Conservative Values

Before the revolution came this final flowering of traditional BMW expression. It’s possible they never quite surpassed it.

(c) favcars

As BMW themselves fondly state, the Three-Series represents the beating heart of the Bayerische Motoren Werke brand, and as such, they have (until comparatively recently at least) managed its evolution with some caution and no little care. Certainly throughout its earlier iterations, it remained a conceptually faithful evolution of the ur-Dreier, the epochal 02-Series, which the E21 Three supplanted some 42 years ago.

Careful and considered change had been Vierzylinder watchwords for a great deal of the Three-Series’ career – up to a point at least. Perhaps the most notable break with tradition taking place with 1990’s E36 model; the adoption of the Z1’s multi-link ‘Z-axle’ rear suspension marking the end of BMW’s former fealty to the frequently treacherous semi-trailing arm layout, while its pronounced aerodynamic wedge profile saw the 3-er embody an entirely new aesthetic form.

But while the E36 was largely well received, it lacked the hewn from solid integrity of its forebears and with early cars featuring ugly, cheap-looking grey plastic bumpers, shoddy wheeltrims, and a distinctly downmarket interior, the Three-Series’ reputation as a quality product took something of a dive.

Given that the Dreier in any of its many iterations was never a ravishing beauty, its true appeal lay in a combination of carefully measured visual rectitude and almost obsessional level of material and build integrity. Shorn of these distinguishing qualities, the Three-Series risked losing its exalted position, despite all its dynamic plaudits.

Schemed under the patrician nose of research and development chief, Wolfgang Reitzle and lead by engineering director, Wolfgang Ziebart, E46 was intended to evolve the existing car both technically and stylistically, but more importantly to undo the reputational harm E36 had occasioned, dramatically improving both refinement and perceived quality.

Technically then, E46 carried over a good deal of the E36’s hardware, but the new car employed a stiffer bodyshell and a greater proportion of aluminium in its suspension components to pare unsprung weight. Efforts too were made to improve the car’s weight distribution. Engines were the usual Petuelring mix of in-line fours and suave sixes, with three diesel options, again in four or six cylinder applications; the model being notable for perhaps being the last Three-Series model where petrol powerplants were accorded greater prominence than diesel.

The E46 design team was lead by Briton, Ian Cameron, reporting to newly appointed design director, Chris Bangle. The exterior design was to be a more muscular, yet refined variation of themes established by Boyke Boyer’s E36, and is attributed to Erik Goplen, based at the Designworks studio. However, early proposals failed to meet Dr. Reitzle’s exacting standards, the patrician development supremo dressing down his upstart American design director with the words, “I was promised champagne, but you have offered me water!

Champagne was duly served and there is little doubt that E46, whether in saloon, coupé, estate or cabriolet form was a very fine vintage. Indeed to this day, it remains a supreme expression of traditional BMW aesthetic values. In fact, to many aficionado’s eyes (and a good many more objective observers) it simply hasn’t been bettered. The equally fine interior is attributed to Alex Klatt, working under the supervision of longstanding BMW interior design chief, Mike Nicic.

While criticised in some quarters as being less of a driver’s car than its predecessor, the ’46 raised the 3-er to new levels of sophistication, yet unlike its forebear, both looked and felt like a quality item. It also brought driver assistance technology like traction and braking control to the sector, a function of its advanced multiplex CAN Bus electronic system.

The E46 marked a confident return to form, so much so, that it probably stands as the most complete of the Three-Series generations – the most accomplished, and perhaps the most polished. Its combination of virtues continues to embody the sports-saloon template, much to the chagrin (it seems) of the incumbent holder of Dr. Reitzle’s exalted position.

Chris Bangle once told a journalist he hoped nobody would notice his influence upon BMW’s styling. This being so, one is tempted to propose the E46 as the most successful BMW design created during his watch. It illustrated that with a firm guiding hand, the iconoclastic American could deliver a car which cleaved faithfully (and fruitfully) to BMW traditions.

It’s somewhat telling that once Reitzle departed the Forschungs und Innovationszentrum for the bright lights of London and Ford’s Premier Automotive Group the following year, any moderating influence upon BMW’s maverick design director allegedly departed with him.

(c) classics.honestjohn

One of the most successful contemporary BMWs, there’s little surprise that not only is it still to be found in quite astonishing numbers on our roads, but that its iconography continues to be embedded in the hearts and minds of the marque faithful. E46 then, not only speaks eloquently of the inherent virtue in conservative values, but perhaps as a warning of what can occur when they are summarily discarded.

The stylistic revolution overseen at BMW by Chris Bangle was invigorating, and perhaps in part, necessary. Whether the Bayerische Motoren Werke would have arrived at their current dismaying destination without its contribution will remain a matter of conjecture, but it’s increasingly apparent that something fundamental has been lost in the wholesale rejection of past values.

©Driven to Write. All rights reserved.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

37 thoughts on “Conservative Values”

  1. I can’t think of another car that had such a bewildering variety of frontal variations as this one.

  2. Lack of uprated diesels aside, would have to agree with the E46 being the most complete 3-Series.

    Wished the related E46 Compact carried over the E46 3-Series’s front end, along with both E36/E46 Compact models featuring production versions of the 5-door hatchback and M3 Compact prototypes.

  3. Good morning, Eóin. The E46 is indeed the finest expression of the 3-Series and your elegantly written piece complements (and compliments) it perfectly. BMW really was at its design peak in the late 1990’s. The contemporary E39 was, for me, equally the high water mark of the 5-Series in design terms. (That said, Bangle’s controversial E60 successor has aged remarkably well and makes the F10 and G20 look fussy and dated by comparison.)

    Maybe, someday soon, the design pendulum will swing back, away from the fussy, overwrought “more is more” current fashion towards cleaner and more elegant forms? For that to happen, tastes in the big growth markets outside Europe will have to change. Perhaps electric powertrains may provide the opportunity for a reset, although early signs are not promising in this regard.

    1. The E60 looks as fresh as the day it appeared or better. Familiarity breeds contentment, it seems. There might be a detail or two I´d have done differently. Overall, it´s a good, clear shapes that bears an uncanny, deep relation to much earlier Fives though Id´ struggle to express how with much clarity. BMW, like Mercedes, fell under the spell of critics who wanted more expressiveness in the cars´ forms. I am neither for nor against expressiveness. The question is when to be expressive and by how much. For some marques a more expressive style is right. Mercedes and BMW lost confidence in their design ethos. BMW was lucky they had Chris Bangle at that point but his reign didn´t last long and after him came people with (to be diplomatic) apparently less leeway to impose a strong and clear vision in accord with the firm´s historical values.

    2. I absolutely agree that the E60 has aged well. It’s just as wilfully and contrivedly ugly as on day one.
      The kidneys are still distorted (here’s the very root of BMW’s kidney disease), the front lights’ eyebrows are still stupidly iffy, the rear lights’ graphics still predominantly appeal to five-year-olds, the acres of painted metal at the sides still make the beltline look absurdly high and the windows still are embrasures and the lateral shutlines of bonnet and bootlid still don’t work.

      BMW was very lucky to have CB on board because otherwise they would have had no chance to get their complete model range into the top ten list at the ‘ugliest car in Europe’ competition.

  4. Hi Richard, I’d be interested to know what details you might change to prefect the E60 as I have contemplated this question in the past. I would make just two changes: firstly, I would alter the shape of the trailing edge of the headlamp units to lose the little “ears” cut into the wings, which look a bit weak and uncertain, at odds with the confident lines elsewhere. Secondly, I would alter the shape and graphics of the tail lamps to remove the falling line that gives the boots slightly saggy appearance.

    Photoshop beckons, methinks…

    1. I agree with those. Also, the way the bootlid meets the c-pillar is off by a few millimetres. That has bothered my eye ever since ever since. Other aspects are inspired. The bonnet is so almost like a shoe but isn´t. The tension between what is there and what is not is exciting. The surfacing is lively without being zany. I bet it´s a clay model car.

  5. I would like to point out to a detail I’ve always liked with the E46, the almost straight line of the rear door wheel arch cutout. I don’t know who started the trend of the cutout making a straight line instead of the cutout being a tangent of the wheel arch, but it was a trendy novelty in the 90’s, was it the Renault Laguna that started that trend? Anyway, what is so fascinating isn’t the seemingly straight line, but that it makes a little bend over the point where it is closest to the wheel. Like someone took that line and best it slightly over the knee. The bend is very subtle and hardly even noticeable, but it gives the car an immense feeling of tension, like it’s a muscle just waiting to flex. Or like a bow under tension with the front of the car pointing towards the enemies. I say that single detail is pure genius, because it gives the car the feeling of self evident assureness of its own capabilities, that feeling of tension and intrinsic firepower makes the whole car.

    1. Hi Ingvar,

      At first I was taken aback by your E60/Laguna association but that’s because I had in mind the flare ABOVE the rear wheel arch and not the arch in itself. It’s an interesting idea, the Laguna’s seems a tad more rounded to me (from memory) perhaps on account of the smooth treatment above the wheel arch as opposed to the agressive flare on the E60.
      I notice BMW has quite a few models where they went for a more deconstructed look around that area, usually with their SUVs:

    2. Hi Ingvar. I ‘ve never noticed it before, but you’re absolutely right: the bulging wheel arch seems to be pushing against the door shut line, suggesting that the body is indeed in tension, tightly stretched over the powerful mechanical package. A lovely subtle and thoughtful detail.

    1. Sorry, NRJ, that’s my fault. I really must try harder to stick to the subject of the original piece!

    2. Hell no! The meandering thoughts is what makes this place. It really is gold. I see the posts only as an opening for further discussion, and it makes for no better reading to see where we will end up on what meandering way in this lovely company.

  6. Don’t worry Daniel. In fact, iam going to go even further off-topic than you in replying once again to Ingvar’s post: talking about rear wheel arches I’ve only learnt recently that the rear wheel arch cut out of the BX Sport is in direct relation to its DLO. I think that if you were to take the plastic surround on the rear wheel arch and flip it over, it would match almost perfectly the outline of the DLO around the C-pillar:

    1. That seems to have been Gandini’s intent with the Stratus Zero concept, the BX Sport’s “correction” panel is as effective in restoring the trope to that intent as it is crude. Interesting!

    2. In this regard, it’s a spiritual successor to early CXs, where the upward slope of the rear wheel cover is a mirror image of the falling fastback line. One of the more lovely details of the CX, which give it the appearance of a tapered body floating above the road – an optical parallel to the car’s suspension character.

  7. I didn’t much care for these at the time of launch, but it was more balanced to my eyes than the E36, which seemed to have too short a front overhang. A friend of mine moved on from an E36 to an equivalent E46 at the time, but he did regret it and missed the earlier car.

    That lead image has triggered me off, but what ever happened to amber indicators? I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and maybe it’s the absence of them on modern cars that fuels a certain nostalgia, but they add a ‘colour’ (obviously) and differentiation which some modern cars could benefit from.

    1. Good point about the indicators. In the early late eighties and early nineties blacked out lights were the in thing . Black Quattros gained an extra edge, white ones went the full Stormtrooper.. Tuners and generalists took note.
      The bleached look, who actually started it?
      The E46 was probably the prettiest, most coherent COMPLETE range of cars ever produced for the junior executive. The cabrio with a hardtop is a stunner.
      For me, the E46 erased the E36 from memory and is the logical successor to the coherent range of the handsome E30.
      Eóin, I think you’re absolutely right about Herr Doktor (ing) Reitzle and his role in calming the exuberance of his designers.
      During my time at Rover, Frank Stephenson had a presentation one morning of R50 to Reitzle, who was following development personally and closely.
      Frank had added a little crown to the roofline, adding a little curvature in elevation to where the roof « cap » meets the DLO. Reitzle not only noticed the subtle change, he turned to his aide and requested the arrangement on a return flight to Munich ASAP. Frank was given a week to put the roof back to its prior taut version and keep to schedule regardless. New Mini was honed by Reitzle’s single mindedness as much as by Frank’s talent.

    2. The only man knowing more about cars than Wolfgang Reitzle is Ferdinand Piech.

  8. First car I recall with clear indicators, not orange was the Austin Maestro. I remember peering at one and seeing the little orange bulbs imprisoned within….

    1. Yes, I do recall a Car magazine scoop from September 1981 where the indicators were still amber, and the bumpers were still the black painted steel rather than the body coloured units seen on most of the production models.

      I will try to inset an image…

    2. Ty: well done, you inserted an image in a comment. I still can´t do this. No one can explain it to me in such a way as I can follow the instructions. Second, you forgot the much more British Talbot 1510, also styled by Roy Axe. Unlike the rather French Simca and excessively American Chrysler it exuded a disinct Englishness that set it apart from the other cars from the Chrysler stable.

  9. Hi Huw, Richard,

    I think the Maestro was beaten to the post by the restyled Renault 18 !
    Some online Anoraks says that it’s in late 1981 that the clear indicators replaced the original amber units of the french saloon.

    1. Ooh, how about Chrysler Alpine / Simca 1307?

      This was styled by Roy Axe if I recall correctly, so did he have any influence on the Maestro adopting clear indicators or did he join BL after that decision had already been made?

    2. Hi NRJ, at the risk of identifying myself as one of the aforementioned anoraks, I think Fiat beat Renault in this regard by more than a decade, at least in mainland Europe:

      As a youngster in the late 60’s and early 70’s, I enjoyed collecting car brochures and remember this detail. That said, UK and ROI cars retained the orange units, so perhaps this was dictated by local regulations.

    3. Hold on a second there you polyester-clad trouble maker. I give you the 1955 Citroën DS in that case:

      More seriously, I wasn’t sure what was the cut-off year, I kind of delibarately ignored anything pre-1980. But that was a good find Daniel 😀

      @Ty – Good find too !

    4. Please note that until the mid-Seventies white front indicators were mandatory in France amd Italy. So it’s no wonder you find any number of cars from these countries featuring white indicator lenses -but also giving a white signal. Cars loke Peugeot 204 and 304 had amber plastic inserts in their white indicators for export markets.
      The new thing were white indicators fiving an amber signal by using amber bulbs first and bulbs with interference effect glass now.

  10. LOL! I concede gracefully to your greater knowledge (and longer memory).

    P.S. The anorak is in the post. 😁

    1. ‘Selective yellow’ headlights were mandatory on French cars from WW I to 1993 when EU legislation made them illegal on new cars.
      Don’t forget the amber brake lights on DS Pallas versions (standard DS had red ones)

  11. I didn’t like my first attempt at the E60’s tail lights, too Lexus-y, so had another go:


  12. And the original for comparison:

    Interestingly, the estate had a horizontal graphic within the tail light, so avoided the droopy look. It has often been the case that BMW estates are rather resolved than their saloon counterparts:

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