Guilty Pleasures: BMW 1 Series (F20)

Some car designs either mature with age or wait for the beholder’s eye to mature. The second-generation BMW Einser is an example of this phenomenon. 

Image: The author

The passage of time can have peculiar side effects, in that both one’s own tastes tend to change, just as changing context can significantly alter one’s perception and hence opinion.

In automotive terms, for example, my (much) younger self was left unreservedly enchanted by the Rover 75 upon its unveiling. The attention to detail of its styling, as well as the obvious nods to historic British car designs completely won me over; to me, the 75 was everything the Jaguar S-type most equivocally was not.

Two decades later, the Jaguar remains no caterpillar-turned-butterfly, but the Rover has lost quite a lot of its charm. The care and attention to detail that went into its design remain as obvious as they were back in 1998, but the entire concept of a twee retro saloon so unashamedly attempting to evoke a nostalgic allure does appear a bit silly from today’s perspective – or at least to a set of eyes that has received twenty more years of visual education.

However, the opposite can occur just as easily, and doesn’t necessarily require the passing of decades to take place. For this is what has happened to me recently, when I took the time to study the second-generation BMW 1 series with that metaphorical set of fresh eyes.

(c) Automotive Database

Back in the day (or, more specifically: eight years ago), I wasn’t immediately enamoured. This Einser wasn’t as striking as its predecessor, nor was it a classical beauty. Its RWD proportions remained interesting in a category of motor car that was very homogenous in that regard (and is even more so now), and the F20 generation did immediately appear as though it spent quite a bit more time at the clay modellers than its dramatic, yet somewhat coarse predecessor.

What I did catch immediately was the intricate connection of rear and front lights (both of which are pointed inwards) and the rather neat, arrow-shaped side crease – the latter of which was later shared with the very pleasant 4 series coupé that also happens to be credited to former BMW exterior designer, Nicolas Huet. But in total, this second One seemed to be rather less than the sum of its parts.

A first cause to reconsider my stance presented itself once the Einser received its facelift. In that process, it gained rather more ordinary, decidedly horizontal light units front and rear. While the less squinty front and more planted rear did make the car appear more broadly palatable, they also made for far less consistent and less delicate an appearance than before. But only recently did the quality of the F20’s design truly strike me.

Even to those of us open to Chris Bangle’s BMW oeuvre, there’s no escaping the realisation that it’s mostly defined by broad brushstrokes than intricate delicacy. The F20 makes for a particularly interesting case in that it combines Bangleesque peculiarity with unusual attention to detail, and even a certain subtlety.

A particularly colour-sensitive design, the F20’s best comes to the fore in tones like gunmetal grey or light metallic blue. Then the sculpting of the front becomes apparent, where a slash above the headlights somewhat distracts from the subtle, arrow-shaped sculpting next to the kidney grille. This is picked up by the three-dimensional slats in the grille – a feature that has been incorporated in most recent BMW designs, albeit in offensively poorly executed form.

Only very rarely does a front end design offer more than one ‘layer’ of graphics, but in the F20’s case, the sculpting adds an unusual subtlety to the design – despite the simplicity of the arrow theme. Maybe the esteemed Mr Herriott, should he not totally disagree with my findings here, might take it upon himself to explain this in detail at some stage.

The side is defined by fine craftsmanship. As with the (also Huet-designed) 4 series, the wheel arches are subtly accentuated. There’s a concave stretch of metal on the flanks, below the BMW ‘character line’, that is clearly set apart from the rear wheel arch (again à la 4 series) and only very few lines and creases apart from this.

(c) ZerCustoms

At the rear, the pointed shape of the light units pays tribute to the front-end design, with the ‘arrowhead’ again being continued by sheetmetal sculpting, on the boot lid in this instance. As a consequence, this Einser lacks the L-shape rear lights that have become a key BMW styling feature, although a very subtle reference to the Neue Klasse and some ’02 models’ rear lights could be read into this shape, if one was hellbent on doing so.

While the F20 Einser may not be a BMW design for the ages, I thoroughly enjoyed giving the car another chance. Firstly because of the fine, if not glaringly obvious craftsmanship the design betrays, but also because it proved to me that any aesthetic judgement is only final until the next opportunity to examine an object presents itself.

Clearly, any piece of design created with care – as has been the case here – deserves attention. Or at least a second chance.

Author: Christopher Butt

car design enthusiast // the mind behind www.auto-didakt.com // contributor to The Road Rat magazine // columnist for Octane France //

14 thoughts on “Guilty Pleasures: BMW 1 Series (F20)”

  1. This is probably not the first BMW design that appears better over the years. I went through a very similar process with the E60 5 series, one of the earlier Bangle cars. I thought it ws too massive with its high bodysides and thick sill, especially in light colours (silver was the big thing at this time). I didn’t bother about the bootlid and the sculpted surfaces, though, as these were distinctive and novel features that showed a good way out of BMW’s dead end with more and more horizontal lines and creases (apparent for example in the E46 3 series).

    I don’t know if it’s just acclimatisation that lets one view something strange as more familiar, or if it’s rather the merit of its more than mediocre successors. In case of Christopher’s example here, I’m tempted to suggest the latter…

    1. Sorry but the Express ceased to be a reliable source of information some years ago. It now deals only in hysteria and xenophobic flag-waving.

      I refuse to click on that link and would need another source.

  2. Good morning, Christopher. Thank you for an interesting and thoughtful reassment of a controversial design. Like many, I suspect, I initially regarded the faceflited version to be an improvement, but I how understand how, for the sake of conventionality, it diluted the designers’ original intention in tying the front and rear ends together through the shape of the light units.

    If I have now a criticism of the original, it’s that the rear lights were too “square” (i.e. their inner and outer edges being almost parallel), so their “boat” shape was far less obvious than in the design sketch above, so the connection to the very distinctive front lights was not apparent. I imagine this was done for reasons of practicality, to widen the rear hatch opening, but I’m sure the designers groaned when they heard reviewers describing the rear lights as being “like those on a VW Polo”.

    Your detail photo perfectly captures the neat sculpting around the headlight and illustrates the designers’ intention. It’s interesting now to compare the original and facelifted front and rear ends:

    I’m coming around to the viewpoint that the original was more characterful and coherent. Maybe the F20 is another E60 and will be appreciated long after it’s gone? In any event, the ghastly current 1 Series makes the F20, in either guise, look like a masterpiece.

    Regarding the Rover 75, I always admired the quality of its execution, but it was far too self-consciously “Olde England” for my taste. It didn’t help its case that there were lots of tatty examples around in the UK for a few years before it started to disappear. The (of necessity, cheap) facelift was also abominable, giving the front end a horribly pinched look:

    1. Thank you, Daniel.

      I’m not trying to convince anyone of the F20’s status as an overlooked masterpiece, but I do believe the quality of the design at least warrants closer inspection.

      It’s the light blue example pictured at the top that made me pause and give the design its due. I come across that car regularly when walking the dog, and in that colour, the beautiful surfacing truly comes to the fore -the way the creases converge and interact with the surfaces I find truly satisfying. While one may not like the car’s appearance, the craftsmanship on display is simply excellent, while the stylistic ideas (the ‘arrow’ theme in particular) are, at the very least, interesting.

      The facelift lost much of the subtlety, whereas the abominable new model highlights that talent and professionalism don’t grow on trees – what with most of the people involved in F20’s original design having since left Munich for pastures greener.

      The 75 is a rather sad case to me. My appreciation of its style has decreased at the same rate as my love for the P6 has grown. I must assume twee

    2. Comparing your photo of the pre-facelift F20’s headlight and surrounding bodywork with the same aspect of the F40 current model is very illuminating:

      The absence of the F20’s neat vertical flange detail above the headlamp exposes the thin edge of the bonnet and a nasty “rat hole” (to use Richard’s great descriptor!) where the bonnet meets the nose cone. The devil truly is in the detail.

    3. On my walk today I sited a 2014 pre-facelift Einer, and while I remain somewhat ambivalent about it as a whole, I could definitely see that the F20 was in possession of a strong theme, which was in this case, rather well executed. It has, on the whole, aged reasonably well.

      Say what you will however about BMW’s current output from a thematic perspective, (and opinions do differ), but I think we can all agree that the execution is pitiful.

  3. I always disliked the front bumper on the Rover – it looked like an aftermarket item. Seemed to me that the sheet-metal of the front wings had obvious cutouts for conventional port and starboard indicator lenses, but the headlamps effectively ‘blanked out’ this area to accommodate the double round headlamps. It looked like an afterthought – or more likely a last minute rethink after a more conventional headlamp/indicator setup got shelved – and I remember at the time wondering why everyone was giving it so many accolades when this was so clear, and it also had a roofline that looked like it had been sat on.

    1. Hi Huw. I’ve always thought the same thing as you about the 75’s front wing cut-outs, although, if true, it seems an extraordinary bodge on an otherwise well designed car (questions of taste aside).

      Roewe finally used the cut-outs as intended(?) when it facelifted the 750:

    2. Glad it wasn’t just me! This is definitely how it should’ve looked in Mk1 form. It’s less retro and much more resolved and luxurious (though the big grille with licence place as bar is definitely from the Audi playbook.)

    3. Roewe also gave the 75 a different rear end with a higher and squarer boot line when it became the 750:

      Is this a car we might add to our (very)shortlist of successful facelifts? It deserves consideration because the original 75 was such a particular style and difficult to tamper with.

  4. Amazing article, as usual by Christopher.

    To me, the F20 (observed in a 3dr version) is first and foremost an obvious success in the discipline of concealing the true roofline silhouette (aimed at practicality) from the Coupe-mimicking perceived-roofline-slope. Almost a textbook example thereof.

    This tempts me to suppose that maybe its most defining feature,
    which is arguably the brazen way its Hofmeister kink grows and develops into the side sculpting, supplying endless visual hints
    of “RWD traction issues ” (“RWD desirability” was obviously deemed appealing to the archetypal Series-1 buyer),
    actually plays a two-fold role:

    1. Conveying a powerful message that the car is all about “visually celebrating” its RWD layout (which is executed brilliantly), and

    2. Succesfully distracting the eye of the observer in the lower-downwards direction, therefore preventing the eye to focus
    on the true quantity of roofline/DLO “slope” that’s supplied.
    (this is also executed perfectly).

    If the design is stripped from those two aspects (which are IMHO defining, and brilliant from a styling-methodology point of view) the remaining parts of the car are a rather cold, sobering execution of a ‘median-post-Bangle’ hatchback, with dubious levels of desire to stand out from the crowd. Apparently, the rest of the car just blindly follows the marketing brief requirements, and creates
    a stark contrast to its “desire to live” rear 3/4, DLO & C-pillar .

    Its front end is a mystery. The only possible explanation to the bitterness of the headlights’ shape (that are so stern that they
    make even an E30 front end look sympatethic…), is that the management was probably careful not to cannibalise too
    much from the 3-series’ sales. If that was their idea,
    then they bloody nailed it with the pre-facelift headlights.

    In an ideal scenario, I’d elect a 3dr pre-facelift F20 and retrofit it with a post-facelift front end. Which, TBH, does not seem as a too challenging thing to perform in technical terms.

    1. This is brilliant, and why I like DtW.

      I agree with you about the front end, by the way… so austere. But, personally speaking, I would invest the cash in a sweet set of lighter wheels and some higher spec dampers and springs to give it a subtle nose-down stance and sort out the ride & handling.

  5. Thank you Jacomo.

    While the F20 is not a car that gains that much visually from altering its ride height / stance (such as, eg. most of the C.Bangle styled cars, especially so the Fiat Coupe and BMW E65…), it definitely looks much better when the wheelarches are filled substantially, as the following photograph can attest:

    The matt finish on this car helps dismiss unnecessary light reflections, and palpably accentuates the said Hofmeister-
    kink extension into the side/sill, which I elaborated
    on in my original comment above.

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