Raking the Embers [1] : Chi Non Fa, Non Falla

Introducing the first of a four-day meditation from the DTW editorial team: reconsidering the E65 Siebener on its 2oth anniversary. 

2002 BMW 7 series (source)

Why are we still discussing the E65? It’s because twenty years ago it mattered when BMW produced a new model. As a clear leader in automotive engineering, people interested in the intellectual challenges of designing better cars looked to BMW’s products for clues about the rate and direction of progress. Retrospectively, we still wonder about whether BMW’s thinking was wrong, ahead of its time or instructive. Or a combination of all three.

The E65 attempted to answer some pressing questions, offering solutions to the problem of a changing market, solutions that many did not understand at the time or could accept. The first change in the market related to Europe’s ageing population and a greater awareness of the urgent need to design to accommodate this. The second change concerned the integration of more controls for features because (a) more features were inevitable and (b) more features could be offered.

The E65 had to showcase a new styling direction for this too. BMW’s Chris Bangle wished for BMW to carve up some new ground. He wanted to move BMW away from evolution and towards greater heterogeneity in the brand’s styling vocabulary. Ford played with New Edge and Renault demonstrated confidence  during this period. So, Bangle’s experimental approach could not be called an anomaly.

Looking at BMW’s launches we can see the search for a new direction under Bangle´s command, in part a reaction to the 1997 3-series. That car wore a festival of lines and followed a path consistent with previous model changes in the Three lineup. Then X5 appeared in 1999 as the next major product – it’s a mix of sharp lines and soft surfaces, an uncertain-looking thing. In 2000, the retro Z8 emerged, a toy for film makers more than a serious addition to the range. In the diversity of the designs you can sense the uncertainty or the probing of a way forward.

1998 BMW (E46) 3 Series. classics.honestjohn

Only the X5 hints at the surprise that the E65 would provoke: it’s technicalesque in places and suggests product design solutions [1]. So, in these four cars there’s evidence of a search for a new expression for BMW values. The tropes that make the E65 so distinctive show up most clearly in the 1999 Z9 concept.

We can infer from the timelines of car production that management signed off the E65 before the Z9’s styling froze: the Z9 is most likely a retrospective concept car, intended to soften the blow of an unexpected production car already barrelling down the duct. The same distinctive boot-lid principle can be seen on the E65 and Z9, as can some of the sharper folds in the body work. The grille and lamps are clearly a step forward from other BMWs; the flanks’ surfacing is plain; the rear door shut-line is the same as the E65.

1999 BMW Z9 (source)

Could one perhaps guess that the BMW E65 ought to have looked like a four door version of the Z9? Packaging most probably doomed the convincing boot-lid design of the Z9. 

1999 BMW Z9 (source)

Whereas the Z9’s bootlid and rear quarter panel look like two equally important volumes, the E65’s bootlid is clearly secondary. The shutline placement really gets in the way whereas on the Z9 a much better placement avoids sending distracting signals.

What one gets from the E65 is a sense of compromise. Aspects of the design could have been the usual evolution of the previous 7. Grafted on to it are the peculiarly fussy headlamps (while the grille is quite predictable). The awkward boot-lid suggests the tail lamps continue on behind the shut-line, that there’s more lamp waiting when you lift the boot lid. The matter of accommodating older customers who like a higher H-point plus the fact people were getting taller every decade meant also the car lost the sleek proportions of predecessors: it’s a big, square thing, the E65. Like the Lancia Thesis, it’s a car that’s a shade too tall for its length – and it is not a short car. 

2002 65 interior
2002 BMW 7 series dashboard: source Without that big supporting wall of plastic right of the speedo the cowl structure would have collapsed, injuring the driver.

Inside the car, the burgeoning feature count and increased functionality resulted in the deployment of a menu-selector in the centre console. And like most car companies, BMW found adding a large screen incredibly disruptive of the long-established norms for dashboard architecture. The dual-cowl could be justified on theoretical grounds: it makes semantic sense to articulate the new set-up. The result is a very thick wedge of plastic between the speedo panel and navigation panel. That its profile derives from the continuation of the surface right of the cowl is not apparent.

The i-Drive control succumbed to a problem Citroen knew from decades past. This is the conflict between ease-of-first-use versus maximum possible effectiveness. The multiple-functions the i-Drive can operate offer more choice to the driver but also crowd out basic functions. Ergonomically, it places high demands on the driver’s concentration which probably results in a sense of stress and anxiety: do I change the back seat temperature now via a dive into the sub-menus or wait 20 minutes until I get to a safe place to stop? 

Unlike Citroen’s concept which dealt with frequently used controls and works very nicely, the functions embedded in the i-Drive could most probably be ignored. So, in a sense BMW offered more functions and then locked them away under a metallic mushroom, to be safely disregarded forever after.

One might be forgiven for thinking I don’t much care for the E65 and on balance, I don’t. I can respect the attempt to explore new concepts. It’s the execution that bothers me still; I also think that the 7 was the wrong place to set off some styling H-bombs. The Z9 concept hints at a more appropriate stage for surprising and emotive design experiments. The trouble is that the eventual application of the Z9’s features didn’t work too well on the 2003 6-series either. The sculpting didn’t support the kinds of shut-lines that can either disappear or be actively attractive graphics.

The ergonomics of the i-Drive needed further consideration. For designers used to toggling around CAD controls (in an office, at zero kmph) the compass-style menu works really well. I speak from experience: you can fly around a complex, multi-menu interface at the speed of thought. Context makes all the difference though and such an interface is at odds with the high-cognitive demands of driving a 1900 kg car at 140 kmph in traffic.

2002 BMW 7 series rear. Netcarshow

The E65 was an important car – it’s the last 7 I can remember bothering to look at and I still think about the design. BMW got its toes burned with the experience and so subsequent iterations of the 7 have been unremarkable in a way the predecessors never were. The E65, on the other hand, at least warrants examination and re-examination.

BMW was right to address the new requirements of consumers. What they might have done differently was to challenge the philosophy of more-is-more when it comes to functionality. Customers could have lived with the exterior styling but the i-Drive was likely seen as a nuisance more than a necessity.

A selection of DTW authors will present their views of the E65 over the coming days.

[1] The official  BMW timeline does not refer to the E65.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

37 thoughts on “Raking the Embers [1] : Chi Non Fa, Non Falla”

  1. ‘Could have lived with the exterior’.
    This provokes something I’ve thought about C6. What matters more to me? how it looks from outside or the blunderbuss-at-dashboard arrangement (mitigated by the strip of moconto). In e65, I warm to the shades of beige, wood accents and yes, I’d probably never access i-drive. But it wouldn’t be a deal-breaker in the way the boot is.

    Comparison with Thesis is well-made. E65 rear lid remains off the scale awful, made more so by the comparison with the lithe e38. If anything, i feel e38 being so successful only makes it seem worse.

  2. Good morning, Richard. I absolutely adored my E46, briefly mentioned here, but let’s get back to the E65.

    One of my friends had an E65, a 735i. I never really bothered with the i-drive that much, as the car was perfectly drivable without using it. And that it did rather well. My only criticism was it was slightly underpowered, but there’s the 745i to solve that issue.

    I agree with your remarks about the styling. The results will always be awkward when sculpting and shut-lines don’t compliment one another.

    The i-drive didn’t have a good start in life. On the e65 it is overly complicated. Really what were they thinking? Later versions work very well as far as I’m concerned. The center screens have me puzzled. I can’t think of a single car right now that has solved it in a good way. I might have to admit I am old-fashioned 😉

    My eagle eyes spotted one tiny error: It’s Siebener, not Seibener.

  3. For me the Z9’s front looks like a particularly unfavourable caricature of a catfish.

    The E65 always reminds me of someone at another South German manufacturer who asked me ‘if that’s the one they liked imagine how did the other ones look?’

  4. I clearly recall reading an interview with CB where he states that the engine designers specified a higher deck height would be required in the future, so the higher H-point was a consequence. However, it doesn’t explain why the less controversial design language developed for the even taller X5 wasn’t pursued much further. I do see a direct evolution of the X5’s fender forms and surfacing on the 2008 M1 Hommage concept. One might imagine it applied to a more formal shape.

  5. Funny thing of me is the fact that when I look at this car today, I see is as unmistakable BMW, with a lot of typical BMW styling tropes. When it came out, it was considered as remote from previous BMW’s as possible. Later models probably changed the perception, but you can also see a lot of pre-00s BMW’s in this car. In contrary to this iX thing that came out last year. I’ve seen it on the road and really it could anything’s but not BMW really…

    1. @Kamil,

      Spot on. Bangle knew what he was doing – he delivered a very disruptive design, but in fact he was paying due respect to the strong design legacy he inherited. This 7 was an attempt to expand the BMW design palette without throwing away the ‘DNA’. He was giving his designers permission to play with form and detail, so long as the core principles of ‘what makes a BMW a BMW?’ remained intact.

      This work has been squandered however, because today BMW’s designers don’t know what to keep and what to get rid of. They’ve squandered their previous position of design leadership and now it’s increasingly hard to say what makes a BMW a BMW. They claim to be forward-looking and immune to criticism from people like me, but the awful truth is that their cars have become both less elegant and less distinctive.

  6. Leaving aside the details of van Hooydonk’s design, I wonder to what extent the rivalry between BMW and Mercedes-Benz might have dictated the scale and ‘visual mass’ of the 2001 E65 generation 7 Series?

    Going back a couple of generations, the 1979 W126 S-Class and 1986 E32 7 Series were broadly comparable in scale and BMW clearly intended the E32 to compete directly with the W126. For the next generation of both cars, Mercedes-Benz and BMW went in entirely opposite directions: 1991 W140 was a big, bulky heavyweight, whereas the 1994 E38 was noticeably more slim and lithe looking than its predecessor. Even though the W140 met significant resistance for its unashamed bulk, it still sold strongly and I wonder if BMW thought that they had moved in the wrong direction with the E38, hence the decision to bulk up the E65?

    I liked both the W140 and E38 very much, not only for their own merits, but also because they offered a distinct choice for potential buyer; full-fat luxury or athletic looking sporting saloon? The current generations of both cars are pitching for the middle ground, so neither is that interesting to me.

  7. I still think the E46 was a high-point in BMW styling ( before it was face-lifted), but I remember the E65 7-Series not just for the ugliness but for the glimpse into the future that it gave. Autocar launch reports mentioned cars bearing journalists speeding down frosty autobahns with the windows down- or half down – because electrical systems were becoming over-complicated …

    1. The E46 was also on Bangle’s watch. When it was unveiled, he stressed the continuity and gentle evolution of the design. We can guess, though, that he also realised the limitations of this approach, and that BMW needed to make a big step in terms of design.

  8. The E65 is indeed a design that warrants examination and re-examination. As one resides near to my home, I have often found myself looking at it and trying to distil what they were getting at. Other than the obvious desire to emphasise a particular sort of shoulder line, I am still at a loss as to the design’s core concept.

    The comparison with the Lancia Thesis made in the article is an interesting one but I don’t think compromise is the E65’s real problem: The real issue is its lack of cohesion, both in details and larger forms. Maybe there just wasn’t a core concept at all?

    1. The E65 is a more recent example of the kind of unsolvable bafflement the XJ-S provides. There´s a Roxy Music album called Manifesto that I don´t like at all but still play anyway – I am trying to work out what it is that makes me want to play it when I don´t warm to it at all.
      Each to their own, as my psychoanalyst´s granny says: the E46 is the BMW that is the first of blet at their design studio. It´s a pre-cursor to the bland contemporary vernacular BMW mostly dishes out with some very nice exceptions.
      About compromise, I see the lack of cohesion as a result of the compromises. Is the car really a conventional BMW with some zaniness added on. Compare it to the Ford Focus Mk1 which arrived in a huge market with high stakes: it´s original inside and out. There are no Escort ghosts in its shape. And the engineering behind it lived up to the expectations without the burden of wierd new bits, just excellent, excellent adjustment.
      I can see a lovely Giant Test: Lancia Thesis versus C6 versus BMW 7 E65. All three could be had with 3.0 (ish) engines.

    2. That Giant Test that Richard proposed would be interesting and amusing. I can’t think of anywhere else which would see such a comparison suggested … the Citroën and Lancia would never be mentioned in the same breath as a BMW 7 (partly because they are from at least one class beneath), but mainly because most would not consider the marques to be on comparable levels either. I for one did not consider the 7 when I was looking at buying my C6 (-;).

      I would be interested to know how reliable the E65 proved in long term service (I’m intrigued as to how much less bothersome it might be than my C6) – does anyone have any material they can point me towards to help answer the question?

    3. SV: I left price out of the comparison. Aren´t the cars about the same kind of size and probably equally comfortably appointed and have about the same size of engines? I expect the result is that the BMW was too slow for its price and that the other two cars didn´t offer the same kind of handling capability. But that´s Autocar/Car reasoning. The base E65 is more than fast enough and the handling limits of the Lancia and Citroen more than adequate. Something else would decide this one for me. I wonder…

    4. This rather begs for a poll, doesn’t it? I suspect most denizens of DTW would have a definite opinion on the matter. In my case, the BMW holds no interest, the C6 would be the one I would want to want but I suspect the Lancia would be the one I would actually enjoy owning.

      I passed by the E65 again today and studied it for the nth time but still don’t get it. For me, its design remains a flotilla of unrelated forms, adrift in a sea of pudding.

  9. I have to admit I liked the E65 when it first came out. I think I didn’t even know how much the design was hated by some. I’ve come to understand the criticism in the meantime, but I still think it’s not that bad.

    The E60 5 series, on the other hand, I disliked back in the day. I thought the overall proportions and some details (like the front lights) were much worse compared to the E65.

    I respect Chris Bangle as a designer, even though I may not love his work. I would still rather have a pre 2000 BMW, but i respect his bravery, i like that he tried something new. Although what he came up with wasn’t as convetionally beautiful as the older BMWs, it was an interesting proposition. A thinking man’s design theme, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. You can’t say that about the current BMW design, I think – it doesn’t have the simple ellegance of the pre 2000 BMWs, nor the good sides of the Bangle era cars. It’s just tacky.

    1. Handy guide:
      E46 3-series: 1997 -2004 (or 2006)
      E53 X5: 1999 to 2007.
      E65 7-series: 2001 to 2008
      E60 5 series 2003 t0 2010.
      E63 6-series 2003 to 2010.
      E90 3-series 2004 to 2013.

  10. I suspect that we are going to get varying degrees of for and against regarding this notable 7-Series over this collection of articles, so I could wait for an alternative perspective before commenting. However, I am one of those for whom the view of this car has evolved over time.

    At launch, I just could not understand it, particularly the exterior. The slab-sides, the odd details, the clunky way different panels were assembled. This proved in my mind to be a matter of context. This was a true leader of design themes which, for better or worse, one still sees on new cars today. At the time of launch, the car just looked lumpy … compared with what went before it.

    When I see one today, it looks like a modern car, and an imperious and interesting one as well. It reminds me of a Citroën, which Richard also mentions albeit more in the sense of its interior controls set up.

    1. Speaking of influence, the bootlid shutline concept (which I don´t like fundamentally) made it possible for others to do a similar kind of thing. The Opel Insignia also has a shutline crossing the body in an odd way. It´s closer to the Z9 concept and seeks to solve the problem of two distinct volumes merging at the tail. The current Toyota Camry also has a bootlid shutline that has to take a bit of a peregrination from fore to aft. Before the E65 there was much less freedom to do different things. Are they better than the orthodoxy? I don´t think so.

    2. Hi Richard. Interestingly, both Opel and Peugeot experimented with unusual boot/hatch shut-lines on the previous generation Insignia and 508, then reverted to wholly conventional treatments on the current generation models, perhaps proving your contention that different isn’t necessarily better. Here are the ‘experimental’ treatments and their conventional successors:

      Incidentally, I had not appreciated how similar the current Insignia and 508 are to each other. Interesting, given that the next Insignia will be based on the 508 (or, more likely, the 5008).

  11. I have to admit I find it difficult to be objective about the E65 because it followed the sublime, perfect E38:

    1. Thank you for these E38 pics – it really is, as you say, perfect.

    2. I can see why you like the E38 Daniel, but to me it’s a little too much like a 3-series enlarged on the photocopier.

      I’m not in the target demographic, but I never really saw the point of the 7-series. Other than to have a range topper to compete with Mercedes, Jaguar and more recently, Audi. Surely it’s too big to be sporting and a fully loaded S-Class does luxury better.

      The only 7 I ever liked was the E32.

    3. The L version evinces a rather different character than the standard wheelbase model.

      By contrast, I find the E65 manifests its bearing without requiring a stretch. In this class I think stature and presence is more important than beauty. I was never repulsed, but more curious with intrigue and fascination, which is what I think the brief calls for.

      I still find the E38 SWB model attractive, as it is almost, but not quite an E39.

    4. I am not convinced Mercedes did luxury better with the S-Class. It’s bigger and bulkier, but I don’t find overall comfort is on a higher level than with the E38. The seats in the Benz are worse and also the BMW has better ergonomics. On top of that it’s nice to drive, whereas the Benz feels like it drives itself. E38 All the way for me.

  12. Here’s an alternative proposal – the ZBF 7er. BMW management really liked it, apparently. It has some elements of the E65 and still looks ‘not quite right’. They were clearly trying to find their way and establish a new theme – a ‘family look’ as suggested by this model’s name. The frontal styling of this reminds me of 1960s large BMWs, which were often a bit odd looking.

    1. Very hard to find a view of the rear of the ZBF 7er, but it seems to look OK from the ‘B’ pillar back. Shame about the rest of it – the interior is particularly awful.

    2. Yes, BMW seems remarkably coy about showing too much of the car in the video. Here’s one of just a couple of still photos on the internet:

    3. ZBF was created before E65’s design process began in earnest and was never intended as a Siebener proposal. Instead, it represents one of several stabs at a ‘Neuner’ – a Bavarian Rolls-Royce competitor, whose most distinguishing feature was to be a V16 engine. BMW’s purchase of the Rolls-Royce name put an end to these ideas, of course.

      Perhaps as a consequence of ZBF, Joji Nagashima was among those designers who were invited to come up with proposals for the ’03 Phantom, although his design was obviously rejected in favour of Marek Djordjevic’s (as was Marek Reichmann’s).

  13. Here’s an interesting photo showing the evolution of the 7 Series’ front end from the first generation car:

    The final version is…well, it can speak for itself! 😲

    1. In my humble view, the BMW 7 Series in the E32 version is still the most appealing within this model series. For me, it has very harmonious proportions and a combination of elegance paired with very discreet muscularity – an athlete in a perfectly tailored dinner jacket, so to speak.

      But perhaps it is also little to do with a glorified look back at that 7 Series which, like no other representative of this model series before and after it, was instrumental in the vehement upgrading of the brand. It was the 7 Series that achieved the then unthinkable in its class by being perceived in many regions as the first serious competitor to the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

      The BMW E38 even improved in terms of elegance and design harmony, but for me it turned out to be a touch too conservative in the sense of almost boring. Perhaps this is because the discreet muscle play of the predecessor, which certainly creates a certain visual tension, has obviously been avoided. Nevertheless, it too was able to anchor BMW at the top of the premium brands on a par with Mercedes-Benz.

      I am therefore inclined to say that BMW has succeeded in creating a kind of “two hit wonder” with the E32 and the E38. The BMW E65 then successfully prevented the hattrick and still has an effect today in the way that since then, with comparatively banal styles, the company has manoeuvred itself into increasing design insignificance in this class.

  14. Goodness, the nose appears to have been “dressed” over time by lead workers boss mallets and shaping tools. Or a heavyweight boxer, determined to widen their opponents face.

    And I’d pay to see that giant test take place.

  15. Hi Richard, I largely agree with your analysis. The comparison with the Thesis is well chosen for another reason: one can argue about the creative merit of a designer, but I think an important skill is to be able to translate a design vision or idea into a production model. I’d argue that both the E65 and the Thesis failed to a large extent to translate.

    Lancia Dialogos (image: carstyling.ru)

    Lancia Thesis (image: commons.wikimedia.org)

    I’m not sure the Lancia’s theme is formally stronger than the Z9’s (if we take that as a “purer” example of BMW’s vision, notwithstanding the timeline), but to me it certainly is a lot more appealing. It does look more removed from a production car than the BMW, though. Otherwise of course, the contrasting fortunes of BMW and Lancia, when their design prowess wasn’t actually that far apart, are intriguing.

    Overall, I don’t think the idea for the E65 works (also taking into account Daniel’s point about its predecessor). The E60 5 series – as mentioned around here – probably works best as an idea in novel surfacing whilst maintaining a strong overall theme and stance. The E90 3 series was watered down too much to be of importance, I think. Regarding the ZBF concept: those buck teeth have been around for a while, then. They don’t work on that car, they don’t work on modern BMWs.

    Of course, the overall direction that BMW was seeking has now been made clear: an ageing populace, coupled with a rapid breakdown of social trust has created in some people’s minds a sort of Mad Max like dystopia. This has resulted in the need for cars with comfortably high seating and the sort of extremely aggressive exterior that screams “don’t mess with me” (or: “I need professional help”). The SUV is the answer.

    I am chartered accountant, HEAR ME ROAR. (Image: commons.wikimedia.org).

    Not that that last little diatribe says anything about me, you understand 😁.

  16. Looking at the BMW Z9 Concept described here, there is an interesting detail regarding the new control architecture. This study was presented at the IAA in Frankfurt in 1999 not only to show the future exterior design (which, by the way, did not come from Chris Bangle, but from his still present successor Adrian van Hooydonk), but also to show the new control system with the first central rotary knob as the control unit.

    In the BMW Z9 Concept, this new type of controller was a combination of the aforementioned rotary-push button and dedicated menu buttons. In principle, this is a control architecture that is now common in all BMW vehicles and is regularly praised by journalists and users alike as being extremely user-friendly.

    What is not widely known is that this functionality was massively revised again on the way from the BMW Z9 Coupe to the BMW E65 with the loss of the permanently assigned menu buttons. Development engineers argued that the positions of the preselection buttons could only be determined by eye contact and the driver would thus be distracted from the driving action. Instead, the central button was given a third operating level in addition to the turn and push function, in that it could be moved in eight(!) different directions (left, top left, top, top right, right, bottom right, bottom, bottom left) in order to access the submenus.

    From an engineer’s point of view, this type of operation was probably quite systematic, but from the user’s point of view it was simply an overload, which led to vehement criticism of this operating concept.

    It was only several generations later that BMW was prepared to return to the original operating system from the BMW Z9 Concept. A small irony on the side: the patents for this operating concept with preselection button were held by BMW, but were then handed over to Audi, who used this system from the very beginning and were celebrated as superior developers to BMW after its introduction.

    1. Hi Wes. It’s the point of articulation of your hip (hence ‘H’) when seated. Car (and furniture) designers use it to determine the appropriate height for seats. SUV-type vehicles or often favoured by older drivers because they have a higher H-point, so are easier to get into and out of.

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