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A BMW without a kidney grille? Unthinkable! For almost 90 years, the iconic BMW kidney grille has adorned pretty much every vehicle – concept car or production model – produced by Bayerische Motoren Werke, better known to us as BMW. With its unmistakable shape, the radiator grill also serves to identify every BMW. As new propulsion technologies and the elimination of the cooling function have opened up new design options for the front of the vehicle, this is now also having an impact on the design of the kidney-shaped grille. Join us in a journey through BMW history, focusing on the evolution of the grille.
See the evolution of BMW design. You’re just a click away from 13 kidney grille milestones
BMW 303 (1933)
The BMW 303 represents a milestone in BMW history in two respects: firstly, the mid-size sedan was the company’s first six-cylinder model; and secondly, it was the first vehicle to bear what has become a hallmark that still characterises BMW nearly 90 years later – the air intake in the form of a pair of kidneys, that would become known as the kidney grille. Although radiator grilles divided by a (usually chrome-plated) center bar were nothing new in automotive design in that era, with its rounding to the top and bottom of the grille, and the placing of the blue and white quarter circles of the BMW emblem (➜ Read more: The history of the BMW logo) between the upper arches, the BMW 303 achieved an elevated, sculptural effect with its radiator grille. And what was created was an ensemble that is highly recognizable. Up until the Second World War, the twin kidney grille became ever narrower and thus more elegant on each BMW model – such as the legendary BMW 327/BMW 328 – but it always followed the shape established by the BMW 303.
BMW 503 (1956)
In 1956, BMW complemented its “Baroque Angel”, the BMW 501/502, with a coupé and convertible sports car, the BMW 503. In this four-seater, the towering radiators of the 1930s gave way to a medium-height, fully chrome-plated pair of kidney shapes. This design fit perfectly into the fascia. The smaller format was also made possible by the fact that the kidney grille was now no longer the only component used to cool the engine – as with the BMW 501/502 before it, it was supported in this function by two side air inlets. The follow-up coupés to the BMW 503, the BMW 3200 CS (1962) and the BMW 2000 CS (1965), both featured a similarly shaped kidney grille.
BMW 507 (1956)
First sold in the same year as the BMW 503, but clearly ahead of its sister model in terms of progressive design, the BMW 507 roadster was the first BMW to feature two large, horizontally positioned air intakes. The car’s creator, Count Albrecht von Goertz, took creative liberty with the design of the kidney grille, something that BMW designers would not do again until various design projects of the 1990s onwards. Such large air intakes were in fact a necessity on the BMW 507, as they were the only sources of fresh air for the radiator of the V8 engine under the very flat hood. The design of the front part of a car was noteworthy for another reason: the BMW 507 was the company’s first model to feature a dynamically angled front – known as a “Sharknose” – which visually extends the hood and suggests a formidable forward thrust. This feature was then ultimately established in the “New Class” of the 1960s and would also go on to characterise the vehicles of the 3, 5 and 7 Series well into the 1990s.
BMW 1500 (1961)
The mid-range models of the “New Class” heralded a turning point in every respect for BMW: technically, commercially, and in terms of the brand-typical design of a BMW. The two kidneys of the BMW kidney grille on the BMW 1500 (and its sister models the 1600, 1800 and 2000) were similar to those of the BMW 503, but were linked together for the first time, as well as being narrower than on all previous BMW models and placed between two car-width horizontal grills. With its arrangement of primary and secondary air grills, this ensemble formed the blueprint for the front end design for BMW’s core models right into the 1980s, including the 02 series (from 1966), the BMW 2500 and 2800 sedans (from 1968), and the associated BMW 2800 CS coupé (also from 1968) and its legendary later variants, the BMW 3.0 CS, CSi and CSL.
BMW M1 (1978)
The legendary BMW M1 mid-engined sports car from 1978 is a special case when it comes to the design of the kidney grille. For obvious reasons, only ultra-flat air inlets were considered for its long front section – but giving up on the brand-identifying character of the kidneys was out of the question. As a result, they are among the smallest ever seen on a BMW. The inspiration for the coupé was the BMW Turbo concept car from 1972. As with the M1 later on, the kidneys here seem to be “cast” into the extension of the power dome, are separated from narrow secondary air intakes by bodywork surfaces in the body color, and are flanked by pop-up headlights. The BMW kidney grille design on the M1 was echoed in the front-end design of later niche models such as the BMW Z1 (1988) and the BMW 8 Series (1989).
BMW 3 Series (1990)
A new leap in evolution followed in 1990, with the third generation of the BMW 3 Series: here the BMW kidney grille is flat and horizontally positioned, but not very wide. Unlike preceding generations of the BMW 3 Series, the two halves of the radiator grille ensemble were separated once again. The two kidneys are decidedly rectangular with slightly rounded corners and – and this is particularly noteworthy here – they are not separated from the headlight strips by other grills, only by surfaces in the body color. This design influenced many further models from the 1990s onwards – from the BMW 7 Series (1994) and the BMW 5 Series (1995), through the BMW Z3 (1995) and the next generation of the BMW 3 Series (1998), to the first two generations of the BMW X5 (1999).
BMW 3 Series (2011)
Three generations of the BMW 3 Series later, there was a new evolution: the 3 Series (F30) separate, relatively wide kidney grilles met the headlight surfaces for the first time and were not separated from the light units by side grills or body-colored surfaces. Similar designs of the BMW grille are also found on the 2015 BMW 7 Series (which was also the first model to feature visible air flap control), the current generation of the BMW 5 Series, and the latest BMW 6 Series (both 2017).
BMW i3 (2013)
The front design of the electric BMW i3 demonstrates how the aesthetic of the BMW grille has fully left its original technical function behind. The flat, relatively wide twin kidney grille appears here with consciously closed surfaces and blue highlights. In combination, this identifies the car not merely as a BMW, but also as an innovative electric vehicle. The aerodynamics of the BMW i3 benefit from the closed kidney “grilles”. A very similar design of the twin kidney grille on the BMW i3 is found on the BMW i8. It is also the inspiration for all forthcoming fully electric BMW models.
BMW 8 Series, BMW Z4 (2018)
In two current cutting-edge BMW vehicles the twin kidney grille gained a new and relatively angular outline in 2018. From a geometric point of view, the grilles – which are connected on the 8 Series but not on the Z4 – now form horizontally positioned, very wide pentagons. Small bars, in the body color, connect the grills laterally to the headlights. As with all newer BMW coupe, their sportiness is emphasized by the fact that the grilles “open out downward” taking the visual focus of the front lower and closer to the road. Functionally speaking, these grilles serve as secondary air intakes with active air flap control that opens when necessary – and otherwise closes to reduce air resistance. In the connected version, as with the BMW 8 Series (and also other models with conjoined kidney grilles), a camera for the driver assistance systems sits in the middle of the clasp that connects the two halves of the BMW kidney grille.
BMW 3 Series Sedan (2018)
The modern design of the BMW grille in the current BMW 3 Series combines some well-known features (conjoined kidney grilles, directly connected headlight surfaces, pentagonal frame shape) with new characteristics. For example, the kidney grilles extend significantly higher than the top edge of the headlamps. They extend above a bend into the hood. The top edges of the headlights are connected to each other by the edge of the kidney grille running in the same alignment. The M Performance variants of the 3 Series feature a striking replacement of the classic vertical kidney grille rods with a mesh structure, including what are known as “nuggets” – small, wedge-shaped elements woven into the lattice structure.
BMW X7, BMW 7 Series (2019)
Just how widely the design of the BMW kidney grille can differ between models can be seen by comparing the 3 Series with two models that debuted in 2019 – the BMW X7 and the current BMW 7 Series each have twin kidney grilles of a similar design to the 3 Series, including the horizontal bend to the upper edge. However, in both of these models the BMW grille is much larger and significantly more eye-catching – and thus much more present.
The front of the new BMW 4 Series Coupe is a clear statement on the road. The striking vertical kidney grille and the iconic double headlights create a daring and confident identity.
Head of BMW Design
BMW 4 Series Coupe (2020)
The most recent development of the kidney grille for production vehicles celebrated its world premiere digitally in the BMW Group’s design studio in Munich, in the historic halls of BMW Group Classic and on the BMW Group’s test site in Aschheim, Germany. The focus is on the individual design features, which include the large, upright and forward-leaning BMW grille on the front of the vehicle. A look back at BMW history and the evolution of the grill shows just how much the new BMW 4 Series Coupé follows the legendary sports car tradition at the automaker. 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 is now being enriched by the addition of another chapter. Pieter Nota, Member of the Board of Management of BMW AG, Customer, Brands, Sales, explains: “The new BMW 4 Series Coupé embodies the essence of the BMW brand. It is a forward-looking interpretation of BMW’s long-established DNA.”
BMW Vision iNEXT (2018), BMW Vision M NEXT (2019)
In two vision vehicles, BMW provides a glimpse of how the BMW grille – the brand’s primary identifying feature – could look in future models. In the all-electric BMW Vision iNEXT, the twin kidney grille takes the form of a further development of the grille from the BMW i3, with a trial given to a striking single break of the usual center bar. Behind the closed surface of the grille, cameras, sensors and other technologies for assisted and automated driving are hard at work. Internally, this solution is known as “shy-tech” – high-tech that works in secret. In the BMW Vision M NEXT hybrid sports car, meanwhile, the BMW kidney grill takes the shape of a sculpturally pronounced, glass-enclosed kidney grille that emerges directly from the front of the vehicle in a no-holds-barred style with surfaces featuring engraved, stylized BMW logos. The illumination of the grille and a color gradient inside it further heighten the three-dimensional effect.
Author: Frank Giese, Markus Löblein; Photos: BMW