At the Frankfurt motor show the famous Bavarian manufacturer has shown off the latest BMW Concept 4, in all its shouty, red glory, but it’s not all glamorous behind the scenes
First, a giant grille won the greatest race in the world – and then came the pots and pans. Motorsport, and war, can be cruel.
In 1940 when a little roadster from a Bavarian budget-brand beat all the locals after a thousand miles of racing up and down Italy, in their exotic Lancias and Alfa Romeos, it was only the second time a ‘foreigner’ in a ‘foreign’ car had won the fabled Mille Miglia after Alfa’s dominance was broken in ’31 by Rudolf Caracciola in a huge, supercharged Benz.
With this victory for the BMW 328, the silver aluminium machine put the Bavarians on the map, and the people would remember that face, that large, split air intake. Though not for the right reasons.
The world was heavily at it, factories all over Germany were gearing up for the war effort, and the killing machine needed oiling. BMW’s exclusive modus operandi at the time was using slave labour to further Hitler’s cause. In hindsight, slaves and genocide are what today we call bad business. After the rubble, BMW was reduced to making pots and pans.
Money troubles were constant, and the blue-roundel nearly got dissolved by Mercedes. It was even a close run thing, whether the Munich firm would survive a take over attempt by the Stuttgart giant.
The answer lay in a small, rear-engined BMW that saved the company with its sales. The BMW 700 was designed by Giovanni Michelotti who had behind him a portfolio full of Ferraris and Maseratis. The coupe he created was the first steel monocoque BMW and marked a huge deviation from the norm for the company – there wasn’t a kidney grille anywhere on it. The flat-twin cylinder engine was at the back, and fake plastic intakes hadn’t been invented yet.
Flush with cash, or at least not bankrupt, BMW was able to use the 700 as a springboard to its new identity – to forget the painful past and start fresh. Michelotti next created the ‘Neue Klasse’ with Wilhelm Hofmeister. This design became the BMW blueprint for the following four decades, introducing a family face and look that remained recognisable as a sporting luxury benchmark around the world. It would take a Chris Bangle to change that.
In the 2000s BMW did something strange, something very non-German, and too extroverted for traditionalists. BMW, explored itself… Bangle recognised that modern vehicle regulations would need a car design rethink – with raised headlights, thick pillars, tall waistlines, small greenhouses, and big wheels coming more and more into play, Bangle’s concern was the huge expanse of sheetmetal required to cover increasingly large cars. Flame surfacing would do the visual trick, breaking up the mass and pissing off enthusiasts. The grilles grew, and grew, innocuously at first – we were too busy being perplexed by the E6 6 Series’ rear end to notice.
Meanwhile, we couldn’t stop buying stuff. Consumers went mad with their credit cards and even a financial crisis 10 years ago didn’t slow us down much. Thousand-dollar phones, and BMWs baby. Twenty years ago BMW sold 700,000 cars. Nowadays they sell more than two million. That’s some heavy lifting.
To cover that much ground, BMW needs a lot of cars. But how do you tie it all together? Once long ago you know what a BMW was. With 40 models offered today, how do you connect a front-wheel drive minivan with an electric hatch and hybrid V8 coupe? Munich’s designers have found it all quite simple, finding inspiration in the original giant kidney grilles on those pre-war BMWs. That’s their excuse anyway.
The recent concepts, including the latest BMW Concept 4 shown at this week’s Frankfurt motor show, are all about the grille. You can’t mistake them for anything else, as long as you’re looking at the front. The rest is derivative and you can take a checklist to it: thin headlamps, huge side intakes, side cameras, rear diffuser flanked by vertical air vents, it’s all present. And just look at that grille. Keep looking. BMW prefers to keep you distracted from the background as Germany faces another recession. The company has two years left to meet stringent emissions regulations and plans to ramp up production of electrified vehicles. Along the way, shares have dropped and the net profit outlook is below that of 2018, which itself was lower than the previous year. A new CEO, Oliver Zipse, has just stepped up to make it all happen, to bring it together, the hybrids, the EVs, the minivans and SUVs, all united under one common bit of vaguely kidney-shaped plastic.
BMW has seen it all before and bounced back more than once. There are worse problems than a little dose of identity crisis. We’ll see. Only hindsight knows if chasing numbers is bad business.