BMW’s E60 5-Series was a landmark design. Thirteen years on, it still is – something that could never be said about its main domestic rival.
How long does it take for a car design to visually mature? I would suggest a good decade for the shape to either embed itself or to become hopelessly dated. Good design doesn’t really date that quickly – a notion I was reminded of the other day as I happened upon two mid-noughties contemporaries parked nose to tail in suburban Pinner and was struck by the modernity of one and the really quite homely appearance of the other. One was a Mercedes W211 E-Class and the other an E60 BMW 5-Series. I think you can guess which was which.
The design leadership under Peter Pffifer saw in the era of the disposable Merc, where flaccid surfaces and a lack of definition replaced his predecessor, Bruno Sacco’s more scientific approach. The W211 was introduced in 2002 to replace the truly frightful W210 and for a time, it seemed like something of a return to form – well, wouldn’t just about anything? Its styling theme was attributed to Hartmut Sinkwitz following the template set by the 1999 W203 C-Class and 1998 W220 S-Class. Of course it’s best remembered for a plague of electronic gremlins which saw Daimler-Benz’s reputation take its hardest knock in recent memory.
One year later, Daimler-Benz’s troubles were redoubled by the advent of the E60 5-Series. The BMW appeared in 2003 and while its reception wasn’t exactly unanimously rapturous, it certainly got everyone’s attention. Davide Archangeli’s design broke several moulds both externally and internally – especially after its much-loved and visually conformist E39 predecessor. Loved and despised in equal measure to BMW’s evangelical design chief, Chris Bangle, the 5 codified BMW’s shift in creative direction and remains the most visually coherent exponent of his ‘Flame Surfacing’ design philosophy. But I’m telling you nothing you don’t already know.
No, the striking thing is how the dumpy looking Mercedes seems like a design from the 1990’s, whereas, details aside, the 5-Series could virtually be a brand new car. A further thought: as much as many of us abhor the current Gorden Wagener creative hegemomy, looking at the Pffifer cars, it’s clear something had to be done, although baby and bathwater does spring to mind.
Here’s something else to put in your pipe and smoke. The same year BMW launched the E60 saw Jaguar announce it’s reactionary X350 XJ. Staggering really, but under Bangle’s direction, BMW’s designers were operating at a different level to everyone at this time. What level Jaguar’s designers were operating remains an unfathomable mystery.
Another observation, by way of a question. Where is today’s landmark design – the latter day W124? No, I don’t see it either.