Home » The E30 BMW Was Not The Pinnacle of BMW Design

The E30 BMW Was Not The Pinnacle of BMW Design

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Some OEMs are fortunate enough to have a model in their range that’s a crystal-clear representation of everything that defines the brand, a signature product that anchors everything else they build. The Volkswagen Golf. Range Rover. Porsche 911. Mazda MX5. Ford F-150. These cars subtly influence the rest of the range and give them an iconic product. But it can be a double-edged sword: the stylistic legacy of the 1968 XJ became a liability for Jaguar, the company unable to move away from a car that epitomized the brand in the eyes of customers and enthusiasts.

BMW has found itself in a similar situation, the wailing of fans drowning out any reasonable discussion of the company’s current designs. To them, the E30 3 series is a shimmering execution of everything a BMW should be. That is true, but not the way they think. Grab a stein of breakfast beer, it’s time for Damn Good Design.

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[Ed note: A lot of the images and details in this piece come from BMW via Steve Saxty’s new book, BMW by Design, which delves into the design story of iconic models such as the CSL and the first 3 and 5 Series, right through to the latest Vision Neue Klasse.]

To understand exactly what the E30 meant to BMW’s present, we need to look at its past. Before the Second World War, BMW was in the business of speed, making high-end sports cars, motorcycles and aero engines. Six years of conflict fucked all that into a cocked hat and post-war BMW found themselves having to make bicycles and metal kitchenware just to stay in business. This was humiliating for a company that before the war saw itself as a competitor to the mighty Mercedes-Benz. Their misplaced pride meant the first postwar BMW was the 501 – a pompous and extravagant machine underpinned by outdated construction methods that rendered it hard to build and expensive. Despite spinning off numerous variants off the 501 undercarriage, including the glitzy Albrecht Goertz penned 507 roadster, sales remained in the tank and BMW remained in hot water.

Enter Giovanni Michelotti

BMW got its start in the car-making business by building the Austin 7 under license as the Dixi. Undoubtedly holding its nose at having to repeat the exercise to save the company, in 1955 BMW hatched out an egg-shaped bubble car, the Isetta. Substantially re-engineered from the Italian original, the Isetta sold well but as Europe rebuilt and economies recovered customers demanded proper small cars – not fuel-sipping oddballs. By 1959, BMW’s financial problems came to a head. The problem was its entire range consisted of expensive obsolete crocks at the top and weirdo bubble cars for misers at the bottom, with nothing in between. The company needed a new class of car to split the difference.

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Neue Klasse Rendering by Michelotti. Pay Attention to frontal treatment and feature line on the rear wheel arch. Credit BMW by Design

BMW, in the great German idiom, saw itself as an engineering company. Appearance was a secondary consideration. Its pretensions may have been upmarket, but having no design department it was ill-equipped to provide the style those customers demanded. BMW relied on the services of outsiders like Goertz and the prodigious Giovanni Michelotti, the man who put the mechanicals of the Isetta into a proper car, the 1959 BMW 700. Michelotti was stubbornly independent, working for himself after serving time in the traditional Italian carrozzeria. In 1961 he created a car with crisp longitudinal body lines, a raked shark nose, a thin pillared airy glasshouse and subtle use of chrome – the 1500 or ‘Neue Klasse’. With this car, BMW got exactly the modern, upmarket sporting saloon it wanted. Michelotti also did a lot of work for Triumph, and he reused these ideas in a slightly more traditional way on the 1965 Triumph 1300.

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1962 Triumph 1300 Designed by Michelotti. Hmmmm. Credit Brightwells

BMW Were An Engineering Company

Wilhelm Hofmeister was Head of Body Engineering, and considered exterior design subservient to the engineering department, so he alone could present ideas to the board. Although he is credited with the creating the ‘Hofmeister kink’, it’s unlikely he conceived it; as Steve Saxty notes in BMW by Design. there are no sketches of his on record. As well as Michelotti, there was Georg Betram, an engineer under Hofmeister with considerable drawing ability. Betram and Michelotti collaborated successfully on the ’02 series of cars in 1965, but by 1970 Betram became frustrated by Hofmeister’s autocratic management and left to join Audi. He wouldn’t be the first to bridle under Hofmeister’s engineering first outlook.

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1970 BMW Garmisch Concept by Bertone. Credit BMW
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1972 E12 5 Series. Credit BMW

Paul Bracq had already cemented his reputation at arch-rivals Mercedes with the peerless W113 ‘Pagoda’ SL and W108 saloons, and thanks to his connections arrived at BMW in 1970 as the company’s first Chief Designer, a move the board made over Hofmeister’s head. The first Bracq BMW was the E12 5 series of 1972, although this was developed from the Bertone BMW Garmisch concept designed by another maestro, Marcello Gandini. According to ‘BMW by Design’ Bracq was given a free hand to imagine the car that would replace the ’02 – the first E21 3-Series.

Michelotti had provided the foundations and Bracq formalized them into a trademark visual style that could be used across the range on cars like the E24 6 series and E23 7 series. The success of these cars turned BMW into a global player, but Hofmeister saw Bracq as an outsider, a flamboyant artist and not an engineer. Their working relationship deteriorated to the point that Bracq left BMW in 1974 after only four years.

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1974 E21 3 Series. Credit BMW

What the 3 Series Owes Alfa And Triumph

It’s impossible to discuss the design of the E21 without considering other small sporting saloons of the era. The Alfa Romeo Alfetta appeared around the same time as the original E12 5 series in 1972 and shared similar proportions to the BMW in a much sharper form. Lurking in the shadows is Michelotti’s 1972 Triumph Dolomite (in 16-valve Sprint form a genuine BMW competitor), which had a split grille, quad headlights and a version of the Hofmeister kink. Line up all three side by side and the associations are clear. Car designers following fashions is not a new thing.

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1972 Alfa Romo Alfetta. Credit Car and Classic
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1980 Triumph Dolomite Sprint. That front and feature line from the rear wheel arch look familiar….. Credit Car and Classic

When Claus Luthe arrived in 1976, BMW had been operating without a chief designer for two years. Hofmeister retired in 1977 and freed from his influence Luthe began to staff up the design department properly. He headhunted Ercole Spada from Audi and Boyke Boyker from Ford, and together they would be responsible for the design of the E30 3 series. It was important that the E30 kept the visual link with existing models while evolving the familial look forward, because the original E12 5 series and its replacement the E28, appeared identical even though they were different cars. Despite Luthe reporting directly to the board, BMW hadn’t completely shed its engineering first principles – the E30 had to re-use as much E21 content as possible, keep the same wheelbase and for the first time include a four-door version. This was crucial for expanding sales in markets where a 5 series was deemed too big and expensive. Design work commenced in 1978 for a 1982 release.

Careful Evolution Not Revolution

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Ercole Spada E30 Sketch Proposal. Credit BMW by Design
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Boyke Boyer E30 Sketch Proposal, dated 1978. Credit BMW by Design

Ercole Spada’s E30 front view sketch has more than a hint of Alfa Romeo in the Down the Road Graphic (DRG), even though he didn’t work at Alfa Centro Stile until much later in his career. Boyker’s side view sketch dated 1978 perfectly captures the brief and is instantly recognizable as the car that would be released in 1982. It was softer and more aerodynamic than the car it replaced but represented only the slightest step forward of the trademark BMW look. But compared to other 1982 debutants like the Ford Sierra and Audi 100 which sped forward into an aerodynamic future, the E30 was staid and conservative. This is how Luthe summed it up at the time:

“To maintain our tradition we do not need the ‘way out’ designs’, The important is continuity from the old model to the new model. It is essential that we build a lasting image of what BMW is and not to be swayed by ever-changing fashion trends.”

BMW was not the only company that thought this way. Over in Stuttgart, Mercedes Benz design chief Bruno Sacco expressed a similar sentiment he called vertical affinity “which required that successor models should not make their predecessors look outdated.”

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Boyke Boyer (left) and Claud Luthe with a quarter scale E30 model. Credit BMW by Design
Less Aggressive Front Graphic
Credit BMW

So the E30 is a cautious evolution of the E21, without its treacherous handling. To improve this the E30, engineers wanted to soften the front suspension and increase travel. This meant a higher hood line and the E30 having significantly a bit less ‘wedge’ in profile than its predecessor. The flatter profile of the trunk makes the E30 look boxier than the E21. The shark nose has almost disappeared, and the prominence of the kidney grilles is reduced. It’s very formal and brusque, but less aggressive and sporty than the E21. Quad headlights used to signify six-cylinder models from lowly fours; now they’re a permanent feature, giving the classic BMW DRG the final part of its identity.

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Looks Spartan
Credit BMW

Moving the license plate up onto the rear fascia introduces an expanse of body painted metal between the lights. They were probably aiming for a feeling of spartan efficiency–very Germanic qualities–but the actual effect makes the rear view of E30 look cheaper and thanks to the bigger taillights, more cluttered than the E21. This slight backwards step would be remedied when the E30 got its facelift in 1987 (or Life Cycle Impulse – LCI as BMW wankers insist on calling it like it’s a code word for some secret club of insiders). The rear end got tidied up with the help of a black plastic infill panel, the bumpers became body color and nearly all the external chrome trim was removed. It’s one of those rare occasions when the facelift does improve the car – these changes helped the E30 look warmer, more modern and progressive; a small precursor to the much bigger leaps BMW design would take in the future.

Flatter Boxier
Credit BMW

Another new car that appeared in 1982 was the W201 Mercedes 190E, Stuttgart’s first compact executive sedan. Compared to the E30 it’s much more modern looking but still unmistakably a baby Benz in both appearance and character. The E30 is a good-looking car, but it is an utterly pedestrian piece of design. Instead of defying the three-box convention it dogmatically embraces it. It doesn’t usher forth new ideas of form or surfacing.

Light doesn’t dance across its bodywork in new and interesting ways. Were it not for the lack of rear legroom its homeliness would be a welcome sight on a taxi rank outside the Hauptbahnhof. Its appeal lies in its build quality, driving experience, engineering integrity, and carefully managed image thanks to clever marketing and blue-chip motorsport background. Its real importance to BMW was, for the first time, that enabled the company to offer a diesel engine, four-wheel drive and a wagon, all vital for increasing sales.

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Holy Ride Height, Batman! Credit BMW

What the E30 represented was a turning point, not a pinnacle. Its quad headlights were illuminating a future roadblock BMW management couldn’t quite see yet – the coming realization within BMW that the old engineering-led approach to building and designing cars had run out of road. As a company, it wanted to be more progressive in its designs, but it didn’t fully understand on an institutional level what designers could contribute beyond creating sheet metal for body structures. Combining design and engineering in parallel during the development process was anathema to them. By the end of the nineties, BMW eventually found itself in a design cul-de-sac; unable to progress and shackled by what it had done before. To break itself out of this impasse once and for all, in 1992 the company hired another outside designer with a multi-disciplinary outlook and a head full of fresh thinking.

A precocious young American called Chris Bangle.

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Additional research from Fifty Cars that Changed the World, by London’s Design Museum.

For further reading:

BMW Designers: BMWism

Driven to Write on the E30 3 Series

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Daniel MacDonald
Daniel MacDonald
6 months ago

The e30’s relative stodginess may also be ironically part of why it’s aged so well it looked like a classic when it was still in production. I bought a ’91 325i (last of the e30 production except convertibles) in 2008 and it felt like it felt very much a classic of another era even though it was only 17 years old (akin to buying a 2006 car today).

As a BMW fan I am bummed that while they probably needed Bangle to shake them up out of their design conservatism, they’ve swung pendulum like between extremes; after two cycles of arguably conservative but good looking post Bangle designs they’ve swung back into another cycle of trying to hard to break their own mold with the iX and XM having a lot of sophisticated details but with a overwrought and poorly resolved overall look that’s less than the sum of their parts (especially the iX)

Daniel MacDonald
Daniel MacDonald
6 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

Loved the essay there, thanks for sharing!

Daniel MacDonald
Daniel MacDonald
6 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

Haha, well as a designer (UX not cars) and auto enthusiast I’ve really been enjoying your pieces-there’s not a lot of coherent critical writing about car design-that I’ve found at least.

Noahwayout
Noahwayout
6 months ago

I’d imagine that you’ll cover this in your forthcoming Bangle article but I’m interested in your thoughts on the dissonance between BMW enthusiasts distain for Bangle designs and the general public’s appreciation of his work. The E65 was an absolute sales success in spite of all the criticisms. Does this make sense in the context of a general decline in design sense especially among Americans or do car dweebs have some hang-up around radical evolutionary steps forward? Or is it something else altogether?

Personally, I’ve never found Bangle designs to be all that repulsive. Not my favorite but certainly well balanced.

Last edited 6 months ago by Noahwayout
Daniel MacDonald
Daniel MacDonald
6 months ago
Reply to  Noahwayout

As someone who wasn’t a fan of the Bangle cars when they came out I would compare it to having your favorite band suddenly release an album in a genre of music you’re not a fan of (probably an avant garde one). It’s not that it’s bad per se but it’s not what made you love that band originally.

That being said, I think some of the Bangle stuff has aged surprisingly well-especially the early Z4 and Z4 coupe are starting to look more and more like modern classics to me, and the e90 M3 looks damn good in hindsight. One last thought, I don’t know that I’d conflate sales numbers with design success (see Prius) and at this point BMW was fully hitting its stride as status symbols as much as driver’s cars.

Noahwayout
Noahwayout
6 months ago

Toss the e82 on the pile of Bangle cars that are now becoming classic. The 1Ms are kind of the last of the traditional analogue driving experience trade hands for surprisingly close to a new M2s base msrp.

On the Prius, I strongly disagree. All but the 4th gen Prius are relatively handsome cars. (And I don’t even mind the space transport essence of the 4th gen.) I’m really not sure what you can point to that says design failure? Heck, the first three gens even have a Hofmeister Kink.

Christo Arvanitis
Christo Arvanitis
6 months ago

I had a 1983 320i and a 1986 325es… I much prefer the design of the 320i. The dashboard was fantastic. The seats and acceleration on the 325es were better though.

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
6 months ago

I’ve had a couple of E30s, a 320i and a 325i. I loved them for their solid engineering, glorious I6 engines and hilarious handling.

However, when I was a kid I had a bunch of toy cars, and two of them were E30s I’d picked as background cars so that the Lotuseses and police cars had something to jump over. They just looked like generic 3-box cars, cars the baddies or heros wouldn’t ever be in. Boring.

My last BMW was an E86 Z4 Coupe, and I’d regularly get compliments from strangers about how pretty it was. I don’t think I ever parked it without turning round to look at it as I walked off. It wasn’t perfect, the bonnet/hood is too long, the stupid rear rake of the trailing edge of the door glass would hit me all the time getting in and out, and the permanent puddle at the base of the rear window made me furious (hey! Car Designers! Why not hand wash your designs so you get as familiar with them as future owners will, and maybe avoid features that can’t drain?) but the shape of it made me feel positive things all the time. That is pretty special for a bunch of metal and rubber that leaks coolant and throws up £1,500 bills all the time.

Also the Z4 side repeaters are the best ones ever. Why did they only do that on just the one car?

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
6 months ago

That brown Dolly Sprint tho. Mmmmmm-hhhmmmmmm.

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
6 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

A fried of my dad’s built a locost out of Dolly Sprint bits. She used to DD it. It was wildly entertaining.

CTSVmkeLS6
CTSVmkeLS6
6 months ago

I like the E30 it’s small light rwd, the profile looks a lot like the same early 80s rwd Corolla 2 door. Nice 3 box, simple clean lines. My favorites however are the E36 2 door and 2001 E38 740i sport for best looking IMO..

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
6 months ago

This looks like a BMW 2002.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
6 months ago

Missing the facts on a social, financial, demografic level of a country destroyed by war even with the allies friendly support to help rebuilding. Germany post WWII not enough housing, no jobs, a potato cost 10p marks who was in the market to buy a sports car? If someone did most likely would be killed as a nation holder. Noone on the winning side would buy a vehicle from the enemy and if you need a basic like cooking utensils you weren’t buy a new model sports car.

Lucas Zaffuto
Lucas Zaffuto
6 months ago

I can see where you’re coming from, but I’ll still fight you.

AlfaWhiz
AlfaWhiz
6 months ago

+1 for mentioning the Alfetta, Alfa 6 is even more telling. Also, that Ercole Spada’s E30 sketch totally looks like an Alfa GTV (which is basically a spiced-up Alfetta). Interesting how all this was so close to one another.

Last edited 6 months ago by AlfaWhiz
EricTheViking
EricTheViking
6 months ago

The E30 3-Series was one of the “official” yuppie cars during the 1980s…

67 Oldsmobile
67 Oldsmobile
6 months ago

Good article Adrian. Would be i interesting if you kept on the same timeline and did a piece on the continuing path of the design evolution of the 3 series.
I really think BMW should return to letting the car design being influenced by the engineering and not the other way around. Like you mentioned,they’re an engineering company above all.

67 Oldsmobile
67 Oldsmobile
6 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

How do you mean? The BMW I knew from the 80s and 90s was always about restrained style and instead seemed to be made by engineers first while the design team got in later to sand off the edges, (kind of like Mercedes,see where that went..) Did they have to shake it up do regain market share or was it just sort of a natural progression? I didn’t think the early Bangle cars were too bad actually, but the latest stuff is all creases and wrinkles in all the wrong places, like a 90 year old bikini model.

Lokki
Lokki
6 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

What trouble?

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