Home » I Have A Theory For Why BMW Is Starting To Build Non-Ugly Cars

I Have A Theory For Why BMW Is Starting To Build Non-Ugly Cars

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I swear as long as I exist on this cursed rock, I’m going to be writing something about BMW design every year or so. In thirty years’ time Torch, by then a Futurama-style head in a pickle jar, and David, having successfully uploaded his consciousness into his i3, will shock me via my Autopian staff compliance collar for yet another article. Ravaged by years of baked bean abuse I find myself hunched over an ancient flickering laptop, forced to comply to pay my hourly Adobe subscription bill. Honestly, the situations I get myself into for money.

Way back at the end of 2021 I wrote about the XM Concept (as it mercifully was back then) for the insurance company. Not quite a year later, Miss Mercedes stuck a poster of Chris Bangle on her garage wall, placed a few small candles underneath it, and declared him BMW’s best designer. Needless to say I had thoughts about that bout of insanity. Then I discussed the design of the slightly heavy-handed look of the newly released M2. A respite, but by September 2023, courtesy of our friends at BMW UK I spent a week behind the wheel of an M240ixDrive. I adored the car but because Car Design Twitter had coughed up another round of thirty-year-old BMW genuflection, I felt compelled to crowbar a mini rant into the review.

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Since then I’ve taken a deep dive into the design of the i3 on David’s behalf and, click whore that I am, wrote about the E30 for my Damn Good Design Series. I make that six separate pieces about BMW in the last two and a half years. And now I’m about to repeat the whole debasing exercise again. I’m either a masochist or one of the Quandt family keeps a voodoo doll of me in their desk.

Why Do We Care So Much About BMW?

This all begs the question: why do I keep doing this? A better question is, why do I keep getting the opportunity to do it? Obviously, I’m not going to turn down the chance to swan about in fifty grand’s worth of purple press car for a week, but that aside how is it that BMW manages to dominate so much of the car design discourse? A major part of it is the esteem in which nearly every BMW made from about 1976 until 2006 continues to be held in.

For a section of online car culture tastemakers these BMWs are a collection of touchstones that define what constitutes the enthusiast uber-maschine: analog controls, normally aspirated power going to the rear, thousands of discreet options and chassis codes that allow those in the know to craft a perfect build like they’re gearing up for an MMORPG raid. If you don’t get this, or don’t agree with it then you are clearly not a True Car Enthusiast. They simply can’t shut their yaps about them. It bolsters their assumed credibility, keeps the insiders in and the outsiders out. It must be guarded, protected and blurted out of a loud hailer every time a new BMW is launched, because if they don’t the whole fabric of their being is torn asunder like the fallacy it is.


And it is a fallacy, because saying well ackchyually what BMW should really be doing, is releasing a car like the E30. Why? Why should they do that great BMW Know-It-All? Those cars are now forty years old. Their capabilities are about as relevant to today’s automotive market as a starting handle or paraffin headlamps. A forty-year-old BMW in 1985 would have had two wheels, or wings and a propellor. Those cars were the epitome of solid (and often sideways) Teutonic virtue, but like the Blaupunkt often found nestled in their center consoles, their best time has gone. You cannot keep looking to the past because companies, markets and customers change and evolve over time. No matter how shrill the cries from the BMW neckbeards get, the company continues to sell more cars than ever every year. Clearly they are getting most things mostly right.


The problems have arisen because when BMW has got it wrong, they got it really wrong. Their worst crimes are twofold. The iX is a horrific-looking thing, no matter how well it drives. And the XM is even worse. These fractal monstrosities seem to exist on a different plane, a glitch slightly out of phase with the rest of the automotive universe. Here’s what I had to say when David admitted to quite liking it back in January last year:

“Readers, I think all this worrying about moving has reformatted David’s head, rewriting the bit that controls the eyesight. I mean, I know he wears glasses but I had assumed as he can drive his optical cortex was functioning somewhat, but it appears not. There’s so much wrong with the appearance of the iX it’s hard to know where to direct the spleen juice first. Remember when you were little and tried on your dad’s suit? That’s what the body of the iX is like. Flabby and oversized and creased in all the wrong places. There’s competing shapes fighting each other all over the place, the wheel arch flats are stolen from a completely different car making it look under wheeled and the C pillar is all wrong. There’s corners where there should be curves and the whole thing shrieks of inconsistency inside and out. The color ways are bad, the wheels are terrible and there is not one thing I can find about this eyesore that I like. Put the entire production run into a burlap sack and chuck it into the Danube so no-one should ever have to gaze upon the horror ever again.




They’re Just Bad Design

The issue isn’t just that these designs are not visually attractive, it’s been the arrogance of the company in promoting them, and in particular head of BMW Design Domagoj Dukec, in his insistence that BMW are right and everybody else is wrong. In a paid editorial puff piece shamelessly published by Esquire, he states:

“What I try to teach everyone who is not a designer is that good design is not about pretty or ugly. These things are subjective. What is pretty? You will never design anything that 100% of people will like. It’s not possible, because people have such different tastes and needs. So it’s not about taste, but about gauging what a customer actually desires, or what they could desire in the future.”

I think Dieter Rams might have something to say about that. The third of his Ten Principles for Good Design is: Good Design is aesthetic. To add to that I’ll repeat something I wrote for my XM piece:

“In his book Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things, Professor Donald Norman makes the case that our relationship with an object is initially determined by our visceral reaction to it. Are we attracted or repelled? Things we like the look of are more likely to have a positive emotional impact on us, and in turn we are more likely to engage with them”.



Going by that measure, customers have been repelled by the iX and the XM. The only model-by-model breakdown of sales figures I can find was on a BMWblog post reporting on the global sales of the XM in 2023. That contains a chart showing in the first nine months of that year, just 35,088 iXs and 4,450 XMs were sold.

You can point your internet browser to any number of online interviews with Dukec defending these cars, but the reality is their external design is very poor, no matter how much you try and spin it, intellectualize them, or vilify people for just not getting it. The hubris of that tactic is underlined by the following tweet, which to their eternal credit BMW haven’t deleted.

BMW doesn’t break the sales figures for models within a range down, so we don’t know how much the infamous beaver teeth version of the kidney grill has affected the four series and the M models they infect. What we do know is they were done deliberately at the behest of marketing. From the book BMW by Design by Steve Saxty:


..That need for distinction was something that board member for Sales and Marketing Ian Robertson was seeking in 2017 the G2x-generation of 3 and 4 Series cars was being designed. “The X Series SUV grilles were becoming twice the size of those on BMW sedans,” he says. “So we needed something different for the sportier cars. We looked at the aggressive grilles on the 3.0 CSL Hommage and I was the one who pushed for them to go onto the next 4 series because it helped differentiate the couple from the 3 series sedan. I debated it with [R&D boss] Klaus Fröhlich and we got so excited by the idea that we wondered if we could put them on the 8 Series too, but it was too late – a shame, because we could have positioned it differently too.”

The simple truth was that the 4 Series coupe looked far more assertive with a horizontal [I assume this is meant to be vertical – AC] treatment. Although it caused controversy amongst traditionalists, the car won over a new generation of younger buyers. Doing that is essential in a fashion-conscious area of the market. Let’s leave the last word to Ian Robertson, the man who pushed for the idea. “We might have lost some 4 Series buyers,” he says, “but we attracted far more. That’s our job – and I’d do the same thing again.”



Beaver teeth and hunchback even-numbered X models aside, the truth is the rest of the BMW range is mostly solidly handsome – now that I’ve seen and sat in the cyborg limo-of-the-future 7 series I quite like it, although along with most BMW models, it’s very color and trim dependent. Not outstanding, but I mentioned before the pre-Bangle era models were all considered conservative in their day.


Wash, Rinse, Repeat

So again, why are we having this discussion now? BMW’s latest effort, the Concept Skytop was revealed back in May at the Concorso d’Eleganza at the Grand Hotel Villa d’Este on Lake Como. The tedious online BMW design discourse has roused itself back into action, heaping praise on it for not having a hideous grill and being proof that BMW can design good looking cars when it tries. I did see one curious assessment praising it for having a Bangle Butt like the E63, which is something the Skytop very clearly does not possess.






Nonetheless, it’s a nicely considered, opulent open tourer with a hint of 71-74 Mustang around the side glass opening and sail panel. I think the lights are a bit shallow – this is in vogue at the moment but it makes the lit elements look a bit lost in all the sheet metal on the front and rear fasciae, and the front cheek surface between the headlight and vent is doing too much work in too small a space. Compared to the front fender line the rear is much softer – I think more consistency between these two lines would help.

The thought I have been having for a few months now is that after the PR missteps of the various Dukec interviews, and the iX controversy, BMW has been making a concerted effort to rehabilitate their design image in the eyes of enthusiasts. What planted the seed for this in my cynical mind initially was the arrival on my doorstop at the end of last year of my (purchased with my own money) copy of BMW by Design, which provided much of the background for my E30 piece. Saxty’s previous books, Secret Fords, are very much the definitive design history of Ford design in Europe, detailing how various cars went from sketch to production and all the politics and corporate interference that entailed. BMW by Design is nothing like as in-depth–despite getting glowing reviews elsewhere, it’s far less critical than the Ford books, as I hope the passage quoted earlier demonstrates. It could never have been written without BMW’s help, and there is an ongoing book tour at BMW-centered events going on throughout the summer.

Money Talks

Think I’m being my usual bitter self? Over on the Supercar Blondie TikTok there’s been a spate of BMW-centric videos recently – including the eye-popping GINA, which was a genuinely influential concept during the time of Chris Bangle. It’s actually featured twice, along with the Vision Next 100, the Vision M Next, the 328 Hommage, the Touring Coupe, the CSL Hommage R,  and of course the Skytop. I know this is partly how auto media works these days (although it doesn’t have to: you can support long form pieces like this by becoming a member here) but this is far more coverage than any other OEM has received (or rather granted). Still think I’m being cynical?




It’s been mentioned recently that due to its rapturous reception as something of a return to form, the Skytop is being considered for production. This has happened with previous concepts: The Vision M Next was due to be built based on an overhauled i8 platform – the work was all done until it was cancelled at the last gasp. BMW Group head of design Adrian van Hooydonk and Chief Engineer Markus Flasch pushed the board to put a previous Villa d’Este darling, the Touring Coupe into production, but were unsuccessful.


One that did succeed was the 3.0 CSL Hommage, which made it into production as the limited-run 3.0 CSL in 2022. Essentially a hand-built, carbon-bodied M4 with a manual gearbox and yellow headlights, fifty were built and sold out in weeks at a list price of €750,000 ($813k). RM Sotheby’s sold one with 33 miles on it for €1,017,500 ($1.1m). My suspicion is that if any of those specials had been made they would have been offered by BMW in a similar manner, and that if it makes production the Skytop will be as well. Clearly there are a lot of rabid BMW fans with very deep pockets hankering for the old days, and in some way I don’t begrudge BMW for doing this. There is always a ceiling as to how high a premium (as opposed to exotic or luxury) brand can reach. This is one way for Munich to access the wallets of High Net Worth Individuals.

So yes, BMW can and does design great-looking cars when it tries, but the ones that really curry your wurst won’t be priced at a level you, me or any of those raging shitpirates who worship the Luthe era cars, can afford. We’ll have to enjoy the good cars they currently make and hope they don’t make a hunde dinner of the neue Neue Klasse cars. Now how’s that for cynical?



All images courtesy of BMW Press Club



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26 days ago

The customer is always right, in matters of taste.

-Harry Gordon Selfridge

Dukec is too full of himself to admit he made mistakes, therefore he blames the customer for not understanding his genius.

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