What is an Art Car?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An art car is a custom car with artistic modifications, usually performed by the owner, although it is also possible to commission an art car. Art cars tend to have over-the-top styling with colorful, lively folk art, and the modifications can vary from a relatively simple new paint job to actual structural changes. In some cases, the modifications may make it difficult to drive the vehicle on public roads, depending on the vehicle code.

An art car could have items welded onto the exterior.
An art car could have items welded onto the exterior.

Art car culture appears to date to the 1960s, when the ubiquitous Volkswagen Beetle and Bus both appeared with modifications from their owners. Some drivers simply added stickers, decals, and painted designs, while others got more elaborate with their modifications. By the 1990s, art car culture included a number of lavish examples, often using vintage cars.

The artist usually leaves the body of the car intact. People can weld on elements or add plastic and other fittings to the car to change the appearance. Art cars can turn into mobile sculptures, giant puppets, animals, and a variety of other things. People who make these kinds of vehicles may refer to themselves as “cartists,” a portmanteau of “car” and “artist,” and many train themselves rather than seek out formal training or mentoring.

Some art cars have moving parts and may generate puffs of smoke, flashes of light, and other special effects. Hydraulic risers may be part of the modifications on some cars to move the body or some of the attached elements up and down for more visual interest. Some modifications require advanced mechanical knowledge if the driver wants to add them safely, while others are relatively easy to do in a home garage.

The annual Burning Man festival often provides an environment to see art cars. People can also display them in parades and at public events. For people with vehicles no longer safe to drive on the road, such as cars with modifications that obscure vision or force the car to take up more than one lane, parades can provide a safe opportunity for driving in public and showing off modifications.

Some art cars have a political theme while others may be more whimsical in nature. The unique design is an important feature for many cartists, and those who take commissions will produce different work each time to make sure people get art car projects customized for their interests and personalities. There is also room to grow with an individual design, allowing the owner to remove and change elements over time.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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