Art Car

Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Calder, Jeff Koons. Those are a few of the many distinguished artists who over the past 40 years have applied their unique creative abilities to a total of 17 different BMW automobiles, resulting in the series of rolling pieces of artwork that BMW refers to simply and fittingly as “Art Cars.” To that list can now be added Earl Sheperd, at least on an unofficial basis. This determined Southern California fine artist and dedicated BMW enthusiast spent months envisioning his own personal art car before taking paintbrush to sheetmetal. The result is without doubt the most unusual and striking looking Z4M Coupe roaming the automotive landscape.

The Z4, which Sheperd calls Scatha after a mythical Babylonian dragon, isn’t just a static art object though. This is one BMW that is used regularly on the road as well as extensively flogged at a wide array of racetracks. In fact, it was the BMW’s dual-purpose nature that inspired the paint on its flanks. “I used inspiration from her two roles as a weekend canyon carver and track car to cover her in a diptych of the separate, abstracted landscapes,” says Sheperd. Thus, one side of the car portrays Highway 154, a well-known road that winds through the roads above the seaside town of Santa Barbara, California, while the opposite side is a stylized rendition of one of Sheperd’s favorite stomping grounds, Willow Springs International Raceway. “It is a portrait of the car, on the car,” he says.

It’s obvious from the visual representations illustrated on the Z4’s sheetmetal that Sheperd is a huge fan of the BMW’s driving experience. Since acquiring it in 2007, the coupe has been extensively modified for better performance, a process that has resulted in a beast of a car. Sheperd focused first on the suspension and brakes in the effort to make the BMW a more accomplished track master. The stock springs and shocks were binned in favor of a Koni coilover kit that utilizes 500lb front and 600lb rear Vaught springs specifically picked for the Z4.

To reduce stress on the shock towers, heavy-duty bronze bushings from an all-wheel-drive E46 3 Series were also added to the recipe. TC Kline camber plates modified to work with the bronze bushings were bolted in next. In order to reduce flex from the chassis and sharpen up steering response, a BMW strut bar was installed along with Dinan supplementary strut bars, while front and rear Ground Control sway bars reduce body roll. Sheperd particularly likes the sway bars, which he says allows him to run a softer, more compliant setting on the coilovers, so in turn the BMW handles more precisely and puts down the power even better. Additional tweaks include upper rear control arms from Ground Control and plastic washers that reinforce the stock lower control arms.

When we photographed the car with its new, hand-painted exterior it was sitting on Apex wheels, which are actually the track wheels. On the street the BMW rolls on beautiful, Diamond Black BBS RG-R alloys sized 18x8.5-inches up front and 18x10-inches at the back.

In stock form, the Z4 M Coupe has been called a variety of things, thanks in part to its 330-hp S54 straight-6. “Mental” and “insane” come to mind. Apparently in Sheperd’s view though, the Z4 wasn’t quite mental enough. Forced induction being one of the simplest ways to rectify a lack of power, he turned to supercharger manufacturer ESS. The company’s CFR500 was installed on the S54, upping power to an impressive 500-hp. The kit utilizes an ASA centrifugul supercharger, larger Bosch fuel injectors, software reflash and an intercooler to keep supercharger temperatures down. On the intake side an RPI intake scoop was installed to channel additional air into the motor. Bullet Motor Sport, the company that installed the kit, also installed a custom exhaust system that uses a crossover, X-pipe layout. The sum total of the changes results in around 500-hp.

A StopTech big brake kit does the trick with 355mm vented and slotted discs at all four corners clamped by four piston calipers. The brake upgrade is rounded out with braided steel brake lines. To direct more air at the front brakes for cooling, a plastic panel under the front of the car was trimmed back.

Before painting the exterior by hand to arrive at its current, outrageous look, Sheperd had performed a few minor modifications to the Z4’s body. A custom fabricated carbon fiber roof in the spirit of the factory BMW roofs was installed. Brushed aluminum roundels were added, the front grill was painted body color and the mirror housings and lower bumper were painted satin black. Lastly, a custom splitter was added to the front and the sidemarkers were modified to vent hot air from the engine. Sheperd reports that this simple (though time intensive) modification has resulted in much cooler oil temperatures during track sessions.

The BMW's interior remains largely stock, doing without back breaking race seats and other accessories that can take a toll on a car’s usability. The only changes are MRTM alloy pedals, a custom armrest and gear shift boot from LeatherZ that matches the Imola red of the rest of the interior.

Since purchasing the car, Sheperd has done countless track days as well as weekend drives in it. But he had something even more interesting in mind for the BMW. As a professional artist with a college background in fine art, Sheperd spends much of his time sketching and drawing. It’s not surprising that he has also become highly enamored of the BMW Art Cars, which have drawn on the talents of a long line of fine artists. However, one of the cars that has never been used for one of these mobile art forms is the E85/E86 chassis upon which the Z4 M Coupe is based. “Since mine was the only Z4 M Coupe available,” quips Sheperd, “she was selected as the canvas.”

The project was approached with a very specific philosophy. “It was important to me that it represent a return to the tradition of the original Art Cars,” explains Sheperd. “This meant painting directly on the car and driving it in its intended manner after completion.” Much like the M3 racecar that Jeff Koons recently painted for the factory and that was actually raced, Sheperd still uses the M Coupe as a dedicated track car.

As painful as it was to take the car off the road, it was rolled into the garage, where it stayed for roughly 2 ½ months, or 350 hours of actual painting time. Once the car was cleaned up and the surface prepped, Sheperd used a dry erase marker to roughly sketch out the areas and lines of the previously mentioned compositional elements, a country road and a racetrack. After the sketch was laid down, the larger areas of color were brushed on, using water-based Liquitex acrylic paint. The most time consuming part came next, which was painting the base lines with marker paints. These outline the various details of the painting and need to be drawn very precisely. In order to break up larger areas of color, such as the sky depicted on the roof, triangular sections were lined in.

Though at first Sheperd had planned on using a sketch as a reference for the actual details on the car, the idea was discarded once he started painting the actual car. As it turns out, a two-dimensional sketch didn’t give much of an idea of the reality of painting on the BMW’s flame surface sheetmetal, with its riot of curves, angles and constantly changing surface. The final details were applied with paint brushes, after which a clear coat was applied to protect the paint. When I ask Sheperd if the water based paint can be damaged by moisture, the answer is no. “Once the paint dries, it’s just like plastic,” he says. Oh, and in case anyone is wondering, Sheperd thinks that if he ever decides to remove the paint, it will probably just pull off of the original paint. Not that I can see him destroying such a painstakingly crafted piece of art.

The two main themes represented on the car, the highway and the racetrack, start by coming out of the BMWs front brake ducts, traveling down the side of the car before merging behind the rear license plate. “The skies of the two sides converge and blend on the hood, roof and decklid,” explains Sheperd. “This creates a yin-yang shape with the dots being the M symbol on the hood and a helmet/moon on the roof.” Clouds were used to visually separate the two different landscapes. “On the driver’s side they portray the vivid flare of sunset. On the passenger side they start as early morning, moisture laden cumulus, morphing across the hood to altostratus and finally cirrus.” Reference photos were used to get many of the details on the car as accurate as possible, as were screen captures from a computer flight simulator, which gave the best representation of the landscapes that he was painting.

To reinforce the BMW’s role as a track day car, there is also a smattering of sponsor “stickers” painted onto the car, though Sheperd admits that these are not real sponsors by any means but merely companies that have contributed to the car’s development over the years. “The number 400 is the Scatha’s production number,” he says of the number painted onto the car. Additional design elements that were added include BMW M stripes and logos, an Interlagos Blue and white rear end, the Cold Springs Bridge in Santa Barbara and the Budweiser Balcony at Willow Springs. Sheperd also painted representations of the M Coupe’s engine cover, S54 intake runners and ESS supercharger onto the actual hood, giving a hint of what lies beneath.

The end results of the project are almost beyond words. You can walk around and around the car, always picking up another detail here, something you missed over there. I can say without question that the quality of the work is on a par with the factory BMW Art Cars, which in itself is no mean feat. When combined with Sheperd’s comprehensive vision, the results are extraordinary, though ultimately trying to describe the results in written form is a largely futile exercise. This is one story where the photos speak much better than words.

One of the coolest aspects of the entire project comes down to the fact that the Z4 is not going to be sequestered away in a garage or parked on display somewhere. Instead, it will continue to be driven in anger the way it was intended at the owner’s favorite racetracks and backroads. Form over function, or function over form?