The author charts the evolution of BMW’s design over the past sixty years and laments the dismal state it is in today.
In the late 1950’s BMW was a company in deep financial trouble. It had been posting losses for a number of years as an increasingly affluent West German middle-class turned away from its motorcycles and Isetta bubble car but could not afford its 501 luxury saloon.
Moreover, the BMW 507 roadster, although beautiful, had proved financially ruinous for the company. Only 252 roadsters were produced over three years in production between 1956 and 1959. It was virtually hand-built and, even at a price of almost $10,000 (equivalent to $97,400 in 2021) in the US market for which it was primarily designed, BMW lost money on every single one sold. Consequently, the company posted a loss of DM15 million in 1959 and found itself on the verge of bankruptcy.
Daimler-Benz considered what would effectively have been a takeover of its troubled Bavarian rival. A proposal for a merger was tabled, but this was rejected by BMW’s shareholders. Instead, it was the Quandt family, whose wealth derived from a wide range of industrial holdings, that came to the rescue and recapitalised the company. A plan was formulated for a product-led reinvigoration of BMW.
The Quandt investment followed(1) the launch in 1959 of the BMW 700. This was a small rear-engined car available in two-door saloon, coupé and convertible variants. It was styled by Giovanni Michelotti, head of the Italian carrozzeria that bore his name, and was built on an extended version of the Isetta-based 600’s platform. The 700 was an attractive and contemporary looking car, which was well received and sold strongly. A total of 188,211 were built over six years in production, bringing the beleaguered company much-needed income.
BMW’s future, however, would not be as a producer of small cars, and no replacement was planned for the 700. Instead, the company turned its attention to designing a new mid-sized saloon car aimed directly at the growing modestly affluent professional middle-class. The Neue Klasse(2) project was headed by Fritz Fiedler. Body styling and engineering was by Wilhelm Hofmeister, again with external input from Michelotti.
Hofmeister designed a simple but elegant four-door saloon body with a light and airy glasshouse. The lower and upper bodies met at a pronounced beltline that neatly incorporated the door handles and the shut-lines for the clamshell bonnet and boot lid. At the front, there was a new interpretation of the traditional BMW ‘double kidney’ grille: this was now the central feature of a full-width horizontal grille incorporating the headlamps, while the indicators were neatly tucked into the upper leading corners of the front wings. The front end was canted forward in a ‘shark-nose’ style. The C-pillar incorporated the eponymous ‘Hofmeister Kink’ that would become a BMW design staple for decades to come.
The new model was launched at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1961 as the BMW 1500 and went on sale the following year(3). It was well received and its styling set the template for BMW’s new generation of sporting saloons. Larger engined versions, including the 1966 two-litre BMW 2000, enhanced the model’s appeal. The 2000 also received a light facelift, with slim, wide rectangular headlamps replacing the circular units on earlier models. At the rear, similarly wide horizontal tail lights were fitted instead of the narrow vertical original units, albeit at the cost of a higher boot sill(4).
In 1965 BMW introduced a coupé version of the Neue Klasse. This was a smooth and elegant Italianate pillarless design, from the side and rear, at least. The front end looked a little gawky, with high-set light units either side of a tall double-kidney grille. These elements were inset into a painted metal panel with a row of vertical cooling slots that dipped partly behind the bumper, rather than the saloon’s neater full-width grille.
A shortened version of the platform was used for a range of smaller two-door saloons introduced in 1966 that shared the same engines and had similar but simpler and, arguably, even better resolved styling. The flanks lost the 1500’s lower horizontal crease and were smooth and unadorned below the belt line. This model was distinguished from its larger sibling by a ’02 suffix in the model number and became hugely successful as, de-facto, the first compact executive premium sports saloon, especially in two-litre 2002 form.
In 1971, BMW launched a three-door Touring version with a slightly shorter rear end and a neatly incorporated hatchback. In 2002 form, the Touring could well claim to be the first hot hatchback, albeit an RWD one. A turbocharged version of the 2002 was launched in 1973. While sales of the 2002 Turbo were hobbled by that year’s Middle East Oil Crisis which led to a tripling of petrol prices, it was still hugely influential in strengthening BMW’s sporting credentials and enhancing the appeal of its more mainstream models.
A decade after the 501 had been discontinued, BMW returned to the large car market in 1968 with the ‘New Six’ models, a range of (E3) saloons and (E9) coupés with 2.5, 2.8 and 3.0 litre straight-six engines. The styling was an enlargement and further refinement of that seen on the Neue Klasse and ’02 ranges. If anything, the style worked even better in this iteration: the forward-canted shark’s nose, now with twin circular headlamps flanking the double-kidney grille, crisp clean lines and an airy glasshouse with the Hofmeister kink C-pillar all combined beautifully to give the cars a handsome, muscular and athletic stance. The earlier models’ clamshell bonnet and boot lid were replaced with conventional items, but the single horizontal belt-line crease remained as the only feature adorning the otherwise sheer sides. The coupé versions married the earlier Neue Klasse pillarless coupé styling to the new saloon’s simpler and more pleasing nose treatment.
The new models’ nomenclature continued the practice of using engine sizes in cubic centimetres for the 2.5 and 2.8 litre models, but the three-litre was called 3.0 rather than 3000. The coupés carried the ‘CS’ suffix. In 1971, an LWB version of the saloon was launched with a 102mm (4”) stretch in the wheelbase to answer criticism of limited rear leg room. The elegant styling suffered not at all from the lengthening of the rear doors. The LWB model carried an ‘L’ suffix and a 3.3 litre version was added from January 1974, making it a strong challenger to the Mercedes S-Class large saloon.
From the 1602 to the 3.3L, BMW now had a full range of sporting saloons and large coupés, all of which were handsomely styled, finely engineered and well built. In the space of little over a decade, the company had transformed itself from near bankruptcy to a member of Europe’s automotive elite, thanks in no small part to Wilhelm Hofmiester’s handsome, consistent and distinctive styling. Hofmeister retired in 1970, leaving behind a strong design legacy that would remain influential for decades to come.
By the early 1970’s the Neue Klasse was a decade old and in need of renewal. The replacement was the 1972 (E12) 5 Series(5). Styled by Wilhelm Hofmeister with input from Bertone’s Marcello Gandini, it was a skilful evolution of the design theme of its predecessor. All the signature BMW elements were maintained: the shark-nose double-kidney grille, now with twin headlamps, the airy glasshouse and the Hofmeister kink in the C-pillar. A new and neat element was a lower bodyside rubbing strip that aligned with the wrap-around bumpers across the wheel arches, visually lowering and lengthening the car. The clamshell bonnet remained, but the boot lid was now a conventional design.
The E12 was given a subtle facelift in 1976. The major change was that the leading edge of the bonnet now had a raised centre section to accommodate the double-kidney grille(6), which no longer dipped behind the front bumper. At the rear, there were enlarged light clusters and the fuel filler was moved from the rear panel to the right-hand rear wing.
In 1975 the ‘02 models were replaced by the (E21) 3 Series. A Paul Bracq design, this was again a finely judged evolution, retaining all the BMW signature features. The smallest-engined 316 had single 7” circular headlamps, but the larger-engined 320 and 323 were instead given dual 5¾” units. This quad headlamp arrangement had become another signature BMW design feature. One slightly unsatisfactory aspect was the rear end: the number plate was relocated to below the bumper, which left a wide expanse of metal between and below the slim rear lights. A ribbed plastic filler panel was a late addition to the recess between the lights, to lower the apparent height of the tail.
Sadly, the three-door ’02 Touring was not replaced. There are photos of a rather blocky looking prototype with a large triangular C-pillar, which would certainly have needed further refinement before production. Such was the essential ‘rightness’ of the design that the E21 was given only the mildest of facelifts in 1978. The sole external alteration was the relocation of the door mirror mounting point to an enlarged triangular sail panel in the corner of the door window frame.
The New Six models were replaced by Bracq’s 1976 (E24) 6 Series coupé and 1977 (E23) 7 Series saloon. Both were impressive looking cars, but the coupé lost the pillarless construction of its predecessor and was instead given a stout fixed B-pillar to increase body rigidity. More generally, increasing size and weight robbed both saloon and coupé of some of the elegance and athleticism possessed by their predecessors. The E23 shared the wheelbase of the LWB version of the E3 saloon and was fractionally longer overall.
A subtle difference between the front end of the saloon and coupé is that the former had larger 7” headlamps outboard of the 5¾” inboard units, while the latter instead had four equal-sized 5¾” headlamps. This was effective in giving the front end of the saloon more visual heft than that of the coupé. Less successfully, the coupé had a slightly odd-looking full width ribbed plastic filler panel inserted immediately above the rear bumper. This might have resulted from a late decision to replace the deep rear bumper from the saloon with a slimmer item, presumably in an attempt to take some visual height out of the tail.
The 3 and 5 Series both sold strongly, but the 7 Series was outgunned and outsold by the hugely impressive 1979 W126 Mercedes-Benz S-class. In the luxury market segment, BMW’s ‘sporting’ proposition was nothing as compelling as it was in its smaller models. The 7 Series may have fallen between two stools, by attempting to find a balance between an involving drive and luxurious comfort for (rear seat) passengers.
The 1981 E28 5 Series is credited to Boyke Boyer under the supervision of design head Claus Luthe. It was an extraordinarily cautious update of its predecessor, to the extent that it looked more like a light facelift, and it retained the body-in-white of its predecessor. External changes were limited to a conventional rather than clamshell bonnet, a taller, more horizontal tail, and concealed body-coloured vents either side of the rear screen rather than horizontal black grilles in the base of the C-pillars. From the front, the car was virtually indistinguishable from its predecessor. From the rear, the slightly fussy larger two-tier light clusters with their wide central chrome bar were more distinctive and an immediate recognition point, if not necessarily an aesthetic improvement.
The 1982 (E30) 3 Series was rather more significantly changed over its predecessor. It had a noticeably shallower and more upright front grille, moving away from the shark-nosed earlier design. At the rear, the number plate was relocated to between the light clusters. The car had a more planted stance overall, losing the slightly high-tailed look of its predecessor. More significant than any design changes however, the 3 Series range was widened to include two and four-door saloons, a five-door Touring estate and a factory-built two-door convertible(7).
The E30 was also credited to Boyer under Luthe’s supervision. Although the new cars were thoroughly competent, well received and sold strongly, there was a suspicion in some quarters that BMW was running low on design inspiration. The design roots for these models could be easily and clearly traced back two decades to Hofmeister’s Neue Klasse 1500. Some argued that a new or, at least, more evolutionary style was needed.
That style arrived in the shape of the 1986 (E32) 7 Series. Although retaining BMW’s signature design elements, it was a noticeably more rounded, bulkier and more imposing looking car than its crisp predecessor. BMW wanted to take the fight to Mercedes-Benz on Stuttgart’s ground, so the new 7 Series offered much greater luxury and refinement, including double-glazed windows and V8 and V12 engines. The styling of the new model is credited to Ercole Spada, again under Luthe’s supervision. Whilst still a handsome car, any pretentions of sporting intent were set aside: the 7 Series was now a full-fat luxury saloon.
The 1988 (E34) 5 Series followed the 7 Series’ stylistic lead. The initial design work was again undertaken by Spada under Luthe’s supervision, but following Spada’s departure, the work was completed by J Mays (whose influence on the design was less than often stated). Like the 7 Series, the new 5 Series appeared to be moving the dial away from sporting and in the direction of luxury, although the top of the range 540i and M5 models still offered towering performance. For the first time, a handsome Touring estate version was offered alongside the saloon. The E32 and E34 shared what would become another BMW signature design element, ‘L’ shaped rear light clusters that wrapped around the corners of the boot lid, with the indicators occupying the outboard upper corners of the ‘L’ shape.
The 1980’s saw the development of a whole new market for BMW’s cars. Financial deregulation in Europe and the United States led to a huge expansion of banking, brokerage and related financial businesses that enriched a new generation. These young, upwardly-mobile urban professionals, known by the soubriquet ‘Yuppies’, were eager to display their new-found wealth ostentatiously. BMW (and Porsche) became their car of choice and the company’s sales soared.
BMW had enjoyed a decade of record sales in the 1980’s so was looking forward with great confidence to the new decade and set itself ambitious growth targets. Next in line for renewal was the 3 Series, but this is where the first real cracks appeared in BMW’s design. The 1990 (E36) model, designed by Boyer and Pinki Lai, had a distinct whiff of cost-cutting about it. The thick one-piece door window frames looked cheap, as did the (initially unpainted) grey plastic bumpers. Lower line versions in solid colours and on steel wheels with plastic wheel covers looked (and were) distinctly down-market. The frangible looking grey plastic dashboard, dominated by large air vents, could easily have come from a contemporary GM model. It had lost the simple, driver-focussed clarity and robust quality of earlier models.
Instead of a two-door saloon, BMW produced a 3 Series coupé that shared no body panels with the saloon and retained a degree of elegance with its frameless door windows and sleeker profile. A new convertible was based on the coupé bodyshell. However, to underscore the dash for further sales growth, in 1993 BMW released the 3 Series Compact, a Manx-tailed three-door hatchback that became the entry point to BMW ownership for many. The company positioned the new 3 Series range as a mass-market product and was rewarded with strong sales, albeit at the cost of exclusivity and an erosion of the sporting image it had so carefully nurtured.
At the top of its range, BMW made another miscalculation. It replaced its well-regarded 6 Series coupé in 1990 with the (E31) 8 Series. This was a considerably larger, more powerful and more expensive car than its predecessor. The smallest engine option was a 4.0 litre V8. A 5.0 litre V12, subsequently enlarged to 5.6 litres, was also offered. For many potential buyers, the 8 Series was just too large and profligate, and too much of a leap from its predecessor. Although smoothly styled with pop-up headlamps and fully-integrated bumpers, the E31 lacked subtlety and delicacy, and looked heavy and over-bodied. Even the US market, which should have been the natural home for a large ‘personal coupé’, shunned the 8 Series and took only a quarter of its total sales of around 31,000 over nine years in production.
Having tried and failed to take on Mercedes-Benz at its own game with the 1986 (E32) 7 Series, BMW retreated to more familiar ground with its successor, the 1994 (E38) model. The imposing E32 was replaced by a much slimmer and more athletic looking car. This was another Boyer design, initially overseen by Luthe. Following Luthe’s departure from BMW, Hans Braun, chief interior designer, took over supervision prior to Chris Bangle joining the company. While it was larger in every dimension than its predecessor, its perfectly proportioned styling contrived to make it look smaller and less imposing, to the extent that some detractors complained that it lacked presence and looked like an “XXL 3 Series”. Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz had moved in precisely the opposite direction with the 1991 W140 S-Class, which was the subject of greater criticism for its sheer, undisguised bulk.
In 1995 BMW launched the (E39) 5 Series. The design, by Jogi Nagashima, was a noticeably fuller and more rounded shape than the lithe 7 Series, but it was undoubtedly handsome and very well received. Next to follow was the 1997 (E46) 3 Series. After the misstep with the E36, this was a welcome return to form for BMW’s smallest saloon.
The design was essentially a scaled-down 5 Series. Attribution for the E46 is somewhat complicated: BMW had taken full ownership of a design consultancy, DesignworksUSA, in 1995 and the exterior design is credited to Erik Goplen of Designworks. The E46 was actually the first BMW design wholly overseen by Chris Bangle, although the latter was kept on a tight leash by Dr Wolfgang Reitzle. As before, there were saloon, estate, coupé and Compact hatchback variants. The latter, launched in 2000, was besmirched by a poorly resolved front end with a decidedly eccentric lighting arrangement and an odd, overlapping bonnet to bumper shut-line, which was possibly a foretaste of what Bangle had in mind for future models.
Oddly, in this generation of BMW saloons, while the 3 and 5 Series were obviously closely related, it was the largest 7 Series that seemed to be the most self-effacing, almost delicately styled in the tradition of the E3 New Six saloon. Hence, it is something of an outlier compared with the rest of the range and, moreover, an underappreciated design in the best Hofmeister tradition, I would argue.
BMW was aware of the growing popularity of SUVs in place of conventional saloons and made its first foray into this market with the 1999 (E53) X5. This road-biased vehicle, marketed by BMW as an SAV (Sports Activity Vehicle) rather than an SUV, successfully repurposed elements of the contemporary 3 and 5 Series models into an imposing and muscular looking vehicle. The exterior design is credited to Chris Chapman. It managed to embed an element of sporting character into an unlikely vehicle for such a treatment and was an immediate success in the market.
Notwithstanding the awkward looking Compact, BMW again had a full range of conservatively handsome and classy looking cars as it moved into the New Millennium. However, Bangle, appointed BMW Group Director of Design on 1st October 1999, was keen to make his mark and decided that the company needed to break away decisively from the conservatism that had previously influenced its designs. Bangle brought with him a free-thinking Italian sensibility from Fiat (where he had styled the polarising 1993 Coupé) that would be a challenge to BMW’s innate conservatism.
Before Bangle could realise his vision for BMW’s future design direction however, there was a wonderful homage to the company’s past, the Z8, launched in 2000. This was a recreation of the beautiful 507 roadster that had almost bankrupted the company forty years earlier. The Z8 was an anachronism, albeit a glorious one, as described in more detail on DTW here .
Although it was not widely recognised as such, the Z9 Gran Turismo concept, revealed a month before Bangle’s appointment, was no mere designer’s flight of fancy, but a strong indication of his vision for the next generation of BMW models. The Z9 would go on to form the basis for his 2003 (E63) 6 Series coupé and convertible, and Bangle’s appointment would precipitate a seismic shift in BMW’s design. If anyone had doubts about his determination to usher in a radical new era for BMW, they were about to be savagely disabused of those notions with the launch of the 2001 (E65) 7 Series.
It has been alleged that this truly misbegotten car looked the way it did because, during its development, too much of Wolfgang Reitzle’s attention was spent on his escalating feud with BMW Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder. Reitzle was BMW’s Head of Product Development, and more than a dozen different E65 designs remained in the running until very late in the process, when the Adrian van Hooydonk proposal, which was Chris Bangle’s favourite, was pushed through on the basis that it had Pischetsrieder’s support, whereas Reitzle vehemently objected to it. This choice was driven by internal politics above all else. Without the chaos at Rover and ensuing infighting between Reitzle and Pischetsrieder, who was supported by BMW’s executive board, it is possible that common sense would have prevailed and Bangle would never have gotten his way.
In any event, the elegant conservatism of its predecessor was replaced by a design that appeared to be wilfully odd and challenging. The boot lid in particular looked like an afterthought: it was a clamshell design that sat proud of the rear end and appeared as though it might have come from a different car, its profile bearing scant relationship to the surrounding bodywork. The rear light clusters were split between the wings and boot lid, and no attempt was made to connect them physically or visually. At the front, the headlamp units’ odd shape appeared to fight against rather than flow into the surrounding bodywork. (It is little consolation that similar styling elements worked rather better on the E64 6 Series coupé and convertible, also a Van Hooydonk design.)
Between these extremities was a rather fat and amorphous centre section. One minor but particularly jarring detail was the treatment of a bodyside crease between the wheel arches. This started conventionally enough at the indicator repeater behind the front wheel arch but, rather than fade out gradually, it finished abruptly just behind the trailing edge shut-line on the rear door. In doing so, it had the appearance of a careless and poorly resolved (rather than intentionally dissonant) detail. If Bangle had set out to court controversy with the 7 Series, he certainly succeeded, and critical reaction varied from incredulity to outright horror.
Ironically, the E65’s 2005 facelift, which remedied as much as was realistically possible without making changes to the body-in-white, was the work of none other than E38 7 Series designer, Boyke Boyer.
The 2002 (E85) Z4 roadster and coupé were a much more coherent expression of what would become Bangle’s signature flame surfacing, an interplay of convex and concave panel shapes. The Z4 replaced the retro-styled 1995 (E36) Z3 roadster and was also notable for other Bangle design characteristics such as unusual shut-line management and light units with complex shapes and internal graphics.
Bangle’s next saloon was the 2003 (E60) 5 Series. It was designed by former Pininfarina stylist, Davide Archangeli, who sadly died before the design was wholly completed. Although still an unusual and controversial looking design, this was an altogether more successful piece of work. Whereas the 7 Series looked like a car where new front and rear ends had been grafted onto an existing centre section, the 5 Series was much more consistent, with its smooth, unadorned convex/concave flanks.
There were still dissonant and challenging details: the clamshell boot lid looked awkward, the rear lights’ shape and graphics made the tail look rather narrow and seeming to droop towards its centre, and the little ears on the outboard edges of the headlamp units seemed a superfluous flourish. Some still mourned the loss of what they perceived to be classic BMW design, but at least one could now better understand what Bangle was trying to achieve. The E60 has weathered the passage of time much better than many more recent BMW models and, especially in estate form without the saloon’s controversial rear end, is still a very handsome car.
Also launched in 2003 was the (E83) X3, BMW’s second SUV and smaller sibling to the X5. This really was a rather curious Bangle-era design. The flanks were smooth, linear and highly disciplined, almost Audi-esque in style, with only a hint of flame surfacing contours. The most notable feature in the side profile was a rather neat reworking of the Hofmeister kink, stretched rearwards to encompass a large third light in the DLO.
The front and rear of the X3, however, were distinguished by light units that were wilfully dissonant in their shape and graphics. The indicators at the outboard ends of the rectangular headlamp units were triangular in shape. Together with the headlamp units, they formed what resembled an outward pointing direction arrow. Was this accidental, or an attempt to add humour to what was otherwise a very strait-laced design? At the rear, the light units were a complex assembly of different intersecting geometric shapes straddling the shut-line between the rear wing and tailgate. Overall, the X3 gave the impression that it was the work of two designers, the second of whom (Bangle?) was determined to give the vehicle more character and comprehensively spoiled it in the process.
The E83 is attributed to Designworks’ Geoff Velasco. Significantly, the vehicle was not just built but also engineered by Magna Steyr, as BMW lacked the capacity to do so. Unofficially, the rough cabin ambience and poor levels of perceived quality were blamed on this outsourcing.
By far the most commercially significant Bangle-era BMW was the 2004 (E81) 1 Series. This replaced the 3 Series Compact and launched BMW’s full-scale assault on the C-Segment. The 1 Series would be offered in three and five-door hatchback and two-door coupé and convertible variants. Unlike its competitors, it remained rear wheel drive and the hatchback versions had an unusual cab-rearwards stance with a long bonnet. Bangle’s flame surfacing and unusual lamp shapes were again in evidence. One particularly controversial detail was a strong downward-curving lower feature line between the wheels, which gave the unfortunate impression that the cars were sagging in the middle.
In March 2005, a new (E90) 3 Series was launched. Although still carrying Bangle’s styling influences, the saloon, credited to Joji Nagashima, seemed to be a rather busy and confused design. It lacked any of the E60’s purity and appeared to be rather tall, narrow and frumpy, especially when viewed from the rear, an aspect which some thought resembled the misbegotten Mitsubishi Carisma. The car initially sported a different rear light design that was hastily changed as it looked somewhat similar to the recently facelifted Audi A4.
The coupé and convertible were rather cleaner and more satisfactory looking, although it is a moot point as to whether or not they represented any advance on their handsome predecessors. I would suggest not. Unlike the monstrous E65 7 Series, the E90 was just dismally dull.
2006 saw the launch of the (E70) X5. This was a handsome and highly competent update on the original model and was one of BMW’s better designs of that period. There was, however, no sign of flame surfacing, and the light units’ shape and graphics were conventional and conservative. In other words, the quirky characteristics that marked Bangle’s earlier work for BMW were notably absent.
Only with hindsight did it become clear that 2004 was the year that marked peak Bangle within BMW. Although he remained with the company for a further five years, subsequent facelifts and new models represented a significant retreat from Bangle’s controversial and polarising automotive style. The flame-surfacing experiment had run its course and Bangle left BMW in February 2009, to be replaced by his loyal lieutenant, Adrian van Hooydonk.
Bangle’s legacy at BMW was decidedly patchy and uneven. The E60 5 Series is probably the most accomplished and successful expression of his signature flame surfacing style, followed by the E63 6 Series and E85 Z4. The E65 7 Series was an incoherent mess that largely resisted an attempt in 2005 to normalise it with a facelift. The SUVs seemed to have been largely spared the flame surfacing. Perhaps the big bluff shape of an SUV did not lend itself to such treatment? That said, the 2008 (E71) X6, essentially a crossover-coupé derivative of the X5 SUV, was still heavily sculpted, to no good effect, unfortunately.
Although Bangle was still in post when the next generation of BMWs were in development, all appeared to represent a return to a more conventional and conservative style. It is difficult to say a great deal about the 2008 (F01) 7 series, the 2009 (F10) 5 Series or the 2011 (F30) 3 Series. The 7 Series was a conventionally and cleanly styled large saloon, not unpleasant, but by no means delightful either. Its only distinguishing feature was a poorly placed piece of superfluous garnish bridging the front wing and door. The 5 and 3 Series models were merely smaller facsimiles of the 7 Series.
The boldest feature on the 3 Series was the treatment of the front grille: the headlamps were extended inwards and recessed to meet the sides of the grille, giving the impression that the latter was three-dimensional. The coupé and convertible versions were launched in 2013 and rebadged 4 Series to position them further upmarket of the saloon and estate. A handsome four-door 4 Series Gran Coupé version was added to the range in 2014, with frameless door windows and a notably sleek profile. This was, effectively, a scaled-down 6 Series Gran Coupé, but none the worse for that.
2009 saw the introduction of the (E89) Z4 convertible and coupé. This was a another rather more conventional looking model than its striking predecessor. It was a shapely design with bold haunches over the rear wheels. The convertible version switched from fabric to a metal folding hardtop. Also launched in 2009 was the (E84) X1, the third and smallest of BMW’s SUV models, credited to Richard Kim. This was a rather undistinguished looking vehicle, with awkwardly resolved front and rear ends and a faint echo of Bangle’s flame surfacing in the flanks; an uncertain looking soft crease in the lower door panels made the X1 appear to have been the victim of a minor side impact.
Most notable in this generation was the addition to the 3 and 5 Series ranges of five-door(8) Gran Turismo models. The 2009 (F07) 5 Series GT, credited to Christopher Weil, actually predated the saloon by a few months. It was not an auspicious arrival: although longer and taller than the regular models, closer in size to the 7 Series and undoubtedly capacious, it had an awkward hunchbacked look that won it few admirers.
The (F34) 3 Series GT, credited to Page Beerman, was launched in 2013. It was somewhat less awkward looking than its larger sibling, but no beauty. Neither GT model was a success in terms of sales. Most of those who needed more space and/or versatility than was offered by a 3 or 5 Series saloon simply bought the better looking estate versions instead, making the GT models pointless as well as ugly. Nevertheless, they had at least one influential champion: former BMW CEO & current head of the supervisory board, Norbert Reithofer, allegedly loved this body style.
The 3 Series GT would not be replaced in the next generation, while the 5 Series GT was replaced by a similar but larger model named 6 Series GT(9), realigning it with BMW’s large coupé and convertible.
2011 saw the launch of the (F20) 1 Series. This was a cautious update of the original hatchback. It lost the sagging feature line between the wheels, but instead was saddled by really odd looking inverted triangular shaped headlamp units. The new coupé and convertible models did not arrive until 2014, when they were rebranded 2 Series and shared that designation with BMW’s new front-wheel-drive MPV. The latter was available in two sizes, the five-seat Active Tourer and the LWB seven-seat Gran Tourer. Needless to remark, BMW purists were outraged by the association of the storied marque with both FWD and such decidedly unsporting vehicles, but the 2 Series range was competent if not outstanding in all respects, including its styling.
A car much more in the BMW tradition was the 2011 (F12) 6 Series coupe and convertible. The new 6 Series eschewed the controversial looks of its Bangle designed predecessor for a more conventionally handsome style. It was joined a year later by the elegant four-door Gran Coupé variant.
In the transition from Bangle to Van Hooydonk, BMW design seemed to have moved from controversial and challenging to, for the most part, rather safe and dull. This is not, of course, how the Dutch designer wanted to be perceived. For me, there are only two really successful stand-out designs of the early Van Hooydonk era and those are the 2012 (F06) 6 Series Gran Coupé and the 2014 (F36) 4 Series Gran Coupé, both representing a genuinely new and elegant concept, at least for BMW.
2011 also saw the arrival of the (F25) X3, which brought the styling of the mid-size SUV into line with the rest of BMW’s post-Bangle models. It was followed by the (F26) X4 in 2013, essentially an X3 crossover-coupé. A new (F15) X5 also arrived in 2013, predictably followed by the (F16) X6 in 2015. Both were larger and rather more aggressive looking than their predecessors, but very much in the same post-Bangle style.
Ditto the 2015 (F48) X1. The closely related 2017 (F39) X2 was a quite clean if generic SUV coupé-crossover shape, but was spoiled by excessively fussy detailing that included hexagonal pressings in the sills and additional BMW roundels on the C-pillars. Regarding the latter, was the company concerned that the X2 would not be immediately recognisable as a BMW? It did look remarkably similar in profile to the (rather more cleanly styled) Hyundai Tucson.
2015 also saw the launch of the (G11) 7 Series, another evolutionary design, if bigger and heavier looking than its predecessor, with a rather ugly L-shaped bright trim extending along its lower flanks from behind the front wheel arch. Ditto the 2016 (G30) 5 Series, although here the unnecessary garnish was a fake vent behind the front wheel arch. The 2017 (G01) X3 was another unremarkable evolutionary design, as was the 2018 (G02) X4.
While still commercially successful, BMW seemed to have slipped into an era of mainly unchallenging but undistinguished design. The 2013 i3 and 2014 i8 EV models were radical looking vehicles but they were small-scale outliers in the company’s increasingly broad and diverse range. It was, apparently, time for another shake-up.
Credited to Hussein al-Attar, the 2018 (G05) X5 arrived with a greatly enlarged kidney grille and a blatantly aggressive stance. It was joined by an even larger and more confrontational looking SUV, the (G07) X7, credited to Julien Sarreméjan. This pair was followed a year later by a new (G06) X6. The latter replaced the previous model after just four years, an unusually short model cycle for BMW. There was nothing subtle or self-effacing about these new models; they were all big, brash and in-your-face. By comparison, the 2018 second-generation (G02) X4 was almost discreet, but that is to damn it with faint praise.
Taking its cue from the X7, the 7 Series was facelifted in January 2019. It was given a similarly enlarged grille and laden with additional brightwork. There was widespread criticism in Europe of the perceived vulgarity of these new models, but BMW was not designing them for Europe anymore. The big growth market was China, and tastes there were radically different to those in Western Europe.
At the lower end of BMW’s broad range, a new (G20) 3 Series debuted in 2018, followed by the (F40) 1 Series in 2019. The hatchback switched to front-wheel-drive, but of much greater concern was the ersatz styling. The Hofmeister kink has mutated into a fussily angular plastic ear affixed to the C-pillar on both models. The kidney grille is much enlarged, and the two kidneys are now conjoined. The top is drawn back to make the grille more three-dimensional, exposing a large area of black plastic to scrutiny. Overall, the impression is one of careless design and a lack of attention to detail, with lazily applied creases to the flanks, and fussy and overwrought front and rear ends.
Worse was to come: 2018 also saw BMW launch a new (G15) 8 Series coupé, convertible and four-door Gran Coupé to replace the 6 Series. The numerical inflation was apt for the new model, which is much bigger and more bloated looking than its predecessor. It has been alleged that the G15 was actually developed as a 6 Series, but BMW marketing and sales decreed late in the process that changes in nomenclature would allow the asking price to be increased.
At the front, the kidney grille is, as with the 1 and 3 series, much enlarged and distorted in shape, with the kidneys conjoined. Below is a complex arrangement of air intakes, ostensibly for engine and brake cooling, but surely far larger than necessary? At the rear, the car features the now standard, multi-layered arrangement of dummy wheel vents, diffuser and huge rhomboid-shaped exhaust outlets.
The flanks are strangely featureless, apart from that other current BMW design cliché, a dummy vent behind the front wheel arch. The Hofmeister kink is gone, replaced by a nondescript angular frame surrounding the rear side window. Some commentators have, with justification, described the side profile of the new 8 Series coupé as a poor facsimile of the Ford Mustang. The coupé and convertible are credited to John Buckingham, while the Gran Coupe is the work of Jacobo Dominguez Ojea.
Also launched in 2018 was the (G29) Z4, this time in convertible form only and reverting to a fabric roof. This Z4 shares its underpinnings with the new Toyota Supra. Oddly, although launched after the 8 Series, its enlarged and contorted kidney grille remains in two parts and is not conjoined. The rest of the front end is the predictable assembly of large, angular air intakes.
Likewise, the rear features the now standard arrangement of diffuser, wheel vents and rhomboid exhaust outlets. The side profile features an unusual and almost Bangle-esque curved sill line, beginning at the air vent in the front wing and sweeping up to meet the rear bumper-to-wing panel gap.
2020 saw the arrival of the new (G22) 4 Series coupé. For the most part, this is a smaller copy of the 8 Series and shares the styling demerits described above. However, its stand-out and most controversial feature is the front grille; the formerly separate kidneys have mutated into a giant angular single-piece shield-like shape that now occupies virtually the full depth of the nose. Hence, the grille has now to accommodate the car’s front number plate across its centre. Either side are large black trapezoidal openings that merely add to the aggressiveness of the front end.
The G22 was designed by Seungmo Lim under Karim Habib (now at Kia), who was succeeded first by Jozef Kaban and then Domagoj Dukec as BMW-brand chief designer. It has been suggested that the front end was initially to be exclusive to the M version, but then added to the entire range, possibly at the behest of Dukec, who was previously in charge of the i & M divisions.
BMW’s most recent launch was the iX EV, unveiled in November 2020. This appears to mark a shift in strategy for the marque’s electric vehicles. Instead of distinctively styled models like the i3 and i8, future EVs will adopt a more traditional profile and the iX, shorn of its controversial styling features, looks like a generic mid-sized SUV in the mould of the X3, with a long bonnet that looks as though it should be accommodating a large-capacity internal-combustion engine. The combination of a large grille and long bonnet seems bizarrely inauthentic for an EV.
Up front is a grille similar to that on the 4 Series, but even larger and more prominent, especially in comparison with the unusually slim headlamp units. The side profile is notable for the unusual squared-off creases surrounding the wheel arches and a design trope widely seen elsewhere, but for the first time on a BMW. This is a piece of black trim across the D-pillar that disconnects the roof from the bodysides and disrupts the shape of what remains of the Hofmeister kink. The body is garnished with bright blue decorative trim pieces along the sills and on the front and rear ends, presumably intended to be a subliminal reference to the car’s means of propulsion but are, in reality, just a fussy garnish on a resoundingly dull design. The iX is credited to Tianyuan Li, overseen by Domagoj Dukec.
BMW, perhaps chastened by the hostile reaction to the design of other recent models, has adopted an extraordinarily aggressive advertising and social media campaign to promote the new iX. This has been covered in detail previously on DTW and you can read about it here. The gist of the campaign is to accuse those who do not appreciate BMW’s radical design as being too dyed-in-the-wool conservative in their thinking to get it. There has even been a crudely ageist jibe at so-called Baby-Boomers. This may just be the dumbest aspect of a dumb campaign, since those in the more mature demographic are most likely to have the funds to buy an iX in these straitened, Covid-19 affected economic times.
So, where does that leave us after our sixty-year journey through BMW’s design history? In a bad place, I am sorry to say. As a former owner and lover of one of Munich’s finest products, the E30 3 Series, and an admirer of many more, there is not a single model currently on sale that I would seriously consider buying. Moreover, the rate of decline seems to be accelerating as the company appears increasingly desperate to shout ever more loudly to attract attention to itself. What has happened to the elegance, subtlety, and quiet self-confidence that was once a hallmark of BMW’s design? Reluctant as I am to go for the man rather than the ball, Adrian Van Hooydonk must accept responsibility, at least jointly, for this calamitous state of affairs.
Of course, many will rebut my assessment forcefully by quoting BMW’s global sales figures, which have risen from 1.22 million(10) in 2010 to 2.17 million in 2019 before falling 7.2% to 2.03 million in a Covid-affected 2020. BMW Group net profit has also risen, from €3.20 billion in 2010 to €5.02 billion in 2019 and €3.86 billion in 2020 (although this figure peaked at €8.68 billion in 2017).
My argument is not, however, about the effectiveness or otherwise of the company’s commercial strategy. It is, purely and simply, about what I regard as the lamentable state of BMW’s current automotive design. DTW’s commentariat will, I am sure, have well-formed views on this subject and I look forward to reading your thoughts and opinions.
(1) The positive reception and strong initial orders for the 700 were probably decisive factors in the Quandt family’s decision to rescue BMW.
(2) ‘Neue Klasse’ referred to the fact that the car was designed for a market segment where BMW was at that time unrepresented, but it might equally well have referred to the car’s intended customer demographic.
(3) The timing of the BMW 1500’s launch was serendipitous in that it coincided with the collapse of Borgward, whose Isabella model would otherwise have been a direct competitor.
(4) One unique feature of the Neue Klasse’s tail was that the BMW roundel was offset to the side by the high-set number plate, rather than being mounted centrally on the boot lid as would become standard on later BMWs.
(5) This established a new three-digit numbering system for BMW saloons and coupés that persists to the present day; a series number followed by two digits to represent the engine size in decilitres.
(6) Only the six-cylinder models originally featured the raised bonnet centre section before the 1976 facelift.
(7) The only soft-top offered in the E21 3 Series was the Baur cabriolet conversion with its fixed-rollover bar.
(8) The 5 Series GT actually had a dual-purpose tailgate that incorporated a separate boot lid, similar to Škoda’s Twindoor on the Superb Mk2. It was heavy and complex, and generally adjudged not to be worth the effort involved in engineering it.
(9) On the 6 Series GT, the dual purpose tailgate was replaced with a conventional hatchback.
(10) Sales and group net profit data from www.bmwgroup.com. Sales data are for BMW branded automobiles only and exclude Rolls-Royce, Mini and BMW motorcycles.