‘A’ Departure

What with all the kerfuffle regarding Ferdinand Piech’s stepping down from his post as leader of VAG’s board of directors this summer, it went by almost unnoticed that an era was ending at BMW, too.

Norbert Reithofer, Photo (c) http://ecomento.tv/

Norbert Reithofer is not what one would call ‘showy’. He’s gifted with neither the shock-frosting stare of a Piech nor the gunslinging attitude of a Bob Lutz. Reithofer’s hint of a Bavarian accent and non-boisterous delivery were the most noteworthy elements of his public appearances.

So far, so unexceptional. In keeping with BMW traditions, the end of Reithofer’s tenure also wasn’t accompanied by bells and whistles – it’s as though the office of ‘A’, which is what the CEO of BMW is traditionally being referred to internally, is merely being rented out to another tenant (former head of production, Harald Krüger, to be precise).

No Wolfsburgian sense of drama, no backstabbing – and no ‘the captain likes to remain on the bridge’ lament, as was performed by Reithofer’s immediate predecessor, Helmut Panke (who also had to leave his post on age grounds, but obviously failed to secure the BMW-owning Quandt family’s allegiance with this recalcitrancy), once he was asked to hand over reins.

Ever so quietly, an era has come to an end. One that is no less significant than that of more illustrious car men, for the quiet Bavarian has changed the Bavarian Motor Works in as dramatic a fashion as none of its successors, apart from, possibly, the legendary – and legendarily aloof Eberhard von Kuenheim.

Eberhard von Kuenheim, Photo (c) Eberhard von Kuenheim Stiftung
Eberhard von Kuenheim, Photo (c) Eberhard von Kuenheim Stiftung

A company that has for so long thrived on a most consistent, conservative strategy, BMW has been overhauled on a scale that would have been deemed impossible a decade ago. ‘If it ain’t rear wheel drive and six-cylindered, it ain’t no Beemer’ may have been an apt description of the core of the Bavarian brand, but today, the range is dominated by turbocharged, small-capacity engines and SUVs.

With the 2 series Active Tourer, Reithofer has also supervised the most un-BMW car to ever feature the blue-and-white propeller – a model that, as any honest soul within the BMW organisation will admit, has been developed solely with the intention of spoiling Mercedes’ B-class sales figures in mind. The ultimate driving pleasure principle certainly doesn’t rule supreme in the considerations of the current breed of BMW executives.

BMW 2 series Active Tourer, Photo (c) AutoBild
BMW 2 series Active Tourer, Photo (c) AutoBild

It is also considered a sign of the times by many that BMW’s executive board has lost its last remaining ‘car guy’ to Volkswagen when Herbert Diess decided to jump ship after Harald Krüger had been announced CEO-elect. Diess is said to be a RWD, six cylinder kind of chap, which is a description neither Reithofer nor Krüger fit into.

BMW 5 series (E34), Photo (c) AutoBild

This paradigm shift at the top is manifesting itself in the way the competition regard BMW, too. JLR in particular view BMW’s vested niche as no 1 purveyor of sporting everyday cars theirs to grab today, which explains the new XE saloon’s focus on nimble handling rather than, say, a plush interior and cushy ride quality. Obviously, it is not just dyed-in-the-wool brand enthusiasts who view cars like the F10 Five series, which is neither particularly agile nor sporting, with scepticism. Reithofer, Krüger et al obviously are not all that shaken by this – after all, they have a still very strong brand and excellent sales figures on their side.

So is Norbert Reithofer the man who sold out BMW? The man who didn’t care about silky six cylinder engines and the position of the driven wheels? To a degree, he is. But that would be only half the story, for the same quality of focus and engineering ethos the company has lost, it also has gained through one single letter – I.

BMW i3, Photo (c) BMW
BMW i3, Photo (c) BMW

BMW i is very much Reithofer’s brainchild. He reportedly viewed modern inner-city traffic with significant trepidation (maybe while on the way to the Geneva Motorshow), as he considered it a major threat to The Joy of Driving – by his reckoning, today’s congestion and failing infrastructure could exorcise said Joy once and for all. This led to his support for the Megacity Vehicle, which in turn led to the BMW i range.

In the beginning, he actually had little support within the FIZ, BMW’s research & development facility in Munich, what with the engineers there being very much of the RWD, six cylinder ilk. Yet luckily, he had another strong ally by his side early on: the Quandt family, majority owners of the Bayerische Motoren Werke AG. With their support, Reithofer went about having preliminary prototypes built by a crack team, away from FIZ’s hordes. These prototypes were then used to persuade core engineers to embrace the inherent qualities of electric motoring, the Joy of it, if you will. Eventually, the plan worked out.

Not that the i range has been an unmitigated sales success – hardly. But due to canny accounting, the cars’ entire engineering and preproduction costs have already been written off, which must alleviate at least some of the pressure resting on this particular enterprise.

Obviously, the fate of the i range remains unclear. The i3 may be one of the smartest cars on the market right now, but that hasn’t prevented failures in the past. BMW’s engineering credibility certainly benefits from as advanced a product as this, but at the same time, the brand has become somewhat torn. Torn between a very competent, but muddled core range and a couple of extravagant and cutting-edge, but unviable and, some might say, digressive lotus flower models.

So what is Norbert Reithofer’s legacy as BMW CEO? He has unquestionably led the company through a period of sustained growth, as well as the very difficult period at the beginning of the financial crisis, which had relatively little effect on the company in the end. This growth, in quantitative terms at least, does come at a price though, as some of the brand’s core values are obviously being neglected. In their place, the i range certainly shines as a rare case of inspired risk-taking in this most conservative line of business. But the long-term viability and quality of this branch will only be decided upon, well, in the long term.

In the meantime, Reithofer, the unassuming Bavarian, remains one of the great risk-takers in modern automotive history. And that, haphazard brand expansion and all, is quite some legacy in itself.

Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs www.auto-didakt.com // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

10 thoughts on “‘A’ Departure”

  1. It’s a very bipolar range. The saloons 3, 5 and 7 are remarkably bland and the hatchback thing is just product to fill a niche. Then there’s the electric and hybrid cars which are remarkable to look at and to be in. You could say this has been a balanced approach and assures BMW of having a foot in both markets. Not bad. There ought to be space for a car for the hard-core 6/RWD set too, something closer to the archetypal 3er.

  2. I hope the i3 does influence other designs in this segment its light years ahead of traditional BMW’s.
    Reminds me of another era when BMW adopted the Italian ISO designed Isetta and sold it around the world, even the USA as a unique minimalist car just above the category of a motorcycle.
    Following on they redesigned this car as the 600 to carry four in a length 100mm shorter than the original Mini albeit at the expense of luggage space.
    It seems the most unusual designs are created during extreme times with the current i3 reflecting a move to lower emissions in urban transport and change from fossil fuels to local sustainable sources.

  3. Leaving side my design quibbles, it’s an interesting car and not what I expected from BMW. Evidently a position of strength is one that allows risks to be taken.

  4. BMW’s expansion over the last decade seems to be without a ‘big’ mistake. It is almost unbelievable (with VW’s cheating all over the news).

    The real problem I see is the conservatism at BMW: the new 7 series has nothing to offer (certainly compared to the S-class). Its not exceptionally luxurious (Mercedes), its not exceptionally sporty (Jaguar/Maserati), change the logo and it could be the new Audi A8. The same is true for many of their recent models. What does the i brand really do? It is making clear how boring the normal BMW’s have become. To me it’s a dangerous business practise: two cars 100% innovative, the other cars in the model range 0,05% innovative (in appearance).

    1. What got lost in all the outrage about Bangle’s radicalism, is that the actual cars remained very conservative – with the only departure being, arguably, decreased quality. Aside from the i cars, BMW’s only other ‘revolution’ was in persuading people that the proportionally challenged X6 was acceptable. Sure, some (though not all) of them might remain the best driver’s cars in their particular niches, but is that enough?

  5. Apart from what’s going on in the electrical car business, I can find hardly any innovation in new cars today. It’s really about implementing new electronical gimmicks and look for places to apply additional metal pressings and chrome. So, the 0.05% problem is not a BMW one, but a motor industry one.

  6. For a supposedly conservative company, BMW has reaped the rewards of several tremendously assertive moves. The reinvention of Mini has been a great success. Rolls Royce is one again the finest car maker in the world. Closer to home the wholesale reinvention of the BMW brand, from a niche manufacturer of sporty saloons, to a manufacturer of sporty niches, has created a huge boom in sales. With its spectacular 20d engine, the company rode the rise of diesel to the pinnacle of its arc. And the i range has the potential to reinvent the brand once more.

    Considering that the company had previously been burned by the Rover debacle, their buccaneering spirit is to be admired. From the industry-commentary perspective, it certainly makes BMW one of the more interesting marques to watch.

    Expansion presents its own challenges, of course. The Teutonic reputation for quality at any cost, diligently built since the end of the Second World War, has come under pressure. Perceptions of the core BMW brand as a maker of “driver’s cars” has been watered down. Mini faces all the problems of adolescence, with an ongoing reputation for poor quality, styling issues and unwanted bloat. And in a time of low petrol prices, rolling out more i products (and making them pay) will be a challenge. Reithofer’s replacement must face all of this, plus somehow conjure further growth against a background of Chinese economic stagnation and steeper emissions-based taxation for diesel engines. Tough gig.

    1. I agree with all that, certainly, so should I qualify what I wrote above by saying that BMW is the acceptable face of intelligent, radical conservatism? If that’s not being too oxymoronic. I’m just glad that everyone else hasn’t followed that lead though, as Simon says, what are they doing instead? Airbumps?

  7. Thanks for this article Kris, it provided new insights into a CEO I knew relatively little about, and who seemed to shun the limelight. It also made me think that Wolfgang Rietzle was far too ‘loud’ to have ever had a serious shot at running BMW – would that be fair?

    I am surprised about the FIZ being against the BMW i programme. I had always equated FIZ with the Z1, and left-field concept cars like the Z13 and E1.

    I feel like I’ve finally accepted modern BMW for what it is after years of fundamentalist anti-Bangle, anti-SUV, anti-JOY & Sustainability rebranding. They have moved so far downmarket and across niches that I just think of them as a German equivalent to Honda (ubiquitous cars, bikes, motorsports history, doing things around alternative energy and future mobility, bit more ‘dynamic’ than your regular Toyota or HyundaiKia) rather than some exhalted purveyor of luxury cars to the elite few. They do that too, but it isn’t BMW’s only reason for existing these days, if it ever was.

    1. That’s a good point about Reitzle, Mark. It is well known that he was von Kuenheim’s heir apparent and only lost out to Pischetsrieder (one of the most overrated executives in the business?) because he wasn’t quick enough to dismiss Porsche’s generous/desperate offer to become CEO at Zuffenhausen. But would Reitzle have worked in the long run? His actual abilities are beyond doubt, but his sense of grandstanding is just rather un-BMW-like. Even the great EvK, who certainly is a very aloof character too, had an air of Prussian solidity about him that made his autocratic style digestible for the Quandt Family’s tastes. Reitzle, what with his Menjou beard and carefully coiffed mane, appears to be a bit too much of a dandy in contrast.

      Reithofer appears to be an anti-Reitzle in terms of his self-projection and, possibly, leadership style. The ‘car guy CEO’ type certainly left BMW with Helmut Panke, possibly for good.

      For quite some time I actually strongly doubted the tale of Brave Old Nobby fighting for an electrifying future against the crusty brigades of petrol-sniffing engineers, but it’s been confirmed by too many, usually reliable sources to ignore. All things considered, I have come to the conclusion that appearances are particularly deceiving in Reithofer’s case, who doesn’t possess an aura of obsession or genius, like the character actors among automotive executives. Judged just by his presence, Reithofer would barely be considered fit to polish Ferdl Piech’s shows.

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