What's Up With BMW's Shape-Shifting Kidney Grille?!

2021 BMW 4 Series 18 photos
Photo: BMW AG
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There is no denying, there are many automotive brands out there, but some of them have very distinct styling features. Porsche has the ignition key on the other side of the dashboard. Rolls-Royce comes with the Spirit of Ecstasy statue on the hood. Mercedes’ three-pointed star is recognized by toddlers. Cadillac loves vertical head- and taillights arrangements. And BMW always comes with a double kidney grille.
Would it be easy to picture an automotive world without all these enduring iconic traits? Would anyone care for these brands without their distinctive elements, those small styling statements that immediately identify the cars with the brand, no matter the model series?

For BMW, the automotive history is entangled with the ‘kidney grille.’ The company ‘Bayerische Motoren Werke AG,’ in short BMW, was a well-established producer of motorcycles and aircraft engines before expanding into the automotive sector. It did it with the acquisition, in 1928, of the Fahrzeugfabrik Eisenach parent of the Dixi brand – and manufacturer of licensed Austin Sevens.

Their first-ever design – displayed during the 1933 Berlin Motor Show – was the BMW 303, sporting the distinctive shape of a double radiator grille (aka the ‘kidney grille’). But at the time the feature was nothing more than an aerodynamic-enhancement decision – the radiator was angled backwards towards the outer edges. And had a very tall vertical arrangement.

BMW kidney grille
Photo: BMW AG
According to popular opinion, another model might have been (or not, depending on account) the initiator of the famed continuity. Thus, we should also remember the Ihle Sport Typ 600, created by coachbuilding brothers Rudolf and Fritz Ihle from BMW Dixi 3/15 bodies and sporting a ‘bifurcated’ radiator...

Still, nobody seems to take the trouble to scream double jeopardy on the honor of whom retains bragging rights for the creation of the ‘kidney grille’. So why are people so vocal on discussing the latest iterations by the Bavarian company?! There are so many detractors screaming ‘murder’ at the design of the BMW 4 Series that it is genuinely hard to have a pondered opinion.

By the way, everyone is entitled to their own viewpoint, considering the design of anything has always been subjective. Let alone the styling of a brand bought by millions each year and adulated to the brink of insanity by tens of millions of others. We are not going to ponder in either direction, but we are going to offer our own view none the less.

BMW kidney grille
Photo: BMW AG
First off, this is not the first time BMW has used the tall, vertical arrangement. And it is also not the first time when different models in the family have significant design alterations. After all, wasn’t BMW chastised in recent years for adopting the ‘model uniform’ throughout the range – when critics’ believed only diehard fans would be able to spot the differences between series?!

Now the company has literally thrown this conception out the window with the 3 Series and 4 Series. And the different iterations of the modern kidney grille are easily distinguishable among model series. The smaller models have a very classical take on the design. The larger – 5 Series or the X5 – have the two pieces joined by a single middle ‘ring. The flagships, the 7 Series and the X7 were the initial mocking jays due to their monumental facades. The X6 even has an illuminated grille!

The new BMW 4 Series displays the signature BMW proportions in their most modern form yet,” explained during the online launch event Domagoj Dukec, Head of BMW Design. “The front end makes a very clear statement on the road. The striking, vertical kidney grille and iconic twin headlights create a bold and confident identity.

BMW kidney grille
Photo: BMW AG
We cannot argue with that – anyone on the road will see the new 4 Series grille. But what’s the fuss about it, anyways?! The historic BMW 328 made the Bavarian name and grille a fixture across Europe through Europe. And it was tall, sleek, and large. The luxurious 327 took the style to new heights and it was the staple for BMW for a lot of years.

The revolution came with the introduction of the 500-series cars – the 501, 502 and 503 came with modifications and the 507 took a hammer swing and in 1956 brought the grille tumbling down to the horizontal. Remember the James Bond-loved retro Z8 – it was Henrik Fisker’s take on the styling while supervised by the much-hated Chris Bangle.

And then BMW had an entire playground of kidney grille styles – we can remember the minimalist take of the 1600 Cabrio or M1, as well as the gradually evolving dimensions of all 3 Series generations. And every subsequent model had its own (albeit subtle) take on the corporate grille. Even the concepts played with different ideas – remember the 2011 BMW 328 Hommage and 2019 BMW Vision M NEXT prototypes?

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About the author: Aurel Niculescu
Aurel Niculescu profile photo

Aurel has aimed high all his life (literally, at 16 he was flying gliders all by himself) so in 2006 he switched careers and got hired as a writer at his favorite magazine. Since then, his work has been published both by print and online outlets, most recently right here, on autoevolution.
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