Recently, BMW got a written letter from 14-year old Zeno asking why the ‘kidney grille’ on the new (G22) BMW 4 Series – and M3 and M4 models – is so huge. Rather than formulate his own opinion (based on his love and immense knowledge of the brand) or take to the internet with colourful language – the first thing he thought to do was ask its creators, why? Exemplifying objectivity and maturity that is seemingly in short supply, even amongst people older than Zeno.
Instead of sending him a care-pack and a thank you note (they did this too), they obliged in a big way – by giving him a virtual guided tour of the hallowed halls of BMW Classic, to its current model showroom and finally BMW’s design centre. Throughout the tour, Zeno was accompanied by BMW Group Design’s straight-talking head, Domagoj Dukec, who famously said “you can’t please everyone when it comes to design, you can only explain it to them.”
The primary objective of Dukec’s tour was not just to highlight iconic BMW designs from the past, but to illustrate a defining principle of what drives the lines, curves and proportions of every vehicle to wear the famed Bavarian badge – that constant need to evolve, and change. Therefore, this goes beyond just the kidney grille, but the entire design constructs of the company, for this article, we will focus mainly on BMW’s kidney grille.
Many models, even before the controversial (G22) 4 Series have broken moulds and shaped BMW’s design trajectory in the years after. There has been no less than 13 major eras or interpretations of the kidney grille, and hundreds of more variations depending on model, and five different logos (not including the latest one) during its 100-year plus history.
Love it or hate it, BMW’s new big kidney grille era is here to stay, so it’s best to understand how we got here.
A grille that built a brand identity
Before it was ever known as the ‘Kidney Grille’ it was simply a grille – a functional component of the car, which would allow air to pass through it to cool the radiator, while still protecting it from rocks and other debris that could cause damage. The only thing BMW did differently was to split it down the centre, round off the top and bottom edges to create two halves, thereby giving it a detailed, sculptured look that integrated seamlessly with the rest of the car’s sheet metal.
In addition to being the first BMW with a six-cylinder engine, the BMW 303 was also the first model to feature the kidney grille. With every successive generation until World War 2 - the twin-kidney grille became ever narrower and more elegant on each BMW model – such as the legendary BMW 328 – but it always followed the shape established by the 303, and stretched almost top to bottom of the front fascia.
The mid-50s brought the earliest and more daring attempts to evolve the front grille – most notably in the “Baroque Angel” BMW 501/502 (below) and the transcendent BMW 507.
By now, the kidney grilles were completely plated ornaments but both were totally different from each other – the 501’s was slim and tall, the 507’s (below) were almost as if rotated 90-degrees to fill the entire width of the front fascia, giving it an elegant yet staggeringly beautiful front end.
The 507 also brought forward another design detail – the “Sharknose”, courtesy of the extended front hood edge which tapers backwards to meet the front bumper giving the 507 a forward-thrusting shape.
The kidney grille and shark nose were ultimately established in the BMW “New Class” of the 1960s. The New Class first represented BMW 1500 – and its sister models 1600, 1800 and 2000 later on – would go on to form the blueprint for the front end design for BMW’s core models (today known as the 3,5 and 7 series) till the early 1990s.
Commonplace now was the central kidney grille, flanked by secondary grille elements that stretched width-wise to meet the front headlights.
Quad headlights and Hoffmeister Kinks
The 1500 would also introduce what is today known as the Hoffmeister kink (courtesy of its designer Wilhelm Hofmeister) – a simple yet sculpted forward bend in the leading edge of the C-Pillar. It is believed that the kink stylistically suggested that the BMW model was rear-wheel drive.
The late 60s would also bring about another design detail, twin headlights at the front with the introduction of the 2500, and 2800 models – which marked BMW’s return to the full-size luxury sedan and coupe market.
The next big jump would come in the early 90s with the introduction of the (E36) 3 Series. In the E36, the kidney grille is flat and horizontally positioned. The two halves were made rectangular with slightly rounded corners and – and for the first time, wasn’t separated from the headlight strips by other grills, only by surfaces in the body colour.
The E36 would also introduce an enclosed glass covering for the headlamps – a feature that would go on to dictate the designs of the larger 5 and 7 Series models of that era.
The Bangle Era
As a side note, it’s virtually impossible to gloss over BMW’s more controversial design efforts without a mention of Chris Bangle. Acting as BMW Head of Design between 1999 and 2009, Bangle was responsible for some of BMW’s most controversial models in recent times – which include the (E65) 7 Series, (E60) 5 Series, and (E85) Z4.
Though, more than a decade on, the design elements he brought to the fore – such as angular lines, simplified “deconstructed” proportions and the affectionately known “flame surfacing” gave BMW a base template from which to work from decades into the future.
The (E60) 5 Series is perhaps one of his best works, which if compared to its period competitor from Mercedes-Benz, the (W211) E-class, manages to look far more modern and edgy to this day. Another crucial gauge of his work is the success of the cars he created.
It was in Bangle’s time that BMW stormed past Mercedes-Benz to become the leading premium manufacturer globally, with much of that success attributed to his most controversial works becoming more successful than ever thought possible, most notably with the (E65) 7 Series and (E60) 5 Series.
Look to the future by looking at the past
While BMW’s efforts with the (G22) 4 Series and its kidney grille will be talked about for years to come, it will be a point of discussion, curiosity and contention – it will remain evocative and play its part in moving forward BMW's design language as a whole.
As Dukec puts it – “You can create something beautiful, and we also have cars which are just pretty. But there are some customers that, if you want to reach them, you have to stand out. You have to create something that is not in-line - but that’s exactly the reason.”
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