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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.