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Christopher Weil, Head of Exterior Design at BMW, has had a keen interest in BMW design DNA since childhood. “BMW vehicles have always fascinated me. There were unique solutions – such as the sporty and at the same time elegant transitions from the front to the rear of the car – that inspired me even as a child.” These days he’s actively involved in helping shape the objects of his fascination. Among other things, he was responsible for the BMW 328 Hommage, a study for the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este 2011 motor show on Lake Como. “The vehicle was very much inspired by the brand history and brought the classic design elements into the modern day. From the headlights, which are a nod back to motor racing history, through the rims, which reference the BMW 328, to the vertical reinterpretation of the BMW kidney grille, which can now also be seen in the new BMW 4 Series (➜ Read more: Hallmark: 13 designs of the signature BMW kidney grille). You create a bridge from tradition to the future. A premium brand like BMW has to take this a step further, and the BMW 4 Series, the BMW 4 Series Gran Coupé and the BMW i4 have pushed the limits again in this regard. No BMW for quite some time had as muscular and sensual a side panel as the BMW 4 Series.”
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From the initial idea, through the first car sketch design to the final model, there is a clearly choreographed process at BMW. It always starts with a workshop in which the character of the vehicle is defined. The car designers then receive a brief setting out the aesthetic, technological and aerodynamic attributes – and they get to work on a wide variety of sketches and designs. “Ideas are collected from around the world, and the forge of creativity that is Designworks, with its design studios in Los Angeles and Shanghai, also plays its part,” reveals Weil.
Then, out of all the ideas, a guiding light emerges. A specific vision. This model will be accompanied by a second draft, a challenger, our expert reveals. The goal? To explore the limits even more. “BMW vehicles have always featured lots of characteristic stylistic elements and we aim, with due care, to develop them further. As with the BMW 4 Series, we want to provide the state of the art in both technology and design. It’s part of the job for an automobile designer to design vehicles with a long-term impact. Yet despite this, each and every vehicle should be recognizable as a BMW from the very first glance.” And that’s how it works.
“BMW has a whole host of iconic style elements that we as car designers maintain and develop. The most important icon is the BMW grille – the famous kidney grille – the main distinguishing feature of every BMW. There have only been two exceptions in the whole history of the brand: the BMW 700 and the Isetta. A look back at BMW history and the evolution of the grille shows just how much the new BMW 4 Series Coupé follows the legendary sports car tradition of the brand. Outstanding classics like the BMW 328 Coupé from the 1930s and the BMW 3.0 CS from the 1970s are part of BMW’s fascinating coupé history, a history characterized by prestige, pure driving pleasure and success on the racetrack that inspired me. On the BMW 3.0 CS, the front part of the car has a similar arrangement, with a vertical kidney grille, although a bit narrower in this case. It’s that history that we’ve re-interpreted,” says Weil, before adding: “Of course, going forward too, every BMW will still have its own kidney grille design individually tailored to the character of the vehicle.”
Iconic vehicles have non-negotiable design factors. Yet constantly reinterpreting these key features is an exciting task for car designers and their teams. This design DNA also includes the L-shaped taillights, the swage line, the shark fin antenna and the twin circular headlights. First featuring in 1968 in the BMW 2800 CS, they became the hallmark of sporty vehicles. A tradition that the new BMW 4 Series is proud to continue.
Another of the striking elements in the design of a BMW is the Hofmeister kink, named after a long-standing head of body development at BMW, Wilhelm Hofmeister. The Hofmeister kink was first introduced in the luxury class BMW 3200 CS “Bertone” and the BMW new mid-range “New Class” (from the 1500 and the 115), which were first presented at the 1961 International Motor Show (IAA) in Frankfurt, Germany. This double kink on the C-pillar was actually included not only for aesthetic purposes, but also for structural reasons. It provided increased stability in this area of the bodywork. In the new BMW 4 Series, this feature is even more flowing and sporty.
The electric vehicles, the BMW i4 and the BMW i4 M50, also adhere to this design language. They are recognizable as electric models, yet their design is not entirely set apart. “The design of the BMW i4 has a much smoother surface, but you can see that this is an electric model from the outside, through the blue i applications and the closed kidney grille. We wanted to retain the elegant, elongated proportions that make up a BMW in our electric vehicles. For me, the highlight is the long hood. If you look out over the hood from the inside, you can still see it. When you’re on a grand avenue and you see trees reflected on it, or reflections wander across as you drive somewhere, it’s quite fascinating.”
Style features are also to be found in the interior. “The striking thing about a BMW interior is the driver-oriented cockpit. The console, which is inclined towards the driver, feels like a tailored suit. The exterior design’s promise of sportiness is matched by the interior.”
A characteristic silhouette and proportions have always been a design feature of a BMW, both when drawing the car and in real life. Style-defining features for a BMW are short overhangs, a long hood and a recessed greenhouse. The greenhouse – sometimes known as the glasshouse – is the part of the vehicle consisting of the windshield, the rear and side windows, the pillars between them and the roof. The vehicle should sit well on the road, including when seen from the rear. It must be dynamic even when stationary.
For the BMW design team, automotive design is about creating an exciting, dynamic movement out of the interplay of light and shadow. For Christopher Weil, the interplay of light with the body of the vehicle is like poetry. “In an illuminated tunnel, in particular, you can see how the highlights flow perfectly. The aim of BMW design is to consciously shape a vehicle in such a way that this interplay creates an impact and dynamism. In the new BMW 4 Series, the musculature of the bodywork above the front and rear wheels provides highly sensual surfaces. The focal point on the vehicle is optically lowered by lowering the edge of the side panel, the almost Z-shaped curve creating a dynamic play of light.”
There are three different types of study at BMW. Hommage Cars are vehicles that reference back to history, grab hold of it, and give it a modern interpretation. With a Vision Vehicle we can look really far into the future. Concept Cars serve as a tangible look ahead to a production vehicle. We play around with different design themes, initially in concept car sketches, which can later be found on the road in one implementation or another – at the end of the day, there are certain rules and requirements for a production model. With all studies and concepts, however, you have a freer hand in the drafts. Ultimately however, in BMW design, when you put all the details and surfaces together, you must get a coherent overall picture. And the style paths taken are then adopted from the concept car as a design element in the production vehicle. And it’s something that Christopher Weil is particularly proud of with the BMW 4 Series. “The vertical kidney grille was a key theme from the outset. The fact that we’ve been able to take this iconic design feature all the way from the concept car design to the streets is a real statement. As is the whole way the BMW 4 Series looks!”
Photos: BMW; Author: Markus Löblein; Animations: Nicolas Guyon