 was on display and was gently exercised at the famed Laguna Seca raceway. In 1999 it was shown at the BMW M Day Concours at the Spartanburg BMW factory and won first place in the Competition Class, one of many awards it received in this period.
By the end of the 1990s, this tour was complete and with all that they could have accomplished with the car achieved they elected to donate the Stella car to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, from whose collection it is offered today.
Following a decade of sympathetic maintenance and having been laid up in recent years, the car has returned to Korman Autoworks and been serviced and put into driving condition. It will make its public driving debut again when it will be seen at the Monterey Pre-Reunion races, the weekend preceding the auction.
Naturally, the paintwork is still original to the car, and while the white on which it is based has gained the tinge of primrose that gives it a warmer tone than it might have once been, the artwork on top remains vivid as evidenced from the recently taken overhead view of the car in preparation for the auction. The nose spoiler and lower sill panels of the car have accrued minor road rash over the course of the last 30 years, but not excessively and not detracting from the artwork. The interior complete with those Black Watch tartan seats have apparent age, but little wear.
More than 35 years after the instigation of the BMW ‘Art Car’ project, a time during which the BMW brand has gone from strength to strength, there is still only one ‘Art Car’ that was completed by a BMW ‘factory’ artist that exists outside the company’s own collection. This car, the Stella designed Peter Gregg M1 Procar.
Most car collectors scratch their heads about the values and enjoyment that can be had from art, when compared with the fun they experience on tours, on the track and on the road, while those that acquire art instead of cars probably find the idea of maintaining and storing an automobile equally strange. Here is the game changer, as from both sides of the coin this is the ultimate expression of performance and art and with it an unrepeatable opportunity to get the benefit of both, from its looks to its awesome sound.
Perhaps the last word should come from Frank Stella, paraded in the Warhol M1 at Hockenheim on the occasion of its 30th anniversary, of that Procar he commented: ‘Sport and art have one key thing in common: in the end it comes down to satisfaction. My philosophy is: always give of your best. Sometimes I’m surprised at what turns out, at other times I’m disappointed. Out here on the race track it’s very hard not to be thrilled.’