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Reinventing BMW | Thank Frankel it's Friday

14th September 2023
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

This, I have to say, I did not see coming. Or, perhaps more accurately, the direction from which it was coming. For who would have thought it of BMW?

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I refer to the unveiling at the Munich Motor Show of a BMW concept car called the Neue Klasse, and I’ll be returning to the significance of that name in a minute. But what struck me first were how clean and uncluttered its lines were; how attractive it was; how I’d not be unhappy at all to be seen tooling around in such a machine. And I thought again: BMW? The company that has attracted more criticism for the styling of its cars than any other of late - of all of them put together I’d not be surprised. Yet there it was: crisp, interesting and an apparent brand new design language for BMW.

But back to that name. We have, of course, been here before. Not even I’m old enough to cast my mind back to the last time BMW showed a car and called it the Neue Klasse. but it was probably the most significant event in the history of the company save that of its creation.

It was 1962 and BMW was in trouble, to put it mildly. It had fallen into the trap of producing two entirely different types of car and neither of them were making any money. The 501-based luxury saloons were uncompetitive, the 503 coupe and gorgeous 507 roadster simply too expensive to sell in the numbers required. 

On the other side of the coin, BMW could sell tiny Isetta bubble cars with ease, but the profit margins on such cars were so tight there was little or nothing to be had from them. So it wasn’t working for the company at the poles of the market and it had nothing – literally nothing – between them. Things had become so bad had nearly been swallowed up by Swabian rival Mercedes-Benz.

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Then along came the Neue Klasse in 1962, a mid-range family saloon in 1962, spawning the famed ‘02’ series in 1966 and BMW never looked back. In that moment the modern BMW was born and everything that has happened since started right there.

So take very seriously the fact that BMW is once more wheeling out the name of the car that transformed the company over 60 years ago. True, this time it’s a concept and nothing precisely like it will go on sale, but in a way that makes it even more significant: because in those lines we find a completely new direction not just for one BMW model line, but a design philosophy that will underpin an entire generation.

It comes not a moment too soon, and not just because BMW’s current design direction is so, er, courageous.

One of the biggest problems old established car manufacturers face today – ‘legacy brands’ as they are sometimes called – is precisely that. They are old and established, and far too associated with the past for their own good. If the Tesla experience teaches us anything, it is that in the EV era what matters most to people has changed: old and established is out, fresh and new is in.

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Now a company like BMW cannot press a big reset button and just forget the last century and a bit. What it can do is completely reinvent itself, in the process sending the clearest possible signal that this is a company focussed only on the future, one whose past an irrelevant distraction. I believe this is the hidden message contained within the design of the Neue Klasse.

And sentimental old fool though I am, even I can see the sense of it. More to the point, I fear for those legacy brands that don’t recognise that this is no time for the softly softly, gently does it approach, and try to feel their way into the new era, relying on the comfort of their heritage ease the passage. Look at the others that are really making headlines with their new EVs: it’s not established Europeans brands, it’s companies like Kia and Hyundai from South Korea, with Chinese MGs gaining ground at a formidable rate.

So it will be fascinating to see the first production BMW conceived using the ethos of the Neue Klasse, and it could scarcely be more important because it will likely be the new 3-series, due towards the middle of the decade. Will BMW go all in, and produce a car that subscribes entirely to the new approach, or one that is merely a step in that direction? I hope it pulls no punches: of them all BMW is the brand that would benefit most from a completely clean sheet design, slamming the door shut on so many imposing but often wincingly unattractive shapes.

For the reality, equally applicable to all, can be found wrapped up on one succinct and well known phrase, never more true than it is today: adapt, or die.

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