To Judge And To Foresee

From 1972 to 1981 BMW sold the E12, part of its small range of sport saloons. We think of them as quintessentially German. Are they?

1972-1981 BMW E-20 525

When I saw this recently I couldn’t help noticing the almost subliminal Italian feel along with a certain French lightness. How would that be explained? If you look into the car’s design history you discover the 1970 Bertone 2200i Garmisch:-

1970 Bertone 2200i Garmisch:

Bertone presented the Garmisch at the 1970 Geneva motor show and it used the mechanicals of the 2200 Ti. The rectangular lamps, oddly placed vent and honeycomb rear screen didn’t get anywhere. The character of the profile and the exaggerated shark nose did though BMW designer Paul Bracq adjusted them for a larger package and some realism. Perhaps Pininfarina were also inspired by the profile for the 1975 Peugeot 604? I tend not to think so but some contemporary writers did.

1983 Peugeot 604. Image:

The subtle angle of the Bertone car’s waist was reduced to horizontal to give the BMW a more neutral attitude. The production car has a clam-shell bonnet.

A rear-view mirror on an E-12

At the front, BMW’s dual lamps were placed on a black plastic louvred panel, one of my favourite design details; the “grille” is really a large badge or symbol. When Lancia used their shield grille on the Gamma it was much the same concept.

1971 BMW E-20 grille

The vent on the Garmisch looked too unusual for Bracq so the vent is at the base of the C-pillar on the E12.

1971 BMW E-20 c-pillar.

Notably, it’s not being used to hide a weld. The crease leads from the base of the windscreen under the vent and turns up to meet the base of the c-pillar. Note how strongly the Hofmeister kink is expressed.

It’s compared to that kind of boot profile that Mercedes’ W-201 looked so unsettling.

Mercedes-Benz 190 E 2.6 and boring Danish architecture

It doesn’t look it today. Our design norms are fluid.

The chrome frame of the E12 is interesting in that today BMW still place the lower bar over the rising bar, a shingle, and don’t have one piece or two flush-fitting pieces.

1971 BMW E-20 window frame trim

The chrome trim is very well finished and evidently very labour intensive.

1971 BMW E-20 window trim

Overall the car has a rich set of influences, French and Italian but with German characteristics tying it all together. And it then became an exemplar of German design. In truth, a Saab 99 and XJ-6 are more Swedish and British respectively than the 525 is German – though that’s definitely not a criticism. All three cars are multi-layered objects of very considerable interest, palimpsests in metal.

1971 BMW E-12 525

The car is markedly different from the W-123 Mercedes and its predecessor; it is unlike the Jaguar XJ-6 too (inside and out). Alfa weren’t really fielding a comparable car and the Six of 1979 clearly drew its inspiration from the 1972 BMW. Oh, the shame. By 1982 BMW renewed the E12 for another decade (E28) and secured their place as a maker of serious and well-assembled sport saloons.



Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

13 thoughts on “To Judge And To Foresee”

  1. An interesting dissection. In many ways the car is quite crude: the forms are rudimentary especially towards the rear, and the front wheel needed to be pushed forward another couple of inches. But you can see the themes beginning to coalesce.

  2. Nice piece Richard. I always thought pretty much all of Bracq’s work at MB and BMW had an elegance and lightness that complemented the “German characteristics” . Who else could have made the Grosser look delicate yet imposing and his “Pagoda” and E24 Beemer remain two of my all time favourite designs.

    1. Thanks – the successor is a car that established the meaning of BMW for me. Think: Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin 2 ad agencies and accountants. Their 520s, Saab 900s and Mercedes (260 CEs) were parked along the Georgian facades. Ltd companies still had to supply Granadas and Rekords and 505s to their chiefs in the name of modesty. So this meant BMW was one of a trio of cars for consultants and professionals, a cut above in the status stakes. These days that distinction is lost. A BMW 5 is today’s Granada. Not bad, but not nearly as relatively distinctive.

    1. Is there any chance Gandini did the Bertone car? And Paul Bracq supervised while Gandini carried on his ideas directly at BMW? Most car design is collaborative.

    2. Gandini definitely did the Garmisch. I just find it hard to believe that he did the E12 as described in the book, to be honest, which wasn’t a collaborative effort, but Marcello doing all that brilliant work in some secret Munich studio, only for Bracq to take the limelight and take the laurels upon the car’s unveiling.

  3. Regarding the topic of kinky Hofmeisters, I’d like to draw your attention to this:


  4. Another question: was the E12 available without any factory-fitted wing mirrors? The unit fitted to this example appears to be the same as fitted to SIII Jaguar XJs and Silver Shadow IIs (so it’s probably of British origin), whereas most E12s one gets to see these days are fitted with the same ones as the E24 Six coupé.

    1. Thanks – it appears to be the one fitted to the Citroen CX, rather than the British cars. Odder still…

    2. They are a minor obsession; the Vitaloni Turbo almost got me into mental care (it’s the devil’s mirror, you see?). Only its sole appropriate application on the Fiat Ritmo prevented me from suffering a complete breakdown.

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