What’s that? Oh, sorry – I was just feeling a little sleepy there. Probably as a result of seeing the new BMW 3-Series.
If you couldn’t tell, I’m not exactly a fan of BMW and their car design. I USED to be but it’s difficult to get passionate about the cautious evolution of the likes of the 3 and 5-Series models. Don’t even get me started on their range of gargantuan, obnoxious drug-dealer ‘X’ SUV’s. This is the way it has been for some time now and while there have been some attractive BMW’s in recent times – the F82 M4 and F06 Gran Coupe 6-Series – the majority of the Bavarian firm’s designs are “smart”, “safe” and “uniform” – solid descriptives but not descriptives that set the pulse racing.
It wasn’t always this way though. Look at the design evolution between the E30, E36 and E46 3-Series models. All three generations are attractive cars that share similar design cues but – crucially – manage to stand apart from one another. The latest 3-Series doesn’t look massively different to the last one which in itself was just a sharper refinement of its predecessor’s silhouette.
And this is why I want to take a look back at that brief moment in time when BMW entrusted the design of their cars to one Chris Bangle. His designs proved intensely controversial and were rather wild and unconventional after years of conservative car design at BMW. At the time, many resented these weird new BMWs (myself included) but I can’t help but look back at this era now and mourn the time when a heavyweight car manufacturer of BMW’s caliber allowed a designer to rewrite the rules and gave him their backing when the critics were aghast at what they were seeing.
So I thought it would be fun to revisit Bangle’s BMW output with fresh eyes and revitalise our imaginations – stunted by the all-consuming blandness of modern car design.
[Note: Chris Bangle was at BMW for a long time and involved in the design of many cars whether in a hands-on fashion or as an overseer. I don’t want to talk about every single car that was released during Bangle’s tenure at BMW so I’m only going to look back at the cars he had the most involvement with, making a special exception for the original Z4.]
This is the biggie for me because after the graceful E39 5-Series, the E60 arrived looking nothing like what had come before. I remember first seeing these on the roads and absolutely detesting them. The headlights stretching up into the wings took a lot of getting used to as did the pointy rear lights. The E60 is three generations old now and I have to say that my opinion of it has changed completely. I think it still looks incredibly sharp and imposing – making a true statement despite the fact that there are still enough on the roads to make them a common daily sight. Critics and the public were unsure of the E60’s looks back in 2003 but it’s those same looks and that daring design in general that make the car so appealing today when the current 5-Series is really nothing to get emotional about.
The M5 model is a true monster with a 5.0 naturally aspirated, F1-inspired V10 powerplant that stirs the soul and represents the end of an era – the culmination of an arms race that went off in a different, turbo-charged direction thereafter. They also made a Touring version (E61) which is utterly bonkers and surely the best way to haul some crap down to the dump. Alpina editions are dangerously sexy.
Personally, the E60 has matured like a fine wine and I would honestly say that a decent spec example with a manual ‘box (a rarity unfortunately) and M-Sport equipment is one of my most highly desired cars. That’s high praise coming from a staunch follower of everything JDM.
The E85 Z4 is the work of Anders Warming but I’m including it here since I keep seeing references to the fact that Chris Bangle had some sort of input on the design. I’m not 100% sure about that but in any case, the Z4 was certainly a major departure from the Z3. As with the E60 5-Series, I hated this car on release and wondered what on earth was happening at BMW. The front end in particular always struck me as brutish and rhino-like. Today however, the design has matured and is certainly preferable to the nondescript, folding tin-top E89 that followed in the E85’s wake.
My father has the coupe version (E86) and it really is a nice car. The long bonnet and squat, muscular proportions go so well with the swooping fastback shape that gives the car an almost classic sports car look. His isn’t the fire-breathing, ultra desirable Z4M variant but you’d better believe that the 3.0 N52B30 straight-six under that huge bonnet can deliver a massive shove…as well as a big grin on the driver’s face.
The E65 was one of the more shocking designs to emerge from Bangle’s reign at BMW’s design offices. It was a car that looked nothing at all like its conservative predecessor and in that sense, it achieved the BMW board’s wishes to move the design direction of its cars into the future. The controversy was real however, especially at the rear end of the car where the strange (shocking even, for 2001) elongated boot horrified many, leading critics to label it the “Bangle Butt”. As with the E60 5-Series, I too did not like this car when it first launched. The design was just so different and in-your-face. I couldn’t stand the car.
But as with the E60, that bold design philosophy is exactly what has made the E65 7-Series age fantastically in my opinion. I don’t look twice at the current 7-Series or the model it replaced but when I see an E65 cruising by, I can’t help but look. I hated it in period but the current, ultra-safe design direction at BMW has given me newfound appreciation for cars like the E65 and made me realise how lucky we really were to witness these risks being taken. Sometimes though, you can’t appreciate what you have until you lose it.
Another radical design that sported a “Bangle Butt”, the E63 6-Series was as different as you could possibly get from the original, much-loved 6-Series (E24). Big, beefy and with a bruiser persona, the E63 was another controversial design that – again – I felt enormously turned-off by back in 2004. Like the 7-Series, I could only look at it and think “what the hell are they doing?“. It was fugly and struck me as a mish-mash of design elements colliding in the worst possible way.
Surprise, surprise, the E63 has the polar opposite effect on me today in 2019. It turns me on like modern BMWs simply can’t. As I mentioned in the intro to this article, I do like the Gran Coupe (F06) body style of the more recent 6-Series but nothing is a dramatic and statement-making as the E63, especially in M6 mode – a true monster with planet-sized alloys and that masterpiece that is the 5.0 S85B50 V10 engine. Will we ever see such a radical design again? Never say never but I feel that it’s unlikely which is a shame.
To quote myself from this very post:
“Sometimes though, you can’t appreciate what you have until you lose it.”
I feel that this is the best way I can sum up the Bangle years at BMW. Obviously, I am very much aware of the concepts of maturity, rose-tinted vision and older stuff looking a lot better in light of newer offerings but despite that, I’m still fascinated by how horrible these cars seemed to many of us in their day and how fantastic they look NOW. Looking at the German automotive industry today, it’s almost unthinkable to imagine that a giant like BMW – that values consistency and inoffensive design language – would have once permitted a man to wipe the slate and trade in Evolution for Revolution in such a blunt manner. I’m glad that they did though because the cars I’ve covered here have aged superbly in my opinion and make highly tempting purchases on the second-hand market.
What do you think? Have you always hated the Bangle era? Did you appreciate it from the very beginning, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up? Or were you like me and changed your stance over time?