Designing an Homage to the Past with Tomorrow’s Possibilities

The kidney grilles have long been a hallmark feature of every BMW. They remain the face of almost every vehicle from Bayerische Motoren Werke for almost 90 years, and they evolve dynamically in design from innovation to innovation. In the spirit of this unique heritage, BMW Group Malaysia takes a look at ten design milestones of the signature kidney grilles and how they have adapted throughout the generations.

The BMW 303 (1933).
A milestone in BMW history in two respects, the BMW 303 was the brand's first model with a six-cylinder engine, and also the first to have the feature that still characterises every BMW almost 90 years later: air intake through a double kidney grille. While the centre bar-divided radiator masks may not have been ground-breaking in automotive design at the time, the car achieved a highly sculptural effect with the grille – rounded at the top and bottom, with the BMW emblem punctuated between the upper arches. The result was an ensemble with a high recognition value.

The BMW 507 (1956).
The BMW 507 roadster was the first BMW to appear with two large, horizontally mounted air intakes. The creator, Albrecht Graf von Goertz, expressed creative freedom with the design of the double kidney, which BMW designers were not to take up again until the 1990s, with various design projects. However, the large-format air intakes of the BMW 507 were also necessary, as they were instrumental in providing the only source of fresh air for the radiator of the roaring V8 engine under the flat bonnet.

The BMW 1500 (1961).
The “new class” mid-range models welcomed a new era for BMW in every aspect: technologically, commercially, and aesthetically. The kidney grilles of the BMW 1500 were narrower than all previous BMW models and set between two horizontal grilles that spanned the whole car. With its primary and secondary air grilles, the BMW 1500 inspired the front-end design of the core BMW models up to the 1980s, which include the legendary BMW 3.0 CS, BMW CSi and BMW CSL.

The BMW M1 (1978).
The first-ever official M-badged independent model, the BMW M1 from 1978 is a special case in the design of the double kidney. The deep-drawn front-end design cleverly incorporates ultra-flat air inlets, while still brandishing the characteristic kidneys as a defining feature of the brand. They are among the smallest examples ever to decorate a BMW. The design of the double kidney on the BMW M1 was taken up again in the front-end design of later BMW niche models, such as the BMW Z1 (1988) and the BMW 8 Series (1989).

The BMW 3 Series (1990).
A further evolutionary leap followed in 1990 with the third-generation BMW 3 Series: a flat and horizontally mounted double kidney design. Unlike in the first generations of the BMW 3 Series, the two halves of the radiator ensemble were separated again. Rectangular with slightly rounded corners, the kidneys were separated from the headlamp bands not by grilles, but by surfaces of the car’s body. This design is seen in many BMW models of the 1990s – from the BMW 7 Series (1994) and the BMW 5 Series (1995), through to the BMW Z3 (1995) and the following-generation BMW 3 Series (1998), and finally to the first two generations of the BMW X5 (1999).

The BMW i3 (2013).
The front design of the electric BMW i3 exemplifies one of the few occasions where the aesthetic function of the BMW kidneys takes centre stage. The flat, relatively wide double kidney, with deliberately closed surfaces and blue accents, signifies its identity as both a BMW vehicle and also an innovative electric vehicle. Aerodynamics of the BMW i3 are also improved with the closed kidney grilles and the design – similar to that of the BMW i8 – serves as the inspiration for all future fully electric BMW models.

The BMW 8 Series, the BMW Z4 (2018).
With two current high-performance vehicles by BMW, the 2018 double kidney gains a new and relatively angular frame shape. The grilles – connected in the BMW 8 Series and unconnected in the BMW Z4 – now form horizontally mounted, wide pentagons. As in every newer BMW coupé, sportiness is emphasised by the kidneys “opening downwards”, providing a lower centre of gravity visually. Functionally, the kidney grilles serve as secondary air intakes with an active air flap control system that closes as required to reduce air resistance. In the connected design, as seen in the BMW 8 Series (and other models with tethered kidney), a camera for the driver assistance systems sits in the middle of the brace connecting the two halves of the kidney.

The BMW 3 Series Sedan (2018).
In the current BMW 3 Series, the modern design of the double kidney combines some familiar features (connected kidneys, directly connected headlamp surfaces, pentagonal frame shape) with new characteristics. For example, the kidneys are positioned significantly higher than the upper edge of the headlamps, extending up into the bonnet above a bend. The upper edges of the headlamps are connected to each other by the edges in the kidneys, which have the same alignment. A striking feature of the M Performance variants of the BMW 3 Series is the replacement of the classic vertical kidney rods with small wedge shapes woven into the mesh structure. The BMW X7 and the current BMW 7 Series each have double kidneys of similar design to the BMW 3 Series, including the horizontal bend towards the top edge. However, in these two models they are much larger in size and much more striking.

The BMW 4 Series Coupé (2020) – A Bridge to The Future.
The most recent development of the double kidney for series production vehicles celebrated its world premiere digitally in the BMW Group's design studio in Munich, in the historic halls of the BMW Group Classic, and on the BMW Group's test site in Aschheim. The focus was on the individual design features, which include the large, upright, and forward-leaning BMW kidney at the front of the car. A look back at BMW history shows just how much the new BMW 4 Series Coupé is in the tradition of the brand's legendary sports cars. Outstanding classics such as the BMW 328 Coupé from the 1930s and the BMW 3.0 CS from the 1970s are part of BMW's fascinating coupé history, which is marked by prestige, driving pleasure and success on the racetrack, and is now being enriched by a further chapter.

For designer Seungmo Lim, who is responsible for the design language of the BMW 4 Series Coupé, the design of the vertical double kidney is a bridge to the future. “We have a strong design history. A hallmark makes a car recognisable – and the double kidney is one of our icons. Nevertheless, BMW design has to be reinterpreted and translated into the future again and again. To take this bold step forward, we have looked into our past for the new BMW 4 Series Coupé,” he said.

Harald Hoelzl, Managing Director of BMW Group Malaysia, adds, “The new BMW 4 Series Coupé is the latest incarnation of the BMW brand’s enduring DNA. Boldly taking up the torch once held by many iconic BMW models throughout the ages, it continues the brand’s legacy of forward-thinking designs, paying an homage to the past with tomorrow's possibilities.”

The BMW Vision iNEXT (2018), the BMW Vision M NEXT (2019).
With two vision cars, the BMW Group is offering a glimpse of what the brand's primary distinguishing feature might look like in future models. In the purely electric BMW Vision iNEXT, the double kidney turns out to be a further development of the BMW i3 kidneys. Its closed surface houses sophisticated cameras, sensors, and other technologies for assisted and automated driving.

Internally, this solution is also called “shy-tech” – high technology that works discreetly. In the hybrid sports car, the BMW Vision M NEXT, a sculpturally strong double kidney enclosed within glass emerges, with surfaces featuring engraved, stylised BMW logos. Illumination of the two kidneys incorporating a spectacular colour gradient projects a mesmerising three-dimensional effect – something that will not be seen for the last time in a BMW.