The E65 changed BMW forever.
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 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 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, 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. 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, 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.
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.
 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.
 This prelapsarian period pre-dated the ubiquity of diesel engines, which BMW would help popularise.
 Pischetsrieder had usurped what Reitzle felt had rightfully been his – the position as BMW AG CEO.
 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.
 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.