Less is More | More Is a Bore: A Design Study of BMW's 3 Series, Part I

October 28, 2015

This is Part I of a two-part series where Jeff will discuss the evolution of BMW through diagrammed models that elucidate some interesting perspectives on the process of design.

I have loved cars since I was a little kid. Growing up, my room was plastered with all the great cars of the'80s and'90s and, looking back, I think it may have formed the basis for my love of design. As I've grown into a designer by profession, it's allowed me to see car design in new ways beyond "It looks cool," and to appreciate and critique designs in an informed manner. As such, my walks, drives, and especially any time in traffic are often filled with analysis of each car's design. I have long gravitated toward the classic German sports-cars but as time has gone on, one brand, my favorite brand, has lost the clarity of its design and that company is BMW.

I have great appreciation for the evolution of the designs of Audi, BMW, and Mercedes. These companies have adhered to the basic shapes, lines, and forms that make each of their brands truly iconic and instantly recognizable. The designs have allowed room for the design to change and evolve as technology and safety standards have advanced. Unfortunately, as a long standing BMW fan, I can't help but feel they're losing their edge, and it's been a slow disintegration that started in the mid-nineties. To walk you through the changes, we're going to strictly be talking about the 3 Series, their entry level car (in most markets through the years) and we'll go through each major evolution of the vehicle. We'll discuss them all by their body style names starting with the 2002 (name, not year), which served as the basis of design for the 3 Series and end with the F30.

As far as design goes, there are five elements that differentiate a BMW from any other car:

The Kidney Grille

The Round Headlights

The Crease Line

The Hofmeister Kink

The L-Shaped Rear Lights

For this analysis we'll be focusing the discussion on the lines of the car; for it's primarily the lines that define any car, and in BMW's case, the Crease Line is one of their definable elements along with the front Kidney Grille. Before we can say anything about whether the design is successful or not, we must understand the intent of these elements. To do that, I've pulled some copy from the BMW Design Web-page:

The Kidney Grille
The two-section, rounded radiator grille - known as the kidney grille - was first seen on the BMW 303 at the 1933 International Motor Show in Geneva and evolved during the course of time into one of the most distinctive BMW design features. Over decades the characteristic kidney grille has been interpreted in many different ways and still characterizes the unmistakable face of every BMW vehicle.

The Crease Line
Coming from the front, the characteristic crease line takes an exciting movement towards the rear-end and gives every BMW a suitably distinctive tapered shape. It divides the sophisticated surfaces of the side, accelerates the vehicle even when standing still and underlines its dynamic forward thrust. In addition, the door handles are precisely integrated in the crease line, further enhancing its effect.

The 2002: The One Liner

The crease line here is actually a piece of trim, but it runs front to back and stays completely horizontal throughout the entire car. Besides the one line on the hood, there is little else competing with the crease, even the break in the body that is needed to operate the hood is integrated into the line of the crease. The horizontal line is given preference and space all around the car-front to back-with the door handles floating just above. The car gains its forward thrust not only from the "Hofmeister kink," but also the kidney grille leaning forward.

E21: The OG

The E21 is the first true 3 Series. The crease line is a true crease in the body and cedes a little room to the forward facing kidney grille while tapering to a point just above the rear wheel. The addition of the second line on the hood only seems natural in relation to the kidney grille. As in the 2002, the crease integrates the hood's operation and the door handle sits above the line.

E36: Even Steven

This is the version of my adolescence, which is perhaps why it's my favorite. The whole body has a lower stance, which requires the crease line to break around the front wheel, but it is picked up again in the edge of the hood. Two small lines have been added for the operation of the hood, perhaps due to a lower profile, but the door handles have been cleanly integrated into the crease, clearly defining and enforcing the bottom, supporting edge. In this version, the kidney grille leans back for the first time, and the crease has taken an off-horizontal thrust towards the ground.

In this version other subtle details are brought in that would become 3 Series staples; the headlights are tucked into the crease line and almost cut off at the top, a look that has become iconic within the brand.

Catch Part II next week where Jeff will analyse the brand's departure from its design roots and suggest how a beloved line of cars might be saved from the obscurity of ubiquitous design.

Jeff Busby