Raking the Embers [4] : How to Disappear Completely

The E65 changed BMW forever.

‘Everything in its right place….’ Image: autoevolution

In October 2000, UK rock band, Radiohead released their fourth studio album, the much-awaited follow up to their acclaimed and large-selling 1997 release, OK Computer. But the Gloucestershire five-piece, having foreseen a future trapped upon the stadium rock treadmill instead took a leap into leftfield and recorded a soundscape as haunting as it was alienating. Kid A[1] was received by fans and critics with a mixture of shock, awe and a certain dismay. Many would not embark upon the journey.

The E65 Seven Series was not simply a reset for BMW design, it was to prove something of one for the industry. Nor was the noise and fire the 7er’s appearance inspired confined to the public domain; far from it, the seismograph registering significant disturbances within the Forschungs-und Innovationszentrum (FIZ) BMW’s technical nerve centre – both during and in the wake of the car’s gestation.

The mid-90’s remains a period of history BMW aficionados cast wistful backward glances towards, embodying as they might see it, the Vierzylinder’s peak, both from engineering-purity[2] and stylistic consistency perspectives. It was also one driven largely by BMW’s single-minded research and development supremo and eternal bridesmaid, Wolfgang Hans Reitzle. With a firm emphasis upon precision engineered, sharply tailored, yet conservatively styled automobiles, Reitzle had left his indelible mark upon the late 20th century BMW identity. So it is somewhat ironic that the Swabian’s towering ego and unfettered ambition would play such a pivotal role in shaking BMW to its very foundations.

Change, as we know requires an agent, and this would take flesh in terrible angel, Christopher Edward Bangle. Did Reizle and the BMW supervisory board fully understand just how much change they were getting by appointing the Ohio-native, former centro stile Fiat director to lead an in-house design team who had, prior to his appointment, frequently worked alongside the subtle (and often uncredited) aid of the Italian carrozzieri? Bangle arrived in Munich steeped in the Italian tradition, yet married to a disruptive agenda all his own.

The story behind the E65 has entered legend, an almost farcical study in political boardroom skulduggery, ego and the immutable laws of unintended consequences.

The E65 programme was initiated as BMW were undergoing what might be termed ‘growing pains’. Having acquired the troubled Rover Group from British Aerospace, BMW’s board were experiencing a strong element of buyer’s remorse. Architect of the deal, BMW CEO, Bernd Pischetsrieder was somewhat on the back foot, having to justify a cost base which had been allowed to spiral unchecked. Also believing Reitzle to be manoeuvring against him[3], he parachuted the R&D chief into Longbridge in the hope that either Reitzle could sort it, or at the very least become damagingly mired in the unfolding debacle by association.

Alternating between the UK and Munich, Reitzle quite naturally ensured he was present for the E65 design review. A good deal of uncertainty reigned as to the creative direction BMW would take with this model, evidenced by a longlist of no less than 26 individual design proposals which was to be laboriously whittled down to one. As design director, Chris Bangle would propose his choice to the board, placing his enthusiastic backing behind a somewhat outré proposal from a young Dutch designer, Adrian van Hooydonk.

By this point, Reizle had cooled rather dramatically upon his appointee, having it is believed, already tried and failed to have Bangle replaced. Reizle made his distaste for the van Hooydonk proposal clear. Worse still, Pischetsrieder, backed his American design chief, much to the Swabian’s horror. Desperate measures: Reizle took matters into his own hands, tasking a small team headed by Henrik Fisker at Designworks in California to secretly develop an alternate style – one closer to Reizle’s platonic ideal of a post-millennial BMW flagship. Viewed by Pischetsrieder as an act of sedition, it was rejected out of hand. The van Hooydonk design it was to be.

But are we to accept that Bernd Pischetsrieder’s paranoia over Reitzle’s intentions saw him approve a design he didn’t believe in, simply to get one over his rival? If so, it suggests a highly questionable manner in which to manage a multi-million Euro programme for a flagship model. But even without all of this intrigue, E65’s impact upon both BMW and the wider industry would be profound.

Curiously, one individual we hear very little about as regards E65’s eventual form is the man responsible for it. Adrian van Hooydonk currently holds the position of Chief Creative Officer for the entire BMW Group of companies. The E65 was the Dutchman’s creative ticket to the big league, his previous credits being merely the E46 Compact’s frontal styling, and the Mini ACV 30 concept exterior.[4] Van Hooydonk’s subsequent rise can be read as a direct consequence of Reitzle’s failure in neutralising Chris Bangle and in the wake of the latter’s departure in 2009,[5] has navigated the corridors of power in more deft a manner than his predecessor. One might even be forgiven for suggesting that his political skills have outstripped his creative judgement.

The disruption Chris Bangle initiated within BMW design which manifested in E65’s body style would embody an undiscovered country from which BMW could not return. For not only did van Hooydonk’s Siebener unmoor BMW from its time-honoured Italian-inflected tradition, it could be said to have created a fissure which despite some abortive attempts at retrenchment, opened the way for today’s stylistic free-for-all.

Not only that, but the Seven lent rival design studios everywhere – but those of the heritage marques in particular – justification for a less reverential handling of the previously inviolate design cues that had hitherto set their offerings apart. As is often the case however, imitation failed to edify either party.

‘I’m not here…’ Carpixel

Certainly, from a creative standpoint, Radiohead’s Kid A represented a successful point of departure, the band subsequently going on to create a succession of cerebral, challenging, but highly rewarding recordings. And while one can make a cerebral case for E65, it could not herald a bold new paradigm – the instability it precipitated simply wouldn’t allow it. Indeed, the seismograph within the Forschungs-und Innovationszentrum remains violently disturbed, a matter for which there remains a great deal of blame to go around.

Despite being amongst the most commercially successful 7 Series of all, the E65 – especially that of the pre-facelift variety – has become a vanishingly rare sight on the roads. In the intervening years, age has done little to alter visual perceptions, having always lent itself more towards curious interest than outright fascination. Anno-2022, we await a new generation of Siebener, one which we are informed will once more reset the stylistic dial. Expectations remain low. Meanwhile, two decades on from the fire and noise of its arrival, the E65, like so many of those responsible for its creation, appears to have mastered the art of how to disappear completely.


[1] Having amassed sufficient material for a double album, it was put out as two separate LPs: Kid A, with its sequel, Amnesiac being released the following May.

[2] This prelapsarian period pre-dated the ubiquity of diesel engines, which BMW would help popularise.

[3] Pischetsrieder had usurped what Reitzle felt had rightfully been his – the position as BMW AG CEO.

[4] It’s probably some time since the Dutchman has picked up a magic marker in anger, and apart from E65 and the contemporary E63 6-Series (not to mention its conceptual equivalent) there appears little of note subsequently attributed to him.

[5] Unlike many of his fellow design leaders, Bangle engendered a strong element of loyalty within the FIZ; certainly the contrast in the level of staff retention at BMW’s design centre then and now is as striking as the quality of design work which has of late emerged.

My grateful thanks to Christopher Butt for the BMW-related background to this piece. His considered automotive musings can be found at Design Field Trip.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

40 thoughts on “Raking the Embers [4] : How to Disappear Completely”

  1. Sometimes I wonder what the purpose of car design is.

    I’ve heard it said it is there just to sell more cars. From that perspective BMW’s design direction has been successful. From just under 950,000 units in 2001 (including Mini), the year where the E65 was introduced, to 2,3 million in 2020 (including Mini and Rolls Royce). I have no figures for 2021, but the first two quarters were strong.

    Personally I like my car to look good and drive well. It’s clear BMW did provide those qualities in such a way that I have only owned BMW’s in my life. I have driven over 1,000 different cars from all sort of brands, so this should mean something. My current E92 is 15 years old. I have to replace it at some point. I see only three options: public transport, another older BMW or a car from a different brand.

    1. ‘Sometimes I wonder what the purpose of car design is’. That’s an interesting question, Freerk. Yes, I think it’s to help to sell more cars, and to do so by demonstrating progress.

      For decades, ‘The Year 2000’ was a conveniently far-off marker post on which to pin new concepts; suddenly it had arrived and things needed to be a bit more silver-spacesuit-pills-for-meals than they had been previously.

      I wonder to what extent it being ‘The Year 2000’ made designers throw caution to the wind more than they otherwise would have done.

  2. The intrigue, in-fighting and management turmoil within BMW is a fascinating back-story to the E65 and may well explain why it reached the market in such a poorly developed state. That said, I’m still perplexed by the fact that van Hooydonk and Bangle were apparently happy to sign off on it in that state.

    At the around the same time and in the same circumstances, however, Davide Arcangeli produced the E60. I realise that the latter is also a controversial design, not least amongst DTW’s readership, but for my money it is a far superior piece of work.

    Van Hooydonk’s subsequent work for BMW has ranged from bland (for example, the F10-generation 5 Series and F30-generation 3-Series) to the execrable (much of the current output).

    Van Hooydonk was always Bangle’s favoured successor, but Davide Arcangeli’s untimely death robbed the automotive design world of a real talent. I wonder how his talent might have developed and matured in different circumstances?

  3. On the subject of things and events that change the world, the press introduction date of the E65 is also salient: september 11, 2001. I was there in Frankfurt at the time and me and my friend managed a feat that would be impossible to manage today: we did not find out about the events until the late afternoon of september the 12th. This being the age before smartphones with internet access, the first press day on the 11th was normal (the events did not take placfe until it was about 3PM in Europe I believe) and afterwards we went to our rented inn room, and had a quick bite to eat in a small restaurant on the corner. There was no TV in the restaurant and even though there was one in our room we did not switch it on but rather talked and read a bit and called it a night relatively early to face the second press day in the morning. On the second press day the only thing that we noticed was that it was pretty quiet both in terms of attendance and song and dance rehearsals that usually took place in preparation for the public opening but thought nothing of it.
    On the bus shuttle to the parking lot where our car was another journalist talked to us about airplanes that had crashed into the Pentagon and the World Trade center which sounded so weird that we politely nodded but among ourselves dismissed it as crazy talk. It was only on our first stop on the autobahn to fill up the tank that we saw the front pages of the various tabloids and the endless and awful repetitions on the TV. Never before or since have I felt so weird- shocked, embarassed and out of the loop.

    1. At the time the crashes occurred I was stunned bored looking at a CAD screen listening to James Bond theme music. The images seemed liked an action-film hallucination. The period is an odd one in that whilst in the wider world things looked horribly dark (I think 9/11 is the start marker for the grim period we live in) I personally started a wonderful period of discovery as I moved to Cologne a short while later (Oct 2001) and started an important new phase of my life.

    2. I was at boarding school, returning from a lavish post-lunch shopping spree at the next village’s supermarket, to be greeted by a classmate who – with an inexplicable ironic grin – told me that a plane had crashed into WTC. I assumed it was a small private plane, until I arrived at the next tv set, just in time for the second tower to collapse. This event simultaneously went far beyond the wildest stretches of my imagination and confirmed my highly pessimistic worldview in those days.

      Less than a year later, two large planes crashed nearby.

      I’m not very nostalgic about my adolescent years.

    3. That must have been disconcerting, Bruno. Mind you, the British TV chef, Clarissa Dickson Wright (RIP), went on a bender in the early ‘80s; when she sobered up, she realised that she had somehow missed the entire Falklands war.

      I recall the events of 9/11 very clearly and remember thinking that the pilot of the first plane that hit would be severely criticised in the subsequent enquiry – it didn’t occur to me that it would be a deliberate act. I literally couldn’t believe my eyes, watching it on TV; really dreadful.

      On a positive note, every age has its bad events. I saw an interesting programme a while ago which asked people who’d lived through previous decades, going back to the 1930s, whether they saw the past as a golden age. The answer was definitely not. I think we have a lot to look forward to – the end of the pandemic, new technology and so forth. Without wishing to be political, for those who don’t like the current set-up, that will change, too.

    4. I was making an architectural model and listening to the radio, so I heard it as soon as it was made public in the Netherlands. When the second plain hit everyone who was speculating about the cause was sure this was no accident. I visited the site in 2013 and that made a big impression.

  4. Thank you for the very interesting background. I had no ideas about the corporate shenanigans in relation to this 7 series.

    I have to say that from the time Bangle came onboard, I wondered how the board of a multi billion dollar car company could sign off on so many polarising (which is being far, far too kind) designs of his. I do like the Fiat Coupe so for me there was some small redemption.

    I’m open to innovation and I love all of Radiohead’s recordings. But I’m violently replused by the E65. I don’t think the E60 is much better. For me peak BMW was reached with the E34, E43, F30 and the just superceded F22. Just about every other text design has left me quite unimpressed.

    I remember seeing (and as they say what is seen cannot be unseen) a E60 close up in a shopping centre as a prize in a raffle, and a fellow onlooker was drooling and muttering under his breath “beautiful, beautiful” and shaking his head as if he was under the influence of something. I felt like making the remark to him that if it had a Hyundai badge instead of the spinning propeller on the bonnet he works not have given it a second look, and he may have had a negative opinion.

    Unfortunately there were and still are, and a lot of people around like him that, like that internet meme that was going around a few years ago, will buy any BMW even it it is any old excrement….. which is why unparalleled works of art like the X6 and X4 sell in quantity.

    1. As I see it, the E65 was at least the sign of a design department trying. I feel now BMW´s success (well done!) has cost them their integrity. It isn´t art though, it´s a money-making venture. Until the turn mid-90s most of what BMW did had seriousness to it. Ditto the other two. More than anything, the change of tone was down to the departure of the Ulm Design School generation. Whoever was teaching design in the early 80s didn´t communicate values and by the same token, the other managers were less receptive to the allure of rigorous design thinking.

  5. Christopher Butt’s article about big BMW’s that was originally linked at the bottom of Richard’s opening salvo in the Siebenerschlacht (https://driventowrite.com/2019/05/22/bmw-coupes-generations-history-profile/) sums up the 7 series nicely as well: never certain about its place in the market, its purpose. Where the big BMW coupes had their high water mark in the 3.o CS, the 7 series (as mentioned by Daniel) had its zenith in the E38. Whereas BMW used to be about consistency and reaping the rewards that come with it, these days it’s about disruption. Not inconceivable if you take note of the amount of start-ups in the car market these days and the transition to new forms of personal mobility, making this possibly the most challenging time for an established car brand since its, well, establishment. In these kinds of situations, the incumbent usually succumbs to his fear of being replaced, rather than analysing the situation rationally (if I may drastically simplify the situation, reality is obviously more complex). Current BMW design is worth a study in mass psychology rather than design theory.

    I recall hearing the theory at the time that the 7 was shoved under the proverbial bus to try out a new design language (which, as Richard mentioned was deemed both necessary and “in the air” at the time) as a relatively low-stakes gamble before the real money-makers: the 5 and particularly 3 series were reimagined. The subsequent line-up rather supports that notion, I think, with the E90 3 series being a rather conventional design with a few “Bangle-esque” flourishes, particularly at the front.

    1. Hi Tom. You’re right, BMW were very conservative with the E90. It looked as though it might have been intended to have a clamshell boot lid like the E65 and E60, but BMW thought better of it. My goodness, it was a dumpy, frumpy looking thing:

      I think comparison with the Mitsubishi Carisma was rather unfair…on the Japanese car.

    2. Interestingly, the E90 design is attributed to Joji Nagashima, who is not only credited with the much loved E39 Funfer, but the ZBF 7er which was featured on these pages recently. In fairness to the Japanese senior designer, the E90 was subject to a good deal of fiddling – perhaps unsurprisingly given its commercial importance. As presented however, it lacked the courage of its convictions and to be fair was not a good template for this particular styling theme anyway. I’d have to say the E60 got closest to what the design intent for these cars must have been, but even that could have benefited from a little more pre-announcement refinement.

      Irony of ironies: The Carisma is the only other car which has received a similar episodic treatment from various authors on DTW. Make of that what you will…

    3. Or maybe not:

      There isn’t much in it, but the BMW was pitched much higher market position, so more should be expected from its design.

    4. Ouch, yes, the Carisma was an utterly unremarkable but careful piece of design. So much so (both careful and unremarkable) that the facelift you pictured didn’t hurt the design. Something of a rarity.

      The only thing holding the E90 together stylistically (I think anyway) is the DLO and C pillar, since those are relatively unchanged from its predecessor and frankly, still form the template for a sporting D segment sedan.

    5. No, Daniel, you cant hate on the E90 – i will take away your design critique rights.
      I think it looks great, and in real life it always grabs my attention when i see one because it looks so well proportioned and nice.
      The front end is the only slightly weak part about it, but they fixed that on the coupe and M3

  6. Christopher’s article was about big BMW coupes like the 6 and 8 series. Sorry.

  7. “Anno-2022, we await a new generation of Siebener…”

    Or not. Between the rise of Tesla and the dominance of SUVs (body-on-frame rigs from Detroit and Solihull as well as crossovers of all kinds including BMW’s own offerings) the high-end German sedans are less relevant now than they’ve been since perhaps the ’70s. Whether the E65 had a hand in that or not, or how much, is another topic.

    1. nlpnt: While I am inclined to agree with your statement regarding the current relevance of the traditional German high-end saloon in the face of the SUV/CUV tide, I can state with some confidence that there will be a new Siebener in the near future. Proving prototypes have been papped on an increasingly regular basis, suggesting it will feature a frontal treatment somewhere between the current car and recently shown XM concept. This new-generation Seven, which is on an entirely new platform as well, I believe, was to have been the first BMW design overseen by Josef Kaban, but in the wake of his sidelining and subsequent resignation in favour of current Design chief, Domagoj Dukec, we can expect an all too familiar mess of gaping apertures and desperate ‘look-at-me’ addenda.

      So yes, keenly anticipated…

    2. Here’s the forthcoming facelifted 8 Series:

      Apparently, it will swallow pedestrians, cyclists and those annoying e-scooterists whole and macerate them into a purée. BMW is reportedly working on a second generation version that will do the same to Audis.

    3. I noticed that on one of the newer BMWs the kidney grille is a graphic “draped” over a convex surface. It makes it look painted on and even more decorative than usual.

    4. Daniel, you have excelled yourself, chapeau!
      It’s also far more cohesive than any current BMW design.

    5. Good morning Andy. I’m afraid I can take no credit for that image, which I found on the web. It was part of a series extrapolating BMW’s obsession with ever larger grilles:

  8. After going through the 4 opinion pieces on the Siebener, I have found a new appreciation for it (pre-facelift).
    Partly is in reaction to the current design direction BMW has been going, but also, undoubtedly, due to its own merits.

    We cant’ deny that there’s a presence or gravitas in the Siebener that is very appropriate to a brand flagship. It reminds me of the statement that the W220 represented when presented, but done with considerable more elegance.
    For all that (and more) I’m still a big fan of Bangle and the Bangle years at BM.

    1. We have certainly applied a lot of brain power to the topic. The interesting aspect is that the car is worth consideration and it is revealing to ask why it worked or didn´t in a way that present designs don´t. The 65 makes a case or tries to express a hypothesis. We might not agree yet there is something in the design later cars so obviously lack. They are not even wrong but statement of indifference.

  9. The way in which my appreciation of the E65 has evolved over time does make me wonder whether I might look at the iX in a different way in, say, 5-10 years time. The iX’s mere presence (I have seen three now, 2 parked and one travelling down the the road) has an odd impact on me in that I find myself staring at it. I now realise that there is something about it which is appealing to me but I can’t fathom what it is (probably because there is so much that doesn’t which is distracting me from what good there is). The E65 had a similar impact on me 20 years ago …

  10. Interesting that Bangle didn’t personally draw any of the awkward BMW models for which he was responsible. Then there is the Fiat Coupe – which is good in parts (like the curates’ egg….).
    The E65 doesn’t bother me these days, since they have all vanished. The E60, on the other hand, is very common and is still offensive to my eyes. Not just for the front or rear lights, or the shut-lines, but for the area below the window-line which is concave ( really – what were they thinking !).

  11. Quoting Richard, ” The interesting aspect is that the car is worth consideration …”

    The reason it is considered at all is that it is THE car which wrenched high-end German luxury saloons away from good taste. After that it was all on. The restraints were broken. The careless expressions of low end “designers” could be and were allowed. How much cheaper this must have been (in all senses of the word cheap). It surely saved a lot of time since there was no longer the need or will to commit extra efforts to refine a design- just bang it out or bangle it out, whatever.

  12. I saw an E38 seven series parked on the side of the road a few weeks ago, and was struck by how handsome this large car still looked after 40 odd years. Such a contrast to the E65 that succeeded it.

    This article reminds me of the importance of having a good product chief on any car supervisory board. Wolfgang Reitzle had refined, if somewhat conservative taste and BMWs never looked quite the same after he left. Contrary to what Mr Bangle said at the time, BMW is still in the sausage business. It’s just that their sausages are all misshapened these days. For better or wurst.

    1. DRW is a good website; a lucky find for me when I was looking up Boxster related information and found one of Daniel’s articles. The contributors are well informed, and most write well. Too well to qualify for “the world’s leasst influential website.” Won’t surprise me if your readership expands a lot more in the near future.

    2. Thanks, William. I just wondered about the word “most”. Are you thinking of Myles Gorfe? He won´t be pleased once he´s emerged from under his Granada.

    3. The last I heard, Mr Gorfe, having been elevated to join Simon Kearne and the other suits on the 16th floor of DTW towers, is now far too lofty and grand to tinker with his fleet of Granadas and employs a small team of mechanics (at DTW’s expense) to do the spannering for him.

    4. Haha, Richard. By ‘most’ I meant I haven’t yet read the work of all of your contributors. Only scratched the surface at this stage, but the articles I have read are impressive indeed. Much better than the “Five things I love/hate about my XXXX” that passes for automotive journalism these days.

    5. William: I will go and reassure Myles Gorfe. He´s still trying to source a door lock button for his Consul. For his car´s model year they were dark grey and not black on the following years. He has a lead on eBay from a bloke in Antrim and a lady in Euskirchen, Germany. He´s watching the bids now so he is a bit busy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: