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

November 04, 2015

This is Part II of Jeff's study of car design.

E46: The First Hiccup

The first iteration with the door handles in question. Overall, the design hasn't changed much; the crease line is continuous front to back but tapers to the front just before the headlights, which now integrate into a much more stylized headlight design. The line of the headlights loops under the kidney grille and back around, sort of like a handlebar mustache. The door handles now punctuate the crease into three distinct lines, which, unlike breaking it for a wheel well, seems a bit forced.

My issue with the handles isn't so much that they break the line, but that the large wells behind the handle itself (that are required for their operation) create these deep shadow lines that only further compete with the overall intent of the crease. In the E35 the handle did in fact break the line visually in some way, but the shadows of the door handle fell below the overhanging edge of the crease. The handles here aren't "integrated," they're competing.

E90: Bangled*

For the past four versions, the crease has always been the dominate line with little competition. Since breaking the crease into three separate lines it may have opened the door for other noise to migrate in, not the least of which is the gas tank door, which awkwardly breaks the line five inches past the door handle. There are now six lines on the hood. Six! We have gone from what for all intents and purposes was a diagram strongly supported by 3 - 4 lines at most to well over eight, and don't even get me started on that panel crease that awkwardly dies into the wheel well.

It should be noted that the crease has taken on an entirely different character. For the first time, there is no dominate bottom edge and the crease comes to a sharp point from both the bottom and the top of the car. I would suggest this is an effort to conceal and integrate the door handles, but unless a new handle style is chosen nothing will allow them to integrate cleanly.

F30: More is More

The design has completely derailed. There are so many lines on this car that I almost gave up diagramming

it was almost impossible to discern what each line weight should be, and for some reason someone thought it was a great idea to terminate the two dominate lines of the hood which have historically been drawn all the way to kidney grille into the horizontal panel seam created by the hood's operation. The disconnect between these two historic elements is a major departure, and one that leaves the kidney grille floating and ungrounded. It is time to take a step back, regroup, and rethink what has made the brand recognizable before it is lost.

I started this post from the standpoint that it was merely the door handles that were at fault for breaking and disrupting the crease, thus causing the visual noise that was the greatest offender. After taking the time to diagram and study each design, I realized that it's not just the door handles causing my displeasure with BMW's design. The door handles were introduced with the E45, which is a fairly nice looking car. Since then there's been so much noise added to the whole body, which only competes with the intended effect of the crease line. There has been a complete disregard for integrating functional lines of like doors and hoods. The result is a lack of clarity in design that leaves the current design of a BMW looking more like a Toyota than a German sports car.

It would be fair to say you should be able to read the lines of an automobile at a glance, and that is especially true for a fast one. Simplicity in car design is a rule for me, not an option. So, BMW, I suggest you take Coco Chanel's advice and take off the last thing you put on. That said, I'd like to end on a positive note, and call out and congratulate a company that is getting it right, Audi.

Notice anything familiar? Not too far off from that E36. And finally we have door handles that aren't breaking the main front-to-back crease! Well done, Audi.

*There is a designer partly responsible for the major departures in the design of the BMW. Christopher Bangle became lead designer of BMW just prior to the release of the E90 and was the first American designer for BMW in the company's history. And while his cars were some of the best-selling in the company's history-allowing BMW to surpass Mercedes in sales for the first time-his name has become a verb, like Munson from Kingpin. He is said to have "Bangled" the design.

P.S. It wasn't covered in the post, but "The Hofmeister Kink" is easily my favorite new design term and one that will live with me forever.

The Hofmeister kink is the term for the counter curve in the window-outline at the base of the rear-roof pillar. First introduced at BMW in 1961, it owes its name to Wilhelm Hofmeister-the head of BMW body design at the time-and since then has appeared on almost every BMW. The Hofmeister kink emphasizes the dynamic forward thrust of the vehicle and draws attention to another feature typical of BMW: the rear-wheel drive.

Jeff Busby