Axon's Automotive Anorak: Kidney grilles - who wore it first?

05th January 2018
Gary Axon

A real triumph of emotion over reason, these days it seems that brand identity is everything, and rarely more so than in the automotive sector.


The power of the badge on a car’s grille or bonnet has now become the key factor when choosing a new car today, especially here in the UK where we for better or worse seem more susceptible to a brand name, image and peer pressure than any other European new car market.

Another important element in creating a car brand in the 21st Century has become a strong ‘family look’ with styling cues that unite the smallest entry car in the range to the top-of-the-line model. For the past 25 years or so, this shared DNA has been most commonly expressed through the ‘face’ of a car, with the grille usually being used as the common-thread across the entire model range, from the smallest/cheapest, right through to the largest and most expensive model.

BMW’s ‘double kidney’ grille, with a split mirror-image chrome surround, has become one of the most iconic family faces that has been around for many years. This split kidney-shaped grille was first officially used by BMW for its new 303 model in 1933, the Bavarian manufacturer taking its inspiration from the earlier special coachbuilt Austin Seven-based BMW Dixis, created by the Ihle Brothers in their bodyshop in Bruchsal, which used a split grille shape. All subsequent 1930s BMW passenger car models (315, 327, 328, etc.), retained the double kidney grille shape, with the split grilles re-introduced when BMW car production resumed post-war (including the EMW models built in the former-BMW plant in the then-separated East Germany).

With the exception of BMW’s rear-engined microcar models in the late 1950s-early 1960s (Isetta, 600 and 700), all other post-war models have incorporated the famous double kidney grille, from the elongated and exaggerated version on the 1950s 507, through to the M1 supercar of 1979, and all of BMW’s current and extensive model range.

Astonishingly over the years, a number of other vehicles have also taken inspiration from the Bavarian brand’s grille – some loosely connected to BMW, such as EMW and Bristol – but others not. Here are a quartet of examples;


Bristol 400-403

When Bristol introduced its first model in late 1946 – the desirable 400; the first car to be driven on the Goodwood Motor Circuit for its official opening on September 18th 1948 – this prestigious ‘gentlemen’s express’ was powered by a modified version of the pre-war BMW 327 2-litre straight-six engine. The Bristol also shared some of its coachwork with the 327, including the incorporation of the BMW’s split kidney grille. 

When Bristol supplemented the 400 with its Touring of Milan-style 401 in 1948, the Filton-based car and aircraft maker still retained the BMW-esque double grille, with this feature remaining through the later 402 and 403 models, up until 1955. The first Bristol car not to incorporate a BMW grille was the 404 coupe, which took its design inspiration from its sister Bristol aircraft's air intakes instead. 


Ford Anglia and Popular

Tracing its roots back to the Ford model Y of 1932, the austere side-valve 933cc Anglia of 1948 was a re-hash of the pre-war model, with more streamlined frontal styling, including a BMW-style split double grille, running from the bumper to top of the bonnet line.  

With lackluster performance (a top speed of just 57 mph) and lousy brakes, the Anglia was mildly updated in 1953 to become the 1,172cc Popular, still retaining the BMW-esque front end. These antediluvian machines staggered on until 1959, ultimately being replaced by the Z-backed 105-Series Ford Anglia of Harry Potter fame.


Avia Siata 50 and F-1000 LCVs

To distinguish its Avia badged light commercials vehicles from its sister EBRO branded versions, from 1973 the large Spanish Motor Iberica Group revised the Avia grille of its Siata 50 and F1000-2000 panel van ranges. 

The Avia models gained a flattened, slightly squarer version of the classic BMW grille, clearly inspired by the Bavarian marque’s double kidney shape. Avia and EBRO were taken over by Nissan in 1987 and the revised van was facelifted to become the Nissan Trade, sans split grille, as briefly sold in the UK and across Europe.


DFSK Loadhopper

At a quick glance, the little DFSK Loadhopper panel van and flat-bed truck could be easily mistaken for a small BMW, as its ‘face’ is almost identical; a pair of twin headlamps flanking a bold, chrome-rimmed double kidney grille. The Loadhopper is so BMW-like, that I am amazed the German firm didn’t take legal action against DFSK.

The Loadhopper was the first Chinese van to be exported to the UK and Europe by the huge Dongfeng Motor Corporation, under its DFSK brand name. The model has now been replaced by the new T-Series, which resembles a Ford Transit in miniature, with the BMW grille being dropped.

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