A Photo For Sunday: Surface Richness

For a change this is exactly a single photo for Sunday. And it’s about a BMW. And it involves the humble author descending the sheer face of whatever it is from which one climbs down.

To alleviate dandruff in cats and dogs
2015 BMW 7-series (G11/G12)

The image (one of three attempts) captures our old friend the BMW 7-series. They aren’t exactly common in north central Aarhus, where I am domiciled, which might be why it snagged my attention. As I stood somewhere recently in central Dublin capturing this car with all the photographic skill I could muster, two others in black rolled by**. The sighting necessitated that I re-evaluated my opinions on the G11/G12.

Without going back and auditing everything I think I’ve written about BMW in recent years, I can sense I have been mostly dissatisfied and critical. Certainly I still consider the current 5-series to be insipid and very much what they might have launched in 2006 if they had not already had something bland on the market at that point.

With some exceptions such as the neat little 1-series coupé, much of BMW’s output has been leaving me cold enough to don a cardigan. Included in that, until the other day, has been the 7 series, disappointing for almost two decades. I have grudgingly come to accept the facelifted Bangle 7 as being alright. But the 2008-2015 model completely passed me by. I had to check it on Wikipedia. Here it is.

To remove scum from sinks
Not memorable at all: source

I bet you had forgotten it too.

Set against all of that, this sighting of the current 7 made me think. I had to moderate my views. Why?

Surface richness.

It’s a term invented by me which relates to the character of the sculpting of the bodywork. A Rover 75 has lots of it and that lends the car much of its visual interest. A Series III Jag has it too. But here’s the Rover:

1998 Rover 75

The surfaces have variable rates of curvature and are not simply arcs; a Citroen XM has no surface richness, by contrast:

Flat pannelled goodness: source

The XM has other areas of interest; the panels though are quite flat. Most of those mid to late 80s GM cars had no surface richness and also lacked much else to distinguish them. Here’s a Celebrity.

1989 Chevrolet Celebrity: source

Trying and failing to achieve surface richness is what makes a Peugeot 208 look so unsettling:

2013 Peugeot 208

The current BMW 7-series majors on surface richness in a way that fans of older Jaguars should appreciate. The chrome hockey-stick distracts from this terribly because without it the rather subtly elaborated sculpting of the bodyside is much easier to appreciate. The surface richness is also much clearer in reality than in my somewhat low-res images taken from the sorts of distances that might challenge a spy-photographer.

The small undercut that runs through the door handles is the feature which suggests rich surfacing. It is gone by the time it reaches the rear door handle (this is clever, for BMW) and another shadow/hightlight takes over, connected to the front of the car. The lower door has two light-catchers  which really did not need the tinsel getting in the way. Don’t look at the previous 7 as by any standard it is astoundingly cack-handed and ham-fisted.

Allied to the other brightwork (the very pleasing DLO) and the good proportions, this 7-series is rather regal. I wish the front end had been styled after earlier 7s though. It’s not that tidy at all. Still, all things considered, it sums up as a much nicer car than I thought it was.

I have to say that because if I like surface richness and this car has it then I have to like the car. And I do now.

It’s a pity for BMW that Volvo do an even better job of the big, imposing saloon though.

**Probably government cars. Ireland’s government has a lot of real estate in the area.

 

Author: richard herriott

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

32 thoughts on “A Photo For Sunday: Surface Richness”

  1. Even the current version of the 7 shows the scars of Banglification: heavy body sides, non-Hofmeister kink, non-kidney kidneys, weird boot lid…

    How about this for surface richness:

  2. If you remove the annoying and unnecessary chrome flourish from the lower body side, you’re left with a “quiet” and understated design, possibly too much so for its intended market. I wonder is that why BMW felt the need to facelift it in such an aggressive and polarising manner?

    Given that the front end was the least satisfactory aspect of the current 7-Series, does the facelift represent an improvement?

    I’m playing devil’s advocate in asking this, but is the car large and imposing enough to carry it off?

    1. Daniel: Intriguingly, a (non-BMW) designer I spoke to at Geneva, whose tastes are rather sophisticated, also put it to me that the facelift’s graphics are far more convincing, in the sense that they lend the 7er an altogether more determined expression. He was quite aware that this claim constituted a provocation, but, grille size obviously notwithstanding, I’m tempted to agree, given the Seven now appears to be more than just an inflated Five. (The grille is still a horror, of course.)

      Richard: You might be interested in learning that the pre-facelift G11 exterior was designed by Nader Faghihzadeh, who also penned the F13 Six series. In either case, I find the graphics slightly overwrought, but at the same time, I come to the conclusion that he was either very lucky twice in that he worked with very good clay modellers, or that he indeed does pay particular attention to the translation of his sketches into three dimensions. The 6er Gran Coupé is a car I don’t mind at all for that reason (among others).

    2. I don’t know what the feature at sill height behind the front wheel arch is called, so I’m going to call it a spur. I don’t like it, but the right-angled one on the facelifted car definitely makes the car seem more plutocratic and puts me in mind of the Rolls-Royce Phantom.

  3. Nice to read your revised thoughts on the G11/12, Richard. I still consider the E32 7-Series to be the most perfect and beautiful saloon ever designed, so the three decade rollercoaster ride through E38, E65 and F01/02 has been a repeating exercise in hopeful anticipation followed by hopes sorely dashed…

    But I do feel that the G11/12 generation has come closest to reinventing the magic of the E32 design – the balance of presence and understatement, emphasis on stealth by being wide and low, the horizontal nature of the frontal area, and a more faithful modern interpretation of the classic L-shape tail lights and boot aperture. And when you see one driving towards you, you do indeed feel like the spirit of the E32 is somehow there.

    E38, while staying close to the E32 formula, lost the presence and edge, feeling too much like an upsized E36 (right as that might have been for straitened times), E65 blew up the 7 rule book in a way that I still puzzle over to this day, and then further disappointment when F01/02 was far from a return to form but instead something lumpen, large and conservative – as close to an S-Class as ever a 7 could have been.

    So it was refreshing to see that G11/12 rediscovered peak 7, only to see them ruin it all with the recent facelift. I take Christopher’s point on whether the facelift – sans snout – has given the car a greater presence, and in fact that is exactly what the E32 facelift did – it doubled the size of the grill to signify the new V8 engines. But with E32 it felt like it had always been planned to go that way, whereas on G11/12 it feels like a cry of desperation…

    1. Have you seen the article here about the first Seven? I had a re-read of it and thought it pretty good while not addressing the design aspects.
      Much as I like the E32 8 (and I think we have an owner of one somewhere in the audience), the title of Best Saloon is one I will have to consider. The E32 certainly can claim to be in the longer version of the short list, alongside the Jaguar Series III XJ and the Citroen DS. Then again, those cars seems so extaordinary that to confine them to the category “saloon” seems inadequate. Also, the category “saloon” is huge and encompasses gems like the Alfa Romeo Giulia (1960s), the Alfa Romeo 2000 (Bertone´s shoe box), the Bentley T1 (or T2), the BMW 3-series (E30), the Lancia Beta saloon and Citroen CX. I´ve left out all the great sedans ever made in America and at least ten superb Japanese saloons (Cedric?).

    2. Richard, yes I’ve read the article on the E32 a couple of times and thoroughly enjoyed it. Christopher Butt has also waxed lyrical about the design either here or on his site and I very much concur with his perspective.

      Perhaps Best Saloon is too broad given the wide range of possible contenders; Best Large Saloon or Best Luxury Saloon or Best Large Sports Saloon maybe, but I do feel its success as a design transcends its size/category – look no further than E34 which could also get my vote other than it followed the original. Of course it’s not as iconic or celebrated as some of the other contenders you mention, but that’s partly why I like it so much.

    3. For those interested, a comparison between the E32, Mercedes, Jaguar and Bentley from back in the day. Setright gave the final verdict.

      BMW 750iL - Bentley Turbo R - Mercedes 560 SEL - Jaguar Sovereign V12 Test 1987 (1)
    4. Coincidentally, that seminal Car article will also feature in the forthcoming Series III instalment. Coming soon – don’t touch that dial…

  4. I like your particular photo, Richard. Perhaps you can do the same for the new 3 as well.

    I notice a degree of prejudice on this page. E65 is always Bangle’s, not van Hooydonk’s and G11 is Faghihzadeh’s, not van Hooydonk’s. But my opinion is that like them or not, one of these two has an intrinsic personality and presence, while neither are especially tidy.

    I think this article and the comments that have followed support a hypothesis that while surface complexity can be appreciated, it is not a virtue in itself. Kudos to Richard for finding just the right lighting and angle to allow G11’s various creases, curves, and stuck-on graphic elements to hang together, barely.

    1. It will take more than clever photography to conceal the blemishes on the new 3 Series. That C-pillar, with its inexplicably corrupted Hoffmeister kink, is even worse in the metal, as is the Roman nose:

    2. Credit, a focus group located nowhere near Europe?

      I’ll withdraw my objection to switching up the studio manager with the project designer, since the magic has tended to happen when several geniuses work in close proximity. e.g. Deschamps post Bertone, mojo gone.

  5. “**Probably government cars. Ireland’s government has a lot of real estate in the area.”

    Interesting. Almost anywhere in North America, it would be politically dangerous for any elected official other than a head of government to acquire a vehicle that luxurious for official use. And any bureaucrat who did would probably be fired.

  6. Daniel: was it really necessary to show that c-pillar on the new Three?
    I sometimes think the talented chaps and chapettes in the design studios could do with at least some formal education in design theory or at least a refresher. The *ucked up c-pillar is an instance of a lack of deeper consideration on at least three levels. Note to design studios, I am available to provide these kind of refresher courses at *very* reasonable rates.

    1. I actively encourage you to formally offer such courses to BMW. Something needs to be done. I do wonder if all these junior types slaving away at detail work in a studio ever have their work checked by the higher-ups. I cannot imagine that there are no design reviews. So the blame for this 3 Series mess cannot be laid at the feet of juniors. Some twit higher up the food chain approved it for production.

      The article itself was quite thought-provoking. I have pondered on surface richness all day trying to integrate it in my thinking, wondering if it was both a necessary and yet sufficient condition for a handsome car design. I haven’t reached a conclusion, but will apply the idea as I view vehicles in future to see if it works. Thank you for the idea.

      From being something I mildly aspired to own because I wanted an inline six at reasonable prices, BMWs have turned into objects which interest me not in the least. The final nail in the coffin was a ride in the back of a 4 Series 4 cylinder gasper in 2015 while my brother tested it out with the chatty salesman occupying the front passenger seat. Who knew that the rear seat would be a wooden park bench thinly covered in foam and leatherette? It was excruciatingly uncomfortable on my rear end! And the huge suspension motion over bumps did not help either. Underengineered.

      The point was dramatically driven home immediately afterwards when I rode in the the rear seat of my brother’s then seven year-old Infiniti G37 just to see the difference. There was no comparison either in seat comfort or suspension calibration – the Infiniti won easily. He’s still driving it four years later and is wealthy enough to buy anything he wants within reason. They never go wrong those old G37’s – properly built and a big V6 to hammer you down the road in no uncertain fashion when required. A trusty steed. Also a calm car to be driven in as a passenger. Too bad they never appealed to Europeans because of their drinking habits.

    2. Richard, BMW could certainly benefit from your services. I don’t know which offends me more; the arrogance of whomever thought they could “improve” this emblematic BMW design element, or the sheer crassness of the execution. I saw a new 3 Series for the first time few weeks ago and, up close, the cheap plastic filler panel looks really nasty. We have previously discussed awkward looking sail panels at the often problematic A-pillar to front wing junction, but this is an unnecessary and totally avoidable “fail”. Moreover, the “improved” profile is just bizarre. Imagine trying to describe it to somebody who cannot see it:

      “Well, my new and improved Hoffmeister kink comprises, from the bottom up, a small-radius curve, followed by a short, almost straight, bit, then a sharp’ish bend, another short, almost straight, bit, another sharp’ish bend, leading into a large-radius curve. Don’t worry guys, you’ll love it when you see it!”

    3. Thank you Bill. I think it´s possible for a car to get away without surface richness. The Ford Focus and Alfa Romeo 164 have not one single gram of it but are both just wonderful anyway. They didn´t need it. The Saab 9000 has no surface richness and looks pretty banal; its package and interior save it. Recent Mercedes have the richness of cream of goosel lard soup and little else to commend them. I could go on. Bertone (I would initially contend) have never majored on it. Some periods are more supportive of the idea than others. The 1980s were a bad time for the approach.

      Angel: which edition of Car is that?
      Has anyone seen my copy of Car, the one with the Thema 8.32 article? I am sure I left it somewhere in my home but it´s gone missing. Help!

    4. I found my missing edition of Car magazine, everyone. You may stop looking. It was in the loft, mixed in with some more recent editions which it is hard to imagine will ever be interesting.
      Did word processing do something to the way people write? The style of writing in 1987 is not quite like today´s.

  7. I must confess I like the inoffensive F01, mostly because it was available with the most decadent of engines, a twin turbo 544 hp six litre V12, in short wheelbase non-M trim.

  8. I’ve seen a few of the new 3 Series now on the road and am finding it a bit of a shock to the system – which is funny as the basic look is the same, but the crass and edginess of the detailing is discombobulating. What it does achieve is to make the Alfa Giulia look almost classical in comparison.

    As I have written before, my boss has a V12, long wheelbase, non-M version of the pre-facelift lastest 7 … in metallic black. The long wheelbase aspect does the car no favours, nor do the rather gauche chrome ‘highlights’ (especially across the rear valance) and overload of V12 badges. I don’t know whether the latter are a delete option, but I would have definitely ticked that box if I were him. The wheels are intricate and blindingly shiny and are rather lovely on their own but I feel they overwhelm the rest of the car. Overall, I’d say that the car doesn’t look special enough, which must have been what prompted the OTT facelift.

  9. Thanks for the excellent writing Richard!

    I remember BMW from the 80s and 90s being highly sophisticated vehicles. They were aesthetically elegant, technologically unmatched, and had a whiff of rebellion to them. Above all else, these vehicles had integrity – from their visual design all the way down to the engineering deep beneath the skin.

    I’d readily admit I’m tainted by this past, and reckon there are many more in the same boat as me. In a way, we’re still stuck with the same questions immediately preceding the Bangle era: where do we go from here? Yes kidney grills, yes long hood, yes upright windscreen, yes C-pillar kink, yes L-shaped tail lamps. Then what? Have these elements become tired tropes which are now wearing the brand down? There has not been a grand cohesive vision at BMW for a long time now, so almost anything is up for tweaking, apparently including the Hoffmeister kink.

    1. You are welcome. The gauntlet thrown down is this: how to keep BMWs BMWs without drowning them in aspic. What would RH do if he was the head of design at BMW? My high concept would require rigourous seriousness for the core models, with evolution trumping revolution, visually. For niche models I´d be more experimental in the vein of the iCars. The i3 is a really impressive bit of design, inside and out. BMW can do great modernism; it´s “classicism” is falling flat.

    2. Good morning, millions. I wholly agree with your description of BMWs from the 80’s and 90’s and would extend it to cover the 70’s as well.

      Richard, for classic designs, BMW could do a lot worse than take a look at the work of David Obendorfer, who produced that alternative reality E-Class rendering we discussed a few days ago. Here’s his take on the BMW E9 generation CS:

      Lovely, IMHO.

    3. His work is all very nice indeed. The only concern I have is that some might consider the surface treatment very much the same on all his cars. He uses the Dieter Rams/Ulm style of arc surfaces and radii.

    4. That Obendorfer car is very nice indeed – BMW should think hard about hiring him.

    5. While ostensibly a modern interpretation of the classic E9 coupé, I like the way the front references the E9’s predecessor, the New Class C and CS coupé:

      Not exactly pretty, but certainly distinctive.

      I like the way Obendorfer stays faithful to the classic shapes of the nostrils and Hoffmeister kink, while still producing a thoroughly modern design. I can forgive him if his work is considered a bit “samey”. There are many worse designers to emulate than Dieter Rams and the Ulm School.

    6. Here’s a better view of the front end of the Obendorfer design:

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