The author identifies what he regards as the best and worst of BMW design over the past six decades.
Over my lifetime, BMW has produced some truly outstanding automotive designs. That makes it all the more painful to acknowledge the company’s recent failures, which are becoming ever more egregious. First, however, let us review my all-time favourite BMW designs.
BMW ‘New Six’ saloon and coupé: The 1961 Neue Klasse and 1966 02 models were instrumental in returning BMW to financial health and viability. In design terms, however, they were simply the warm-up acts for Wilhelm Hofmeister’s definitive work, the 1968 E3 saloon and E9 coupé. The styling of the New Six models was an enlargement and further refinement of that seen on the Neue Klasse and ’02 ranges. I think that 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’s Italianate pillarless coupé styling to the new saloon’s simpler and more pleasing nose treatment. 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 hardly at all from the lengthening of the rear doors.
If forced to choose, I would take the saloon over the coupé, simply on the basis that its easier to make the latter look elegant and athletic, so the former represents an even greater achievement.
BMW (E12 and E28) 5 Series: I have conjoined these two iterations because, in design terms, there is so little to choose between them. Styled by Wilhelm Hofmeister with input from Bertone’s Marcello Gandini, the 1972 E12 saloon was a skilful evolution of the design theme of its Neue Klasse predecessor. All the signature BMW elements were maintained: the shark-nosed double-kidney grille, now with twin headlamps, the strong-belt-line, 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 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, 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.
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.
BMW (E34) 5 Series: The initial design work for the 1988 E34 5 Series was undertaken by Ercole 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 1986 E32 7 Series, the new 5 was a bulkier and more imposing design that appeared to be moving the dial away from athletic and 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.
For me, the E34 5 Series is more successful in design terms than the slightly corpulent E32 7 Series. The latter, with its double-glazed windows and V8 and V12 engines, was a full-fat luxury saloon, and BMW’s attempt to take on the Mercedes-Benz S-Class on its own ground. It failed because of the all-round excellence of the W126 and the difficulty of achieving an optimal compromise between an involving drive and luxurious comfort for (rear seat) passengers.
BMW (E38) 7 Series: Having tried and failed to take on Mercedes-Benz at its own game with the 1986 E32 model, BMW retreated to more traditional ground with its 1994 successor. The imposing E32 was replaced by a much more lithe and 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 the E38 was larger in every dimension than its predecessor, its perfectly proportioned styling contrived to make it look far 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 my view, the E38 7 series was a highly successful design in that, for a large saloon car, it was almost delicately styled in the manner of the E3 New Six. Hence, it is something of an outlier compared with its contemporaries, and a modest and self-effacing design in the best Hofmeister tradition that is under-appreciated today.
BMW (E39) 5 Series and (E46) 3 Series: I have conjoined these two as they are essentially the same design in two different sizes. In 1995 BMW launched the E39 5 Series. The design, by Jogi Nagashima, was a noticeably fuller and more rounded shape than the lithe E38 7 Series, but it was undoubtedly handsome and very well received. It was a further evolution of its E34 predecessor. Next to follow was the 1997 E46 3 Series. After a misstep with the E36, this was a welcome return to form for BMW’s smallest saloon. The exterior design was credited to Erik Goplen of Designworks USA, a BMW subsidiary. The E46 was actually the first BMW design wholly directed by Bangle, although the latter was kept on a tight leash by Reitzle.
Both models successfully melded BMW design signatures with the mid-nineties fashion for rounded organic shapes. The essential rightness of the initial design of both models was evidenced by the fact that the E39 remained largely untouched throughout its production life with no sheet-metal changes, while the E46 was given a front-end facelift that smacked of change for change’s sake and was no improvement, in my view.
BMW (E53) X5: 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 4×4, marketed by BMW as an SAV (Sports Activity Vehicle) rather than an SUV, successfully repurposed the styling of the contemporary 3 and 5 Series models into an imposing and muscular design. 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. No longer did owning an SUV mean forgoing the pleasure of driving or an appreciation of automotive style.
BMW (E60) 5 Series: By far the most successful expression of Chris Bangle’s signature flame surfacing style, the 2003 E60 5 Series was actually designed by former Pininfarina stylist, Davide Archangeli, who sadly died before the design was wholly completed. Although still an unusual and, in some respects, controversial looking design, it was, to my eyes at least, elegant and coherent, with its clean, confident lines and smooth and unadorned convex/concave flanks
There were still dissonant and challenging details: the clamshell boot lid looked somewhat awkward, while the rear lights’ shape and graphics made the tail look rather narrow and it seemed to droop towards its centre. The little ears on the outboard edges of the headlamp units seemed a superfluous flourish. That said, one could now properly appreciate 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.
One of my all-time favourite BMWs not mentioned above is the 2000 E52 Z8 roadster. I have excluded it because it was essentially a recreation of the beautiful 1956 BMW 507 roadster and completely outside the company’s mainstream design progression. It will, however, be covered shortly in a separate DTW piece.
Those are my BMW design heroes. In Part Two, I will identify my villains. There are, unfortunately, plenty from which to choose.
Author’s note: I am indebted to Christopher Butt for his invaluable contribution to this piece. Christopher also writes engagingly about automotive matters on his Auto-Didakt and the Design Field Trip websites.