The author identifies what he regards as the best and worst of BMW design over the past six decades.
In part one I identified my BMW design heroes. Today, the villains take centre-stage. Get ready to hurl whatever comes to hand in their direction.
BMW (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.
BMW (E83) X3: Launched in 2003, the E83 X3 was 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. So far, so good.
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 spoilt it in doing so.
The E83 X3 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.
BMW (E90) 3 Series: In 2005, the 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. The E90 is offensive, not because it is shocking like the E65 7 Series, but because it is just so desperately dull.
BMW (E84) X1: Launched in 2009 and credited to Richard Kim, the E84 X1 was the third and smallest of BMW’s SUV models. 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. Otherwise, it was another dullard.
BMW (F07) 5 Series and (F34) 3 Series Gran Turismo: The 3 and 5 Series ranges were extended with the addition of five-door 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 far better looking estate versions instead, making the Gran Turismo 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.
BMW (G05) X5 and (G07) X7: 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 aggressive looking SUV, the G07 X7, which was the work of Julien Sarreméjan. There was nothing subtle or self-effacing about these new models; they were big, brash and in-your-face. 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 BMW’s traditional markets.
BMW (G15) 8 Series: 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 current 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.
BMW (G22) 4 Series: 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 and is completely at odds with the rest of the design. 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 iX EV: The company’s most recent launch was the iX EV, unveiled in November 2020. This appears to signal 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 front 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 in reality just another fussy garnish on a tediously dull design. The iX is credited to Tianyuan Li, overseen by Domagoj Dukec.
That concludes my depressing trawl through the sludge at the bottom of BMW’s design pool. A much more comprehensive review of six decades of BMW design, good, bad and indifferent, may be found in the Longer Read section of DTW, or by clicking here.
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.