Heroes and Villains: BMW Design (Part One)

The author identifies what he regards as the best and worst of BMW design over the past six decades.

1968 BMW (E3) ‘New Six’ 2500 (c) curbsideclassic

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.

1971 BMW (E9) 3.0CS Coupé. (c) carinpicture

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.

1972 BMW (E12) 5 Series Saloon (c) autocar.co.uk

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.

1988 BMW (E34) 5 Series (c) AutoBild

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.

1994 BMW (E38) 7 Series (c) autoevolution.com

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.

1998 BMW (E46) 3 Series (c) classics.honestjohn

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.

Unnatural habitat: 1999 BMW (E53) X5

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.

2003 BMW (E60) 5 Series (c) BMWdrives.com

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

75 thoughts on “Heroes and Villains: BMW Design (Part One)”

  1. Are you sure you didn’t confuse E23 and E32? Your description of the E32’s design seems to fit much better to the E23 which indeed looked heavy and inelegant and also had to make do with half-baked technical solutions like the fire prone turbo inline sixes after the fully developed V8 was scrapped.
    The E32 not only was a Luthe design in the best sense but it also managed to make a severe dent in Mercedes’ market segment for the first time because after the presentation of the V12 750 the W126 suddenly looked old fashioned and heavy.
    To my eyes at least there’s nothing heavy looking or blunt in this design – except for the widened kidneys that looked much better in their original form

    1. Good morning Dave.

      (I’ve made a correction to what I assume was a typo in your comment, which I’ve highlighted in bold text above. I hope I’ve correctly understood what you intended to say.)

      I did mean the E32, although I don’t regard it as inelegant or heavy-handed. It is, I think, a substantial and imposing car, but that was fine for a top of the range luxury saloon designed to compete with the W126 S-Class. Mercedes-Benz moved the goalposts significantly further in that direction with the W140, whereas BMW went for a much more lithe and athletic design with the E38. I actually like both the W140 and E38 equally, as both represent entirely different approaches to the design of a luxury saloon and offered a real choice to prospective buyers.

      Incidentally, I think that the design of E23 was a bit heavy-handed, but not by any means terrible.

  2. Looking forward to “Villans”.
    Are you planning on writing an article Daniel or just publishing a link to the current all-model brochure?

    1. Hi James. Doh! I should have thought of that wheeze and saved myself a lot of work! You’ve correctly anticipated that my ‘Villains’ piece is focused on more recent models, although the rot set in quite a few years ago.

      The ‘Villains’ piece will be published shortly, as will a comprehensive review of every BMW mainstream production design over the past sixty years, which will be published in DTW’s ‘A Longer Read’ section.

  3. Disagree vehemently on the E60. An absolute disaster styling wise after the E39. Hasn’t aged well . All about opinions and that model certainly polarised them. The F10 a return to form and what about the F30/31. Selectively required in this case. The F31 estate a masterpiece in proportions spoiled only by its recent ubiquity . Styled by a Brit, Michael de Bono, I believe.

    1. Hi mpauln. This piece is, of course, purely my personal opinion and I hoped it would stimulate debate, so thank you for your comments, which are very welcome.

      Regarding the E60 and F10 5 Series models, I initially liked the return to normality represented by the latter after the controversy of the former, but I think time has been much kinder to the E60, which still looks fresh, whereas the F10 looks really rather dull.

      I regard the F10 like a piece of music you really like on first hearing, only to becone quickly bored by its lack of depth.

      No argument about the E39, which is delightful.

  4. Dear Daniel

    Thank you for this wonderful piece on the more successful designs of the BMW brand over the last 50 years. With the exception of the BMW F10, you really resonate strongly with my heart (admittedly, the BMW F10 is ageing comparatively well, but I still feel it lacks the decisive elegance and overall harmony that would make it a truly great design in my humble eyes).

    Of course, I am now very curious about the already announced elaborations on what the “Villains” will include. In my opinion, the current model range alone has enough for an entire book. Where has this melange of elegance and sporty-looking lightness gone, which used to be masterfully created with almost perfect proportions and only a few lines.

    A small ray of hope in an otherwise already difficult design environment was the BMW 6 Series Gran Coupé. There it was again, this comparatively filigree and elongated car body with almost perfect proportions. It was not uncommon to hear a soft “Jaguar” murmur at the sight of it.

    And then came the BMW 8 Series Gran Coupé – in terms of its name alone an almost hopeless act of marketing-driven cheating – and made it clear to the observer in an almost painful way how banal the sense of style and range of performance of the managers and designers responsible had become. The clumsy and correspondingly visually derailed “reinterpretation” of the Hofmeister kink alone resembles an oath of revelation.

    1. Hi Mark. Thank you for your kind words and glad you enjoyed the piece. The (F06) 6 Series Gran Coupé is a nice design which only missed the cut by a whisker and would be top of my list of the models not mentioned above:

      I agree with you about the (G16) 8-Series Gran Coupe replacement, but will leave further comment for the next instalment.

    2. The sculpting on the area between the front wheel and the trailing edge of the front door muddles an otherwise okay design. It´s pretty meaningless and makes for wicked highlights. The rest of is decent, at least from the side. It says a lot about my lack of engagement with BMW that I could be easily fooled into thinking the Gran Coupe was a 5 series in the same way the Arteon is a Passat alternative. As I said elsewhere, these “sideways” branches exist because while customers get richer cars can´t get bigger so they offer prettier versions of the maintsteam car and it is hard to make the pricier alternative look a whole lot better than the standard car (which can´t be made uglier).

  5. Great post Daniel and I imagine a not so easy one, when selecting which one stays in the list and which one goes. My favorite of the bunch is definitely the E12. It’s such a sweet, perfectly proportioned 4-door saloon and especially pretty in any of those bright colours from the 1970s that many examples of it featured. A close second would be the E38 7-Series of which I happen to have fond memories as I drove a few of them in the late 1990s and early 2000s as BMW had an annual event for charity where you could drive the whole range. The 740i was always my favorite by far. I used to tune the radio to the local classical music station and just daydream while I drove, enjoying its superb ride and handling and its V8 sound.

    1. Hi Cesar. There’s a delicacy about the E38 that is highly unusual and attractive for such a large car and reminds me somewhat of the E3. The V8 version must have been a real wolf in sheep’s clothing! Sadly, unlike you, I’ve never driven one.

    2. I agree with you about the E12 – lovely clean 1970s shapes and colours. There’s something about the way the sloping boot connects to the C-pillar that ties the car together, visually finishing the (agreeably) aggressive nose…

  6. I’d be interested to know why you consider the E36 a misstep. For me at least, the coupé version is one of the handsomest BMWs of all.

    1. Hi Jonathan. The E36 Coupé was very handsome, but I thought the saloon, especially in its original form with unpainted plastic bumpers looked a bit too ‘mainstream’ for a premium model. The thick ‘clamshell’ door window frames and cheap, plastic dashboard did it no favours in this regard.

      I wrote about the E36 last year to mark its 30th anniversary:

      Forgotten Hero

  7. Hello Daniel,
    Thanks for this piece and already looking forward to the “villains” followup (unfortunately you’re spoilt for choice considering BMW’s offerings of late).
    I am mostly in agreement with your choices but must side with Dave on the E32: while the E38 is by no means a bad looking car -far from it in fact- to my eyes it is an elongated and somewhat exaggerated continuation of the styling theme set by its predecessor. The E32 radiates more substance, or visual weight if you will. But this is of course what makes us humans interesting: different tastes and opinions. What appears corpulent to you feels like substance to me- long live (politely expressed) differences of opinion for without them the world would be a boring place.
    Somewhat surprising incidentally is no mention of the E30 3 series- a design I have liked since new and still do for its deceptive simplicity.

    1. Maybe Daniel felt compelled to limit the number of Boyke Boyer designs featured.

      One either considers E30 the holy grail of BMW design or a rather peculiar combination of the relentlessly timeless (graphics, surfacing) and recklessly contemporary (tall greenhouse). Personally, I theoretically see the appeal in the two-door version, what with it being a straight ’80s take on the 02 concept, but the four-door could never shake off its cut-and-shut nature. For once, I’d argue that its the derivatives most removed from the base design (Touring, Cabriolet) that are the most balanced, stylistically speaking.

    2. Hello Bruno and Christopher. The truth is that this series was oddly difficult to write in that I needed to observe an informal word-count limit that applies (loosely) to our daily offerings and there were always going to be some marginal decisions on the cars that made the cut. The E30 is a favourite of mine, having owned two of them, but I went for the (E12 and) E28 instead to represent that era.

      Rest assured, there will be a comprehensive review of all BMW mass-production designs over the past sixty years published in the ‘A Longer Read’ section of the website on the same day the ‘Villains’ piece is published here shortly.

  8. Two comments – the E60 was, is, and always will be a dog – and the E30 was a jewel.

    1. Hi Mervyn. There was a time I would have agreed with you wholeheartedly on both counts, but the E60, especially in estate form (without the awkward boot lid and droopy tail lights) has really grown on me:

      The E28 was a proxy for the E30 in this list and I still like the latter very much. It is, as you say, a jewel, especially in two-door saloon and convertible form.

  9. Hello Daniel,

    DTW is my first read of the day, and I applaud you and your collaborators for consistently providing insightful and well researched articles. You knew that compiling any type of best design list would incite strong reactions, especially with BMW. So allow me to chime in…
    I’m puzzled by your omission of the E24. To overlook Paul Bracq’s masterpiece is akin to leaving “It’s a Wonderful Life” off a list of classic Christmas movies. The E36 is a very crisp design that has aged well, much better than blobby E46. The E60 should be #2 on the Villians List, right behind the truly vomituous G22 4-Series.

    1. In the end Daniel couldn´t list all of them priort to 1992 …. but yes, the E24 is just a heap of excellence. What a glorious car, from every angle.

    2. Hello David and Richard. I cannot argue against the E24. Both it and the E23 7 Series were clean and handsome cars. They represent a purple period for BMW design. I could have easily used up my 1,500 words on pre-1990 designs. Both get honourable mentions in the ‘Longer Read’ piece.

  10. It´s possibly a lot harder for a car to stand out today – few really do. So, maybe the first generation 7 series I saw yesterday has a unfair advantage. It rolled long stately and imperial amidst the other almost invisible cars around it. Like the current 7 it was a festival of brightwork. There´s a current 7 on my street and it´s not knocking out the small cars around it – it seems to be merely a bigger version of the same kind of thing. It might seem heretical to say it, the neighbours dark green metallic Skoda (also with brightwork) seems far more regal despite its 1m size deficit. BMW doesn´t make life easy for itself with its over-wrought styling. I suppose the team inside BMW towers think differently but I do wonder if they are inwardly aware the visble prestige-advantage that the 1980s cars enjoyed does not exist, in part because the discipline and austere rectitude of the older cars is not there any more.

  11. Dear Daniel

    Your story not only made me think about the current BMW design, but also brought back some memories from my earliest childhood.

    My father is British and came to Germany in the mid-60s of the last century. It used to be the time when the relationship between the two countries was still considerably clouded. And therefore my father was of the opinion that it was proper to put his Britishness on the back burner in an appropriate form and to approach the culture of his adopted country with the greatest possible openness.

    When it came to cars, that was obviously not difficult; his choice at the time was the Porsche 911. And that remained the same when I was born. Somehow, at least during my baby years, he managed to use the 911 as a “family car”.

    It must have been 1972 when, allegedly at my mother’s instigation, the Porsche fell increasingly out of favour. My father then obviously felt compelled to look around for an alternative suitable for children. It was a BMW 3.0 CSi (E9) in black that then found its way into our garage.

    I still remember very clearly the admiration with which I loitered around the vehicle and probably felt something similar to a liking for and interest in a vehicle design for the first time in my young life. For me, it was by far the most beautiful car in my little universe. And even today, it is still the BMW whose design I find the most successful.

    Unfortunately, my father’s initial affection for the car did not last long. The car turned out to be of very poor quality and notoriously unreliable. Several times my father came home in the passenger seat of a tow truck. After six months, the vehicle was replaced by BMW. But here too – as my father still reports today with some resentment – glaring problems accumulated over time.

    At some point it was over. My father vowed never to buy another BMW (which has been the case to this day). His choice of successor was almost grotesque: We got one of the first Range Rovers registered in Germany. And contrary to all assumptions, this vehicle (along with its numerous successors) proved to be a paragon of reliability. But that is another story.

    1. Hi Mark. Thanks for sharing your memories with us. A Porsche 911 followed by a BMW E9 sounds like automotive nirvana, even if the latter was such a disappointment in build quality and reliability terms. Still, karma was restored with a reliable Range Rover!

  12. Delightful musings for a Sunday afternoon Daniel – thank you. I’ve constructed mental lists of ideal BMW garages in my head many times, so now the pressure to commit something to writing I find almost overwhelming… For me, the E32 is unquestionably BMW’s finest hour. I don’t think any other model managed to make as bold and credible a statement that BMW had arrived and could (almost) take on M-B on its own terms. It was precisely the anti-W126 it needed to be, and at a stroke demonstrated how a luxury status symbol could be executed with dashing and panache. It took the language of the earlier E’s and made a definitive statement that I feel has been the blueprint for BMW design until – lamentably – fairly recently. I concur on the delicacy and sleekness of the E38, but felt it ceded unnecessarily the presence that truly elevated the idea of a 7-Series BMW in the E32.

    Anyone that loves the E32 has to love the E34 – which I do, and agree it belongs here as well; I thought it a remarkable achievement that the design language of the 2 models was remarkably similar and yet resulted in quite distinctly different characters. Masterful.

    For the remainder of my favourites I would include the E9 coupe, as you do; then as Christopher mentions I would plump for the E30 Touring – a beautifully resolved design, and surely there should be a Touring model on any list of Top BMWs – though the E39 and E60 Tourings are probably more accomplished transport and still both highly desirable. Even though their dedicated sports offerings often seem to miss the mark or be slightly confused in intent, I do still very much fancy a Z1 and a Z8 – though I suspect these will be the subject of your next series, which I’m looking forward to.

  13. What a brilliant idea for a series. I’ll vote positively for the E60 – I think BMWs should be a bit ‘out there’. That said, it doesn’t shock me, anymore. I thought, wrongly, it was all Mays’s work.

    I’m surprised you missed the M1 off your list, Daniel – I think it’s a lovely design. For different reasons, I’d also nominate the 1M coupé. It’s a bit odd-looking and a handful to drive, apparently, but it’s pretty much a bullseye for being a BMW for me.

    I predict that this series will break the number of comments record, by the way.

    1. Hi Charles, rightly or wrongly, I’ve chosen to set aside the M1, Z1 and Z8 from the Heroes and Villains pieces because they were, I felt, outliers as far as mainstream BMW design is concerned. The Z8 is covered in a separate piece to be published shortly, and the M1 and Z1 are (now!) on our to-do list.

      Incidentally, you’ll never believe which car holds the DTW record for the most commented upon, at least over the past couple of years while I’ve been contributing. Care to hazard a guess?

    2. Sounds great. I’ll have to have a think about the most popular subject.

  14. Let’s start with a trigger warning.: I’m big on BMW. Even before we had a Bimmer in our family I liked them. I went to school with a girl whose dad owned one of the local scrap yards. We were allowed to play in all the cars in the backyard, a young petrolhead’s dream. My favorite car in there was an E3. I still vividly remember the car. The girl too.

    When I was 8 my dad got himself an E21 which was a welcome relief after the disaster that was called 504. It was quickly swapped for an E30. The E30 was more expansive than the E21 and the dealer feared a lot of customers would shop elsewhere instead, so he offered to buy the E21 back for exactly the same price we paid. Zero depreciation on a new car is rare, but we managed it this time.

    The Dealer was of course mistaken and the E30 had a waiting list of 9 months before we got ours, but he kept his word. After another E30 we had an E34.

    Sadly the BMW times were over for a period of six years. My dad sold his company and got a job at the company he sold it to. It paid handsomely only you weren’t allowed to have a BMW as a company car. We had 2 Benzes instead. On the day my father retired, he started a new business again and bought the last Benz for 25k from the leasing company, trading it in for 40k on a new E39 the same day. They E39 was my dad’s favorite by far and he kept it over 10 years.

    My first car was an E30 Touring. It was 9 years old when I got it and kept it for another 9 years before trading it in on for an E46. The E46 is a fantastic machine in my book. Absolutely great to drive and own. Not bad looking either. Every switch you flick and turn just feels so lovely. Sadly it developed an electronic fault in one of the circuit boards. Electronics scare me a bit and I swapped it for my current car, an E92. Both the E30 Touring and E46 are still on our roads by the time I write this. Maybe I should have kept them.

    I’m not that fond of the E90, but I like my E92, despite some inconsistencies in its styling. 9 Years in ownership and counting. I think the interior build quality is a step back from the E46, though.

    As for your listL I pretty much agree with it, Daniel, even though I’m not to keen on the E53, but that’s mainly because I’m not an SUV guy. I love the E9 and would love to own an E28 M5. My father in law had an E34 M5. I never got to know him, he passed away before I got to know my girlfriend, who also passed away.

    I’ve driven pretty much every model in the E60 line up. The car’s styling is still very polarizing, I think. One of my friends had an E60 M5, which is an absolute animal. What a machine. That V10 isn’t very reliable, though.

    1. Hi Freerk, thank you for sharing your wide experience of some of BMW’s finest, and sorry to hear that some of it has very sad associations for you. There are some truly seminal cars mentioned in your post, the recall of which makes BMW’s current design woes all the more regrettable.

  15. Daniel, I understand that you had to start at some date or other, but by going back only 60 years you missed the BMW 700, which was more-or-less a Michelotti design. One can argue that it was, at least stylistically, the neue klasse’s ancestor, also that it, not the neue klasse, was essential to BMW’s survival.

    1. Hi Fred. You make a valid point and the BMW 700 is also on the to-do list!

    2. Stop the press! The 700 is in the Schedule, awaiting its time to shine. Don’t touch that dial, and other media clichés…

    3. Daniel, Eóin, when you write about the 700 please don’t forget to mention the diabolical Dubonnet front suspension.

  16. I had an E60 company car back in the day, followed by an E61, both were 530d and both metallic black. I loved the styling of the E60 and always caught myself giving it a backwards glance after parking up following a hard day pounding the autobahns. It had a way of catching the light that increased the visual drama of the shoulder lines. The E61, by comparison, left me rather cold and I found the styling aft of the B pillars actually rather boring. What I never got on with in either of them was the baroque dashboard, which was a real visual step down compared with the E39.

  17. Agreed, E60’s cabin was an all-plastic chamber of horrors (courtesy of future BMW brand & current Kia chief designer, Karim Habib, incidentally).

    In my opinion, BMW had a hard time replacing Hans Braun as head of interior design. Braun, also the designer of the Porsche 928’s cabin, is one of the finest interior designers this industry has ever seen.

    1. The discussions about the BMW E60 presented here have also brought back some memories of this vehicle for me. And I can see this situation again, when I had the supposed privilege of attending an unveiling in the presentation studio of the BMW design department immediately before the launch.

      I remember being impressed by Chris Bangle’s rhetoric, not least because of his entertaining blend of American English and German, which was sometimes referred to as “Banglish”. Well, the expectations of what lay beneath the inevitable cloth grew as the presentation progressed.

      And then this shock immediately after the unveiling. The designer Bangle definitely did not fulfil what the speaker Bangle had promised beforehand. It could not be that this was to be the successor to the BMW E39, which may not have been a milestone in terms of design, but at least possessed the elegance and value that made it the benchmark in its class.

      What disappointed me most at the time was the interior of the E60. It was simply a lovelessly pieced-together crater landscape made of the cheapest plastic, with a feel that you wouldn’t even have expected from cheap Eastern European products.

    2. I totally agree that the 928’s interior was an absolute gem. I was lucky enough to own a ’78 928 with the Pascha Check fabric in brown and black. The adjustable instrument binnacle, the heft and precision of the rotary switchgear, the way the IP morphed into the door cards-absolute perfection!

    3. It’s interesting to compare the E60’s dashboard with that of the E28:

      The E60’s just looks fussy and overstyled to me.

    4. The E60 dash had that fragile fold-out cupholder – just like a Transit van ( though the Ford one was more robust…)

    5. It´s inside the E28 that the prospective Ford and Opel driver might have lost their will to stay with their brands. From a shape perspective, Ford and GM turned out equally nice work (Ford was perhaps even better than either – take another look at an 1980s Granada interior with upper level spec). BMW made extra efforts with the means of assembly and the materials. I´d like to know how much of the per-kilo price difference was to do with whatever BMW used to craft those interiors. It was money well spent. Today, the difference is not at all apparent and you can get very nice interiors in a lot of cars and BMW doesn´t stand head and shoulders above any one at a given price point. What they do offer is the option of very costly interiors (at a huge mark-up) that are not available to the former mainstream buyers. Perhaps only Jaguar, Volvo and Land Rover offer distinctive and striking interiors as standard at BMW price levels.
      The E60 would look a lot better without the second cowl. I don´t find it awful though (I´ve never been in one so I can´t say anything about the plastics). Renault´s Vel Satis cabin would take the prize among cars of that period.

    6. That the E60 didn’t have proper individual gauges for fuel and water temperature and the complete absence of a temperature gauge is a big disappointment for a BMW.
      I don’t remember which German publication wrote that the E30’s interior had an atmosphere like a gynaecologist’s examination room but they were right.

    7. Looking at those pictures, just about everything about the E60 dashboard is in some way unattactive, though the materials were high quality and generally the E60/61 was very robust, at least based on the way our company ones shrugged off the punishment meted out by some of the drivers. Unlike the one in the picture, unfortunately neither of mine had a 200mph speedo or a 9000rpm rev counter as mine were just diesels, not M5s. In which case I‘d probably be grinning too much to worry about the dashboard aesthetics.

      I think BMW redeemed themselves with the subsequent 5 Series. I find the interior of my present G30 is very easy on the eye without having to spend a fortune on options to get it that way. Unfortunarely the interior of the iX gives some indication of the horrors that await in the next gen models, I would frankly prefer an ID.4.

    8. Hi Dave. Not only that, but the main dials were small and had cheap and nasty looking silver grey (plastic?) bezels that made them too fussy looking.

      BMW knew how to do dashboards that were driver-centric and models of clarity back in the 1970’s. Here’s the dashboard from the early E21 3 Series:

    9. An early E21 – a car I of which have fond memories.
      A cousin of mine worked at BMW IT and had an early 323i as a company car with exactly that dashboard. Everytime we went out together I got the keys so he could have an additional Augustiner or similar.
      He later had a succession of different E30 M3s which were incredible fun on Alpine roads, much more so than anything BMW later produced under this name – but that’s a different story.
      The later version of the dashboard had additional vents and circular HVAC controls

      My personal BMW history starts with taking my driving lessons in a Neue Klasse because the man running the driving school with the two Giulias was too close a friend of my parents…
      That Neue Klasse was later replaced by a lime green 2002 which must have been quite an experience for learners.

  18. Good stuff as usual Daniel. I’m going to half agree with you on your choices but I have to plump for the E24 in top spot. No other car has ever combined such delicacy and elegance with a subtle, almost hidden aggression. Perfection in my book.
    I ran an E38 in MSport guise for almost 7 years, (the 2.8) and loved every minute of it. It was a terribly reluctant sale, the keys needed to be prised from my hands. I think I wrote about it on DTW around 5 years ago. It looked great from every angle but my favourite aspect was the rear three quarter view, which showed off the deep dish alloys beautifully. This is number 2 on my list.
    The impossibly delicate E9 you reference takes 3rd spot. Those slim pillars and airy glasshouse are just lovely.
    The E39 and E30 take the final two places.
    I couldn’t put a flame surfaced car anywhere near this list (I’m going to add my voice to those who don’t appreciate the E60. It really looks like it sags in the middle from behind) but if I really had to pick one I reckon the E85 is the Bangle era car that has best aged. Lovely proportions, and there is something very appealing about the tail lights and the whole rear view in general.
    I also agree that the 6 series gran sport deserves an honourable mention, a lovely sleek design that looks great on a set of “20 M Parallels.

    1. Hi Mick and thanks for your thoughts. As you can imagine, I’ve spent rather a lot of time weighing the relative merits of many BMW designs. The E38 really is a star in my book, underappreciated at the time, but looking better all the time. I’m rather envious of the time you enjoyed with yours.

      The E60 does appear to sag at the rear, but the estate solves that problem. As for the E85, we’ll have to agree to disagree over that one!

  19. Daniel, a great and thought-provoking piece. I’ve always hemmed and hawed about whether I prefer the E34 or E39 5-series, but come down in the latter camp. I guess I’m biased, as I had a ’97 528i for a few years, in the preferred silver and the shape always looked a bit tauter and more planted than its predecessor. I have an F90 3-series now, bought for its fully-sorted AWD and driving dynamics and a keeper, as it has been incredibly reliable, has a now-not available manual shift and the sweet 6. The awkward Bangle-lite styling which didn’t really transition well to the smaller form somehow seems more subdued all these years later.

    To that point, did we just get used to the Bangle design language? This the past weekend I noticed at least a half dozen E60s when I was out and about and I too think that the shape has aged well and is very resolved (except for the Dame Edna headlights!). The other Bangle car that I have a perverse liking for is the E63 6-Series, in all its droopy glory. In the right colour and with the right wheels, it still looks modern and, well, fast.

    And speaking of the 6-series, I take your point about choosing saloons over coupés, as they’re harder to get right, but the E24 is still a lovely car (as long as it doesn’t have the Federal bumpers) and would seem to represent an important styling transition from the attractive but angular cars that preceded it, and the more lithe and moulded forms of the subsequent 5s and 7s.

    1. Hi Peter. I had to Google F90 to discover that it’s the M5 version of the G10 5 Series. Chapeau, that’s one serious car! I hope it continues to provide you with great service and enjoyment.

      I’m sorry I didn’t think of the very apt ‘Dame Edna’ reference for the E60’s headlamps! Other than those fussy headlamps, the E60 estate is still a fine looking car. I agree that the E63 has also aged well, unlike the E65 7 Series and E90 3 Series.

  20. A couple of my favorite things (slightly more common than an M1, Z1, or Z8) which weren’t mentioned yet:



    And still the dying embers of the ancient spirits burn in Munich, perhaps soon to inflame passions and bank accounts everywhere (G42):

    1. Hi Gooddog. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for Part Two to see if they feature in the ‘Villains’ list. 😁

  21. Daniel – on the subject of the number of comments, having thought about (and cheated by looking through) topics covered, I would have expected more popular makes and models to have attracted the most comments (e.g. Ford). I suspect that’s true, if one defines ‘most commented’ as a larger number of comments by a wide variety of people. Some topics received a very large number of comments, but from a more limited number of people (nothing wrong with that, of course).

    I suspect that the winner in raw number terms is the BMC 1800.

    1. Hi Charles. Based purely on the number of comments (rather than different people commenting) the highest total over the past couple of years was 136 and the car featured in the piece was…the Citroën C5 Mk1!

      Objects you Cannot Polish

    2. Hello Daniel – I don’t think that I would have expected that. It did turn out to be an interesting topic, though.

  22. Hello Daniel
    Late to the article but very interesting nonetheless so thank you. My preferences are the E39 and the E36 coupe because I have owned both, however the E39 is my absolute favourite of all the cars I have purchased. Imho the best looking, the most comfortable and I drove it for over 100k miles. Would certainly have another if I could find a good one.

    1. Hi Mike. I can’t disagree: the E39 was a fantastic car and still looks handsome today. The E36 coupé was also a very good looking car, but suffered a little from the cost-savings it inherited from the saloon, such as the less than premium quality dashboard.

    1. The C-pillar is too far forward in relation to the rear axle. On the plus side, it has a rear centre arm-rest and a huge central cubby in the front for cigars and lighters. I was not aware of that car – it´s a fairly typical example of Bertone not getting into the character of their customer but offering an Italian car with client´s badge on it.

    2. Let’s not forget that this wasn’t merely designed by a barely 20-year-old Giugiaro, but also that it was created on behalf of a company that hadn’t found its style yet. This coupé was based on the ‘Barockengel’ 501 and its less absurd, but still hardly dashing 503 derivative. The Michelotti/Hofmeister/Bertram/Rennen form that came to define the brand was created simultaneously, but without Bertone/Giugiaro having any knowledge of it. Blaming Giugiaro for a lack of consistency is therefore very unfair.

    3. Hi Richard. Coincidentally, I read exactly that observation about Bertone’s work earlier today when researching another one of the company’s designs. I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing the car in question, but it might have turned out rather better if Bertone had been allowed more freedom by the automaker concerned.

    4. Hi Christopher. You make a good point: prior to the launch of the BMW 1500 ‘Neue Klasse’ saloon, the company had no recognisable house style. The 1500 defined the style for BMW for the following three decades. Hence, it was an apt starting point for this review.

    5. I’ve checked and they built 600 of them between 1962 and 1965, so I was wrong to assume it was a one-off concept. The first BMW with a Hofmeister kink, apparently.

      Looking at it again, it follows-on nicely from the BMW 700, so I think my criticism was a bit unfair, and coloured by the brand style that came later. It’s actually a very nice looking car in its own right and clearly contributed to BMW’s style. I’m surprised it’s not more widely known.

      I’d forgotten about the Barockengel 501 (more likely deliberately wiped it from my memory). It’s a sort of German Austin Atlantic.

    6. Hello Eóin – how odd – I definitely have a blind spot about Bertone and BMW.

    7. Just looked properly at it now. I think it looks rather handsome, with more than a whiff of a certain Alfa Romeo model to it…

  23. Daniel, that´s a good reasoned list of your favourite BMWs and I´m looking forward to see the “villains”.
    It´s highly personal so it admits little discussion; but anyway (apart from the omission of my beloved E36! yes, perhaps the interior it´s a bit cheap…), I don´t understand the love the E38 and E39 styling gets in every forum/website. For me they´re a lot less inspired and boring than their predecessors. And I drive an E39. It´s an excellent car and great to drive; if only it had some of the grace and style of the E34…

    1. Hi b234r. Glad you enjoyed the piece. I wasn’t aware that there was a lot of love out there for the E38 but I’m pleased to hear it! Hope your E39 continues to provide good service and enjoyment, even if you’re not wowed by its styling.

  24. Hi Daniel, lovely article and a belated thank you to you and Eóin for the welcome (I’d posted before a busy day and by the time I’d gotten round to replying I felt is was too late). What a mammoth undertaking the long read piece about every BMW design must be!

    I generally dislike BMWs but within that context I’d fully agree on your choices and outside that context, I think the E9 (all those model codes…) CS is absolutely beautiful. I only disagree on the E53 X5: compared to current designs it’s restrained, but to my mind it’s one of the cars that set the current brutalist trend, if in this case mostly because of its size. I have a soft spot for sixties and seventies ruler-straight designs, especially if they’re sedans, so any BMW from that era has that going for it. Even then, though, BMWs and Mercedes had a more substantial or maybe heavy quality to them than more Italianate designs, which put me off slightly. In contrast to that last sentiment, the previous generation 4 series Gran Coupé looks nice to me as it’s a relatively svelte car for such a recent design (let’s see if this image link works):

    1. Good morning Tom. Glad you liked the piece and hope you enjoy the subsequent instalments on BMW design coming up shortly.

      The 4 and 6 Series Gran Coupés are the closest BMW has got to the lithe elegance of its earlier designs, but the 8 Series Gran Coupé is a real disappointment by comparison.

  25. Heh, who doesn’t like a good roasting (at least, when it’s deserved). Depending on one’s inclination (and a little bit on the angle), the current 8 series looks either tragically or comically inept at having the elegance its proportions would suggest.

    The original (late eighties’) E31 8 series looks quite elegant now, but I seem to remember it being considered a not-quite-there car in comparison to its purported competition. Or maybe it was just the brand’s image which at that point couldn’t quite stretch beyond executive saloons into the rarefied strata of Grand Tourers. Mercedes’ SL or SEC was still out of reach, let alone brands like Aston Martin (whose Virage hails from the same year). Questionable esthetics aside, the current 8 series seems less hampered by that problem.

    I know you limited yourself to more or less “regular” models, but I think the M1 deserves a shout out, too (I like seventies’ ruler-straight supercars too).

    The rear even has a whiff of Citroën SM about it…

    1. Hi Tom. Well observed concerning the SM and M1 rear-quarter treatment. I had never noticed that similarity.

      You’re right about the M1 deserving our gimlet-eyed attention, so it’s on the list! In the meantime, you might enjoy this piece about BMW’s so-called ‘art cars’ by my fellow DTW author, Andrew Miles:

      Thirty Minutes

  26. Oh yes Daniel! Now we’re talking. A deservedly popular piece, judging by the comments.

    I’ll disagree with you on the X5. Just no. The E60, though, was a fine piece of design – not conventionally elegant, but it cleverly expanded BMW’s design palette while remaining recognisable as a BMW. It was the details that jarred at its launch, but if you see one from a distance or out of the corner of your eye it is undoubtedly a BMW.

    Sadly, Bangle’s cabins were mostly all hideous, all though he was wrestling with how to incorporate giant screens into the dashboard. The cabins of the E38 and E39 were, by contrast, absolutely peerless – especially the tiny red lights above the rear view mirror. At night they cast just enough glow down onto the transmission tunnel so that you could see, but without distraction.

    I’ll make a case for the E92 coupe as well – especially without the M Sport body kit. A very elegant piece of design.

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