A change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one.”
Once upon a time in an era before oversized grilles and flame-surfacing, BMW used to make cars possessed with a solid, well-proportioned timelessness characteristic of German domestic Biedermeier-era architecture from the early-to-mid 19th century.
To add some to context this admittedly rather self-indulgent statement, let’s look at BMW E46 3 Series, its bigger brother, the E39 5 Series, and the range-topping E38 7 Series from the mid-to-late 1990s. Some three decades or so since their launch, these designs are still lauded by the automotively-minded as Munich at its absolute aesthetic peak.
In fact, it would not be incorrect to apply the concept of “good design is as little design as possible” - a philosophy begat by German functionalist, Dieter Rams - to the majority of BMWs of this era.
Yet over the last two decades, it’s clear that BMW - at least in terms of its design department, the focus of this piece - has undergone a metamorphosis.
There are several debates as to how and why this shift happened, but for the sake of column inches and provoking debate in the comments section, we’re joined by Christopher Butt - a car design expert, automotive journalist, and founder of Auto-Didakt, an online publication specialising in “cars, design, culture, [and] people.”
According to Butt, BMW’s “loss of direction” started with the arrival of Chris Bangle, the Bavarian carmaker’s head of design from 1992 to 2009. During his tenure, the US-born designer ditched the much-loved, understated aesthetic of ‘90s BMWs in favour of the controversial “flame surfacing” designs introduced by the brand in the early 2000s.
“The Biggest Turning Point in BMW’s Design Shift Was Hiring Chris Bangle” - Christopher Butt
“I think the biggest turning point in BMW’s design shift was hiring Chris Bangle,” Butt explains with a caveat. “However, you have to understand that when BMW hired him to revamp their design department, their designs were very conservative and their cars’ customer demographic was getting ever older.
“Obviously, BMW buyers on average remained younger than Mercedes buyers, but the gap had started to close. Audi, with its relentless design focus at the time, was fast-becoming a serious alternative for the dashing, dynamic kind of customer that BMW had always positioned itself towards, so there was this sense that BMW really needed to freshen up a little if it were to remain relevant.”
Reading between Butt’s words - all of which are peppered with an acerbic, teutonic wit that could, in eyes of a polished, corporate PR department, prove somewhat challenging - it’s clear he is mindful of the challenges that Bangle faced, and Butt remains cautious about indulging in the car enthusiast’s favourite pastime of donning the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.
“Don’t get me wrong, cars such as the E46, E39, and E38 are great pieces of design and they are the BMWs I grew up with,” he says. “But it’s easy to look back and suggest that BMW should have continued with these types of designs. What’s important to understand here is that BMW needed to change to remain relevant.”
Whilst Butt pulls no punches in describing the Bangle-penned E65 7 Series as “an unforgivable sin” and calling the X6 “a product I cannot feel nostalgic about in any possible way,” our critic suggests that not all of the designs overseen by Bangle were problematic. Far from it, actually.
“The thing with Chris is that his designs have always invited controversy,” Butt points out. “Even before he joined BMW, he was at FIAT and directly responsible for the FIAT Coupé. If you remember, that wasn’t exactly a conservative piece of work.
“When talking about Chris’ legacy at BMW, I’d argue he could have been more respectful towards the inherent design qualities of his employer at the time, but the break from the past the designs he signed off represented were, at least to an extent, necessary for BMW going into the 21st century.”
In terms of landmark Bangle-era BMWs, Butt describes the E60 5 Series as “something I have time for” but points to the first-generation E85 Z4 as the zenith of the Ohio-native’s 17-year tenure at the helm of Munich’s design office.
“Whether you like it or not, the E85 Z4 was a groundbreaking piece of machinery” - Christopher Butt
Penned by Anders Warming, the current Director of Design at Rolls Royce, the flame-surfaced styling of the E85 was ultimately signed off by Bangle. According to Butt, the two-seater roadster marked a profound shift in what was possible in terms of both car design and manufacturing techniques.
“Whether you like it or not, the E85 Z4 was a groundbreaking piece of machinery,” he explains. “Everyone refers to flame-surfacing in the same breath as Bangle BMWs, and the Z4 was the blue flame for these cars - its shapes and surfacing were just so unique.
“What’s more, putting it into production posed a huge challenge, because in 2002 when BMW was getting ready to begin manufacturing the E85 the following year, the stamping devices to create these shapes from sheet metal were just not there.
“From a design-technical standpoint, it was revolutionary. The interplay of convex and concave shapes on its bodywork would have been daring enough on a concept car, so to implement them on a production vehicle like BMW did at the time was just madness!
“The E85 showed what designers could do when given a free reign, and it’s clear that the car had a clear vision behind it. Whether you like it or not is a totally different topic, but the scope of its influence on automotive design was enormous.”
Bangle hasn’t been part of BMW for 14 years, yet the designs he oversaw remain a talking point. Butt stresses that whilst controversial, the Bangle-era cars still largely adhered to the classic BMW proportions of a long bonnet, short overhangs, and an authoritative, almost-squat stance. Subsequently, he feels that history has been - and will be - kind to them for the most part.
Yet, Butt cannot say the same for the majority of designs overseen by Domagoj Dukec, BMW’s design chief since 2019. Under the Frankfurt-born Croat’s leadership, Munich has adopted a audacious “Joy of Wow” design language, which has ushered in the controversial new BMW 4 Series, 5 Series, 7 Series, and XM.
Unsurprisingly, Butt is no fan of the oversized grilles and generally more aggressive aesthetic that characterises Dukec-era BMWs. The latest 7 Series and the XM - a luxury sports SUV, and the first ground-up BMW M-Car since the M1 of 1979 - have particularly drawn his ire.
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“Whilst I don’t think the BMWs designed by Chris [Bangle] were the most tasteful cars ever made, he is a genuine creative, which cannot be said for many of the pretend-challengers of today,” Butt opines. “For some reason, BMW’s current design leaders appear to have mistaken shock value for creativity, which is why today’s BMWs are a complete mess in terms of design.
“The BMW XM is Pontiac Aztek-hideous, and the 7 Series, supposedly the pinnacle of BMW’s luxury saloons, just doesn’t look right” - Christopher Butt
“The 4 Series, let’s not forget, is a rear-wheel drive coupé, so it’s as attractive as a basic package can get. However, from a design viewpoint, the latest version always looks like its wheels are too small for its body.
“The BMW XM is Pontiac Aztek-hideous, and the 7 Series, supposedly the pinnacle of BMW’s luxury saloons, just doesn’t look right. Its proportions are all over the place, and its grille comes across as a defiant statement rather than an attempt at lending the car an attractive face in any way.”
For Butt, the 7 Series’ issues are more fundamental than its grille or light designs.
“Its platform needs to accommodate either hybrid or fully-electric drivetrains, so there is just so much metal at the front end. It’s a very large car that looks totally disproportionate, and where it’s so tall, it appears clumsy, rather than regal as a flagship luxury car should do.
“The new 5 Series is even worse,” he continues, now in an almost-stream of consciousness. “It’s smaller - at least in relative terms - than the 7, despite sharing the same platform. Yet at over five metres long, it looks even more imbalanced and heavyset. No previous 5 Series, the Bangle-overseen E60 included, has ever strayed as far from its historical design blueprint as this latest car.”
Despite his unfiltered take on BMW’s current designs, Butt believes that its all-electric Neue Klasse concept revealed at IAA Mobility 2023 could present a way for BMW to return to its more functional roots. A perceptive character, the irony is far from lost on Butt that the Neue Klasse is a design overseen by Dukic.
Scheduled for launch in 2025 and reported to be the design blueprint for the next-gen 3 Series, the Neue Klasse will be the first in a line of ground-up EVs built by BMW, which are set to have 30% more range, offer 30% faster charging, and be 25% more efficient than its current all-electric range.
“The Neue Klasse really looks like a fresh take on a traditional BMW, with its very short boot and otherwise traditional BMW proportions” - Christopher Butt
“If BMW really wants to be taken seriously as the makers of the ultimate driving machine, then they need to communicate this via their designs, even if it is an EV,” concludes Butt. “The groundbreaking i3, which I like very much as a product and whose interior remains a fantastic piece of design, didn’t really capture the essence of what BMW stands for as a brand.
“By contrast, the Neue Klasse really looks like a fresh take on a traditional BMW, with its very short boot and otherwise traditional BMW proportions. It embodies much of its maker’s historical design traits, but in a minimalist way that lends it an identity of its own.
“The vertical ‘kidney display’ at the front, which replaces the increasingly grotesque horizontal pseudo-grilles, is a good symbol of the utterly different mindsets behind the design of the Neue Klasse and BMW’s current models.
“Proportions, stance, grilles, lights and graphics are no side show. They matter, because they are key in lending shape and function to a car brand’s values. They play a great role in lending a car maker credibility, and in the world of expensive consumer goods, credibility is a hard currency.”
After all, hope springs eternal, and it seems that after an absence of two decades, the notion that “good design is as little design as possible” could once begin to resonate through the corridors at BMW.