What’s It Going To Be Then, Eh?

Unusually for the company, BMW’s large coupés have traditionally been rather fickle creatures. 

BMW 3.0 CS, photo (c) mazda3revolution.com

The success of the German car industry is founded upon consistency and evolution. BMW is no exception, as exemplified by its core 3 and 5 series models, which have rarely deviated from the proven and tested formulae.
While other BMW models haven’t been as consistent and successful what with the 7 series never quite recovering from the after effects of the very disruptive E65 generation, it’s the brand’s large coupés that have been by far the most systematically unsteady.

BMW 503, photo (c) ewallpapers.eu

Setting the somewhat erratic tone for future BMW GTs to come was the Bavarians’ first post-war luxury coupé, the 503. Like the revered 507 roadster, its design came courtesy of Albrecht Count von Goertz, and sported a moderately modern style, by the standards of 1956 – certainly when compared with the very opulent (not to say corpulent) 502 Barockengel model upon which it’s based, which would have been described as a retro design, if post-war society had bothered with coining such terminology.

Tall and narrow kidney grille apart, the 503’s appearance was considerably more contemporary than the base car’s, with an almost Scaglione-like flair to its profile in particular (if it wasn’t for the slight bottom-heaviness). Alas, this wasn’t enough to prevent the gran turismo from adding to the 503’s and 507’s distinct lack of sales success, which almost crippled their maker.

BMW 3200 CS, photo (c) complexmania.com

The successor car, the 3200 CS unveiled in 1961, wasn’t the product to turn the company’s fortunes around either. Despite even more Italianate looks (courtesy of Bertone’s newly hired chief designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro), success continued to elude BMW’s large coupé offering. The slightly meek frontal aspect is less likely to be blamed for this than the 3200 CS’ underpinnings, which were largely the same as 503’s.

If it had sported the badge of a marque other than the struggling Bavarian motor works’, its body-on-frame construction, lack of servo-assisted steering and rear disc brakes may have been overlooked by the market – yet the lure of the blue and white propeller was far from strong enough to achieve that feat at the dawn of the Herbert Quandt era.

This, of course, changed once the Neue Klasse, BMW’s other new product introduced for 1962, redefined the Bavarian brand as purveyors of Freude am Fahren. To the baby boomer generation in particular, the letters B, M and W would henceforth stand for dashing, somewhat macho means of mobility, rather than a confused range made up of anything from bubble cars to blobby luxury saloons.

BMW 3.0 CS (E9), photo (c) bringatrailer.com

With the way thus paved, the BMW E9 range of upmarket coupés stood a much better chance of succeeding than its post-war predecessors.

With in-house styling very obviously influenced by the carrozzieri’s previous contributions to BMW design, the E9 for the first time didn’t seem like an odd take on a slightly less opulent Mercedes, but a sophisticated-yet-sporting alternative to the rather more staid four-seater coupé competition.

Although too small and basic to be seen as a competitor to the Personal Luxury Cars then dominant in the crucial US market, and too unwieldy to be considered a true sports car, the E9’s straight six power and pleasing looks provided enough allure for it to outsell its predecessor by a factor of 50.

Its racing success certainly helped raise the E9’s profile, which results in its more performance-orientated versions (3.0 CSL, Alpina and the ‘Batmobile’ versions in particular) having been considered bonafide classics for some time already.

BMW 6 series (E24), photo (c) honestjohn.co.uk

Yet it was the E9’s successor that is still seen as the most relevant Bavarian take on the gran turismo concept: The first Sechser.

Remaining in production over the course of 13 years and receiving significant updates during this period, the original 6 series can be compared with Mercedes R107 generation of the SL roadster. For in either case, these models defined the perception of each brand at the upper end of the product scale, despite both being relatively outdated by the mid-1980s.

Originally styled by Manfred Rennen on the basis of Paul Bracq’s initial design, the Sechser proved to be a far more convincing offering to the western world’s upmarket clientele than the rather clumsy first 7 series, with which it shares the odd stylistic trait. Unlike that car, the 6 series is characterised by the kind of very tall greenhouse that was to become a BMW trademark for more than a decade.

Its oddly short wheelbase proved to be no impediment to this GT’s success either, as the BMW acted as a more classical and practical alternative to the Porsche 928, just as its looks and performance were still perceivably more dynamic than Mercedes’ SLC and later SEC coupés. It was cheaper than either of these models too. Jaguar’s XJ-S, on the other hand, would have barely registered as competition for many years after its unveiling, owing to its initially dramatic quality issues and lack of efficient engine options.

Even at an advanced age, the 6 series had a sizeable corner of the market for itself, as it was more practical, cheaper and (at least in terms of its image) sporting than any competitor. This formula should have ensured long-lasting success, just as had been the case with the first two generations of the 3 and 5 series models by that point.

BMW 8 series (E31), photo (c) RM Sotheby’s

Yet to just keep on going wasn’t enough for one Dr ing Wolfgang Reitzle. BMW’s Wunderkind chief engineer didn’t want to simply update the 6 series, but create a luxurious GT that would put the established competition at Stuttgart Sindelfingen in its place (namely that of a stuffy, complacent has-been). For that reason, the new GT wasn’t supposed to undercut Mercedes’ competing product, but trump it in absolutely every way.

As can be witnessed in a contemporary TV programme on the development the car we’ve since gotten to know as the Achter, even a matter such as the tint of the rear lights wasn’t too minor to receive Doktor Reitzle’s full attention. Highly sophisticated suspension and ambitious electronics were therefore a given, as was the fitment of BMW’s five litre V12 engine as standard.

Pride, as is well known, has a tendency to be succeeded by fall. And just like Mercedes’ attempts at crushing the upstart competition with the mighty W140 S-class proved to be the wrong step at the wrong time, the Achter almost simultaneously faced a somewhat similar kind of reception. For while Klaus Kapitza’s well-proportioned styling may seem an unlikely cause of ire today, it was considered rather too much of a good thing, back in the early ’90s – at the dawn of the second Gulf War and a significant recession.

Eight ultimately didn’t beat Six, despite the best efforts by Reitzle and his band of capable engineers and designers, owing to it being the wrong step at the wrong time too. Neither in terms of sales, nor in terms of image did the Achter ever achieve what it was created for – the discreet Zeitgeist, BMW’s not particularly impressive V12 engine, weight issues and the lack of a convertible version saw to that.

BMW 6 series (E63), photo (c) BMW Blog

After the Achter’s production had ended without much fanfare in 1999, BMW took a four-year-long hiatus from the luxury GT market.

In the meantime, some key personnel had left BMW’s Petuelring and Knorrstraße premises (including aforementioned Dr Reitzle), just as the company’s chief designer, Chris Bangle, had gained significant notoriety, on the basis of concept cars like the Z9 and X-Coupé concept cars, not to mention the 2001 7 series. With regards to the brand’s gran turismo offering, this meant not so much a return to past values (as the 6 series moniker would suggest), as considerable disruption.

For a classical beauty this Sechser for the new millennium was not. Penned – like its even more controversial Siebener sibling – by today’s BMW Group chief designer, Adrian van Hooydonk, this 6 series was an avant-garde statement, rather than a crowd pleaser. Its protruding boot and previously unseen graphics would’ve constituted quite a gamble in any segment of the market, but were the exact opposite of what one would consider appealing to the overwhelmingly conservative, golf-playing clientele of a motor car of this category.

One cannot even faintly imagine the kind of wizard-like eloquence Chris Bangle (a trained Methodist priest, after all) must’ve employed to get van Hooydonk’s baby signed off by a board of directors more likely to play golf than take an active interest in deconstructionist architecture.

That being said, the Sechser largely works as a piece of design whereas the Siebener so obviously didn’t. While not beautiful, E63 possesses a coherence and genuine creativity that are very much at odds with its market positioning, but all the more intriguing for it. Its pleasing basic proportions are also helpful when it comes to balancing the oddness of certain design solutions with some more classical aesthetic virtues. Alongside the original Z4 roadster and the E60-generation 5 series, it therefore ought to be considered as one of the successes of the Bangle era.

With more than 100.000 units sold over seven years, this very new Sechser eventually proved to be successful enough in terms of sales to warrant a successor model, too. Whether the car sold in spite or because of its appearance remains up to debate, of course – though the option of a convertible version (for the first time since the 503’s days) unquestionably played a role in this 6 succeeding where the 8 had failed.

In the end, through considerable disruption, the Bavarians finally appeared to have re-established the kind of consistency that had preciously eluded them – which would appear rather ironic.

BMW 6 series /F13), photo (c) conceptcarz.com

While its predecessor’s looks couldn’t have been anticipated by the most gifted of clairvoyants, evolution, rather than evolution proved to be the general principle behind the succeeding F13-generation Sechser, unveiled in 2011.

Paying tribute to van Hooydonk’s design only through minor details (mainly the shape of the boot’s tearing edge) and the proportions, this 6 series was both more conventional and more ornamental than its predecessor (which was bold, rather than fussy). Styled by Nader Faghihzadeh, the F13’s graphics are quite busy and include a few odd choices, particularly regarding the light units.

In that sense, this Sechser wasn’t half as much its own beast as E63, but much more in keeping with the rest of the range at that point. The rather decorative character of its appearance also meant that the four-door Gran Coupé version was the most comely variant of the range, as all those creases and curves appeared somewhat more harmonious on that car’s larger canvas.

In a challenging market that’s become highly indifferent towards the gran turismo, this 6 series sold in decent numbers though – albeit clearly augmented by the Gran Coupé saloon version, which some might consider a worthier successor to the relatively athletic BMW Siebener models of the past, rather than today’s bloated semi-limousine.

BMW 8 series (G15), photo (c) Motor1.com

Given the outgoing model’s solid sales, one might have assumed that the 6 series’ future was ensured. But that wouldn’t be taking Bayerische Motoren Werke into account, some marketing mastermind’s stroke of genius aimed at putting some clear water between BMW’s upscale models and the brand’s more mundane – some might say: harmfully brand-diluting – fare. This kind of logic also obviously dictates that the higher the model number, the higher the subjective levels of sophistication and hence the possible asking price.

For those reasons, the car that – for all intents and purposes – should be the new Sechser, is now the new Achter. Or, to pay tribute to aforementioned marketing supremo’s, The 8.

Even disregarding the dubious nomenclature, BMW’s most recent luxury GT is an odd offering. To describe its exterior design, credited to John Buckingham, as either avant-garde or elegant would be a challenge, as the car’s overall appearance is rather convoluted.

The frontal aspect’s unashamed aggression should sit rather uneasily even with those golfing enthusiasts that would just about let themselves be seen in front of the clubhouse at the helm of an E63 15 years ago – however, if they’ve got any gangsta rapper children, this might be a Sechser for them. Unless they’re into SUVs, of course.

Then there’s the overall stance, which is most odd – as the greenhouse appears to be attached to an oversized lower body, which makes the car (although only available on huge wheels) appear undertyred. The numerous scoops, vents (only some of which are functional) and that stick-on rear spoiler also do not lend the car a particularly high level of sophistication, despite its marketing stressing this GT’s supposedly suave qualities.

Or, in more blunt terms: If this same car design sported a dart, rather than the blue & white propeller, few would bat an eyelid if it was announced as the comeback of the Pontiac Firebird.

So what’s it going to be then, that BMW GT, eh? Over the course of six decades, Munich’s finest designers, engineers and  product planners have time and again tried to get a grip on what it is that makes a great gran turismo. That, on some occasions, they succeeded isn’t surprising – that this success couldn’t be conserved is.

A popular allegation levelled at Germans is that their culture has no understanding of luxury – that there’s a profound mistrust of the superfluous that prevents Germans from creating anything truly lavish.

This may or may not be true. But in the case of BMW’s large coupés, a failure to grasp luxury isn’t to blame. Just this once, Germans have proven themselves to be just wildly inconsistent.

 

The author of this piece runs his own motoring website, which you are welcome to visit at 

 www.auto-didakt.com

 

 

Author: Christopher Butt

Auto-Didakt

13 thoughts on “What’s It Going To Be Then, Eh?”

  1. Was it really wizard like eloquence Chris Bangle used to get what he wanted or was it but an endless stream of ear bending utter verbal nonsense making pitiable listeners succumb to anything just to escape it?

    To my eyes no design with a boot lid like the E63’s can ever be called successful.
    CAR once had a photograph showing an E63 with open boot lid and a Porsche 996 in the background. From the point of view of that particular picture the rear ends of these two cars looked remarkably similar.

    Regarding the old BMWs one should not forget that a 507 sold at about the same price as a gullwing SL which makes its ~500 sales number look not too bad against the SL’s ~1,500 considering BMW was largely known for licence built 250cc bubble cars and slow and cumbersome motor bikes providing the means of transport for the working poor.

  2. An insightful review, thank you, Christopher. For me the E9 still stands head and shoulders above the others for its sublime balance of elegance and aggression. Its a measure of how much its E24 and E31 successors had bulked up that both look very under-wheeled by modern standards, yet the E9 does not. The E63, despite the oddness of the boot lid and nose treatment, is remarkably clean and assured design when compared with its increasingly chintzy successors.

    1. Funnily enough (and if you knew what amounted to the norm around these parts, you’d probably sympathise), I met a nu-Achter on my evening commute. Once again I was struck by just how gargantuan it is. It can probably be observed from space.

      It led me to wonder if maybe, like its immediate predecessor, ‘The 8’ will find its most eloquent (and elegant) expression in four-door form? Because even while the Gran 8 doesn’t manage to visually eclipse the Kia Stinger it so clearly resembles, it does (from the almost completely undisguised images I have seen) appear to be a good deal better proportioned than its 2-door equivalent.

      It also led me to ask rhetorically what a four-door version of the E63 would have looked like – or for that matter a four-door E31?

    2. For an idea of a four door E63 look no further than E65.
      All symptoms of Bangligosis are there: stupid boot lid, lachrymal sacs and ham fisted shutlines that simply don’t work.

  3. Very insightful indeed, Herr Butt. And (in typical DTW tradition) of a quality that will be hard to find elsewhere on the interweb…

    There is one car I am missing from this examination (that you have probably had a good reason to exclude). The coupé that pre-dates the E9 by a few years but to my eye introduced many of its design elements: The 2000 CS, also a “New Generation” based car, that besides the clean, new age lines, experimented with rectangular headlamps and silver paint decades before they found their way into the rest of the model range. Since I still don’t know how to include photos : https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/BMW_Neue_Klasse#/media/File:BMW_2000_CS_1.jpg & https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/BMW_Neue_Klasse#/media/File:BMW_2000_CS.jpg

    Nonetheless, I also agree with the observation that the E9 could well be considered the quintessential BMW, the car that defined the brand for the four decades that followed. This sporty, confident look is something that went through more or less all of BMWs cars right up to the E38 7 series, that James Bond famously returned to the Avis rent-a-car branch in Hamburg in the late 1990s. Take away the badge, conceal the most obvious brand elements (the grill mostly) put those two cars next to each other and there can be very little doubt that they were conceived and produced by the same manufacturer. I think it is this heritage that still makes up for most of BMW’s brand value to this day.

    I agree with what has been said in praise of the E63. I find it a stunning and very coherent design and all the more unfortunate that the Bangle shock appears to have thrown BMW so badly off course. Ever since then design department and/or the entire company appear to have found themselves on an Odyssey to marry the Bangle revolution with the long standing traditions that pre-dated it. Bangle after all had created a new tradition in its own right. And being traditionalists current BMW management can’t ignore either. In result of course the cars have not been able to live up to the standards of the one or the other.

    If history (and Hegel) teach us one thing though, it is that success and failure are two sides of the same coin, and one probably could not exist without the other.

  4. An excellent review, and a great commentary on the ins and outs of the big coupes’ history and the politics behind them, that I had no idea of. I love absorbing new info like that.

    The 4 door BMW Gran Coupe from 2013 or so I rather like the look of myself. Opening the hood reveals those rather cheap steady bars for the radiator support though, which as an engineer made me wonder about the structural rigidity. Out of my price range so I never bothered wondering too much about it. Although Car and Driver noted in a later test of the convertible that it was indeed structurally deficient.

    The latest 8 looks more like a badly-styled over-ostentatious Mustang in profile than anything else, an opinion not confined to me judging by remarks in US forums. Can’t see a Stinger in it anywhere, Eoin. And presumably the US is where BMW believes they are going to sell the most of these things after China. The Mustang GT 350 with the 8250 rpm flat-plane crank 5.2 V8 looks way better overall to my eyes and is technically far more interesting, even the rear suspension configuration which is so outre, it makes the original 5 link Mercedes bushing squasher look primitive.

    Never heard “A popular allegation levelled at Germans is that their culture has no understanding of luxury – that there’s a profound mistrust of the superfluous that prevents Germans from creating anything truly lavish.” Not sure where this popular allegation is supposed to originate; quite the opposite seems likely looked at from foreign eyes when you’re talking high end German automobiles. They are no shrinking violets externally. While I wouldn’t quite call an S-Class a pimpmobile, sitting in one tends to slant the mind in that direction, even to the blue lighting like US custom builders started using 15 years ago. Fragrance dispensers? Quilted leather? A bit over the top. And all the big boys come with ground-pounder grilles bent on domination. But of course, all that’s just my opinion.

    1. Obviously, Christopher is better placed to make judgements about his fellow-countrymen’s’ perception of luxury than those of us non-Germans, but my own take on this might be to suggest that it wasn’t so much a lack of understanding, rather than a somewhat Calvinist reading of it. The luxury being manifest in the quality of the materials used and the manner in which they were fitted, rather than the use of decorative flourishes or finishes.

      It appears to me that latterly, the German prestige makes have appropriated an alternate reading of luxury – one which I might suggest does not come naturally to them. The result being that the cabins (in particular), but increasingly the exteriors of German prestige cars appear ‘forced’, whereas in the past, it all seemed comparatively effortless.

      Returning to Bill’s comment regarding the 8’s real or imagined resemblance to Kia’s Stinger, I was referring to the forthcoming four-door Gran-Achter, which has been papped virtually undisguised recently, and not the two-door, which does indeed whistle a passable rendition of Mustang Sally. But as with (almost) all cover versions, the original is preferable.

    2. Bill,

      Germans’ failure to truly grasp luxury is a subject matter that’s been raised more than once – by Stephen Bayley amongst others, who is also a foreigner.

      To illustrate the point, take a Mercedes W126 or even W140 and compare it to a Jaguar of similar vintage. Comfort, convenience and quality are all their and present, but a Jaguar was always considered to be the more luxurious/decadent object, even thought it’s considerably cheaper.

      Also, if you look at more opulent architectural styles, these were all adopted by German/Bavarian/Prussian architects in their respective day, rather than invented. The same could be said about the gin palace cabin of a current Mercedes S-class, which is more Dubai than Sindelfingen.

      Luxury isn’t an inherent part of the German national identity in the way it is in France, Italy or, to a lesser degree, the UK. This isn’t to say that this country is non-feudal, but class divides are not quite as dramatic as elsewhere.

  5. Great read, Christopher, thank you. I hadn’t previously thought of the E9 as the BMW that defined the brand – I always felt they established the formula with E12 – but it’s clearly E9 where the magic happened.

    In one sense I agree that (unusual) inconsistency is a feature of the BMW GT lineage, but I would at least say that each of the three 6-Series models hewed closely to the original E24 (and indeed E9) concept. It was with the 8-Series moniker that BMW GTs have been ambitious departures into pastures new, both times aiming somewhere higher, but missing. If you add E52 in to the mix, there’s another flagship BMW ‘8-branded’ product that is unspeakably beautiful but nonetheless something of a dynamic disappointment.

    My take is that BMW haven’t ever figured out how to do a flagship sports car. Should it be a 911 or SL or Continental or XK beater? BMW management could never commit here, so each 8 has been a somewhat unfocused attempt to take on all comers. I would love to see an 8-Series with the design purity of the E9, the quality of execution of the Z8 and the dynamic focus of the M2. Rather than make it another Porsche, M-B or Bentley fighter, make it the BMW that every BMW fan would love to own.

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