Why the facelift failed to fix the BMW E65-generation 7 Series’ most egregious faults.
Someone much more literate in such matters than me once used the terms lumper and splitter in connection with automotive design. I find these terms useful and try to be a holistic lumper, but often find myself unduly irritated by what I perceive to be flaws in the detail execution, hence I am an inveterate splitter. This is why Adrian van Hooydonk’s(1) 2001 Siebener has always irritated me to an irrational degree, and why I feel the facelift did little to address its many flaws.
In the photos below, the blue car is the pre-facelift model, the grey is the facelifted version(2).
The most egregious of these flaws are to be found in the area of the rear door, rear quarter panel and C-pillar. The horizontal bodyside crease in the door skin appears to come to a dead stop when it reaches the door’s trailing-edge shut-line. It has to do so to avoid interfering with the curvature of the rear wheel arch. Actually, if you look carefully, you can see that the crease carries on fractionally into the rear quarter panel before fading out, but this is so minimal that your eye does not easily pick it up. Instead it focuses on the apparent mismatch between the profile of the door and rear quarter panel.
To make matters worse, the crease then reappears briefly behind the wheel arch (awkwardly crossing the fuel filler flap on the right-hand side) before coming to another dead stop at the tail light, where it fails to align with the joint between the red and clear sections of the lens. It also looks misaligned with the crease across the door skins, appearing to sag slightly towards the rear of the car. This is particularly noticeable in the rear three-quarter image below.
Why resurrect the crease in this way? Indeed, why have the problematic bodyside crease at all? If it is there to add length and take some visual bulk out of the bodysides, then it fails wholly in this regard. If anything, the crease is placed too high and simply draws attention to the depth of the bodysides below it. This is exacerbated by the lack of any significant ‘tuck-under’ in the (body-coloured) sills.
Incidentally, the door handles are a really clumsy and awkward shape, and have never appeared on any other BMW before or since.
I don’t find the clamshell boot lid design particularly unsettling in itself, but the manner in which the crease that forms the top edge of the boot lid forces itself onto the C-pillar before fading out is really awkward to my eyes. I suppose it mirrors the bodyside crease below, but these two wrongs do not make a right.
The manner in which the boot lid shut-line has to cross this crease diagonally to align with the bottom corner of the rear window adds to the visual clutter at the base of the C-pillar, as does the additional bright(3) trim running along the roof and down either side of the window, where it also terminates awkwardly at the bottom corner. At the root of this problem is the fact that the rear window is significantly narrower than the boot lid and, as a consequence, the C-pillars have a pronounced inward curvature in plan view. Presumably for reasons of cost, none of these issues was addressed in the facelift.
The shape of the main part of the tail light unit in the rear wing is perfectly fine to my eyes, and would have been large enough to accommodate the reversing and fog lights, so why force these onto the boot lid, where they look like an afterthought? The revised two-part tail lights on the facelifted car are little better in that their mismatched curvature (in plan view) stepped lower edges make them still look disjointed. The little filler strip beneath the main part of the light and its poorly placed vertical joint with the rear quarter panel also remains.
It is only at the front that the facelift made a positive impact, but did so possibly by also making it somewhat bland. The problem with the original headlamps wasn’t that they were oddly shaped per-se, but that they were too large in comparison with the uncertainly shaped and apologetically shallow double-kidney grille. At least on the revised car the lights and grille are of a similar scale.
To get an idea as to how the car might have looked without these flaws, I have produced the following image below. The production model, in facelifted form, is shown first for comparison:
The awkward bodyside and C-pillar creases are gone, as are the clumsy door handles and strips of bright trim either side of the rear window. The window is wider and deeper, so that it flows more naturally and directly into the boot lid, without the awkward intersection of shut-line and crease mentioned above. The tail lights are now confined to the wings, made deeper to eliminate the troublesome filler strips, and given a Hofmeister kink at their leading edge. The vertical surface of the boot lid is now flush with the rear lights.
By playing with the way the light falls on the bodysides, I have repositioned the apparent widest point of the door skins’ curvature so that it is now level with the top of the rear wheel arch, lowering the car’s visual ‘centre of gravity’. Previously, this was defined by position of the bodysides crease, which was too high, making the car look top-heavy.
I think the result of these changes is a design that is much cleaner and more coherent than the production car, and one that is certainly less controversial, while still retaining the distinctive silhouette of the E65. Some might see it as perhaps rather lacking in BMW identity(4), but BMW was trying to achieve a decisive break with the past, so my rework should be viewed in that context.
Others might still regard the E65 as simply a lost cause and irredeemably flawed. The contrast between it and the 2003 E60 generation 5 Series, designed at around the same time by Davide Arcangeli(5), is very striking. The E60 is a far more cohesive and assured design, and very much the best looking BMW of this era.
However, I hope that, in undertaking this exercise, I have demonstrated that beneath all the messy detailing there was hidden an interesting and potentially sound fundamental design in the E65.
(1) The E65 is often incorrectly attributed to Chris Bangle, who was Director of BMW Group Design at the time, but it was van Hooydonk who penned the design. It was approved in controversial circumstances, which are explained here.
(2) Photos from http://www.7-forum.com
(3) This strip was body-coloured on some versions.
(4) My redesign is indeed somewhat redolent of the 2004 fourth-generation Honda Legend (Acura RL in the US).
(5) Another design often incorrectly attributed to Bangle. Sadly, Davide Arcangeli, shortly after he was diagnosed with leukemia, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in December 2000, so never saw his creation in production.
Author’s note: After writing this piece, I stumbled across a video featuring an alternative proposal for the E65, which makes an interesting contrast with the production car. The video may be found here.