It’s nearly impossible to discuss BMW’s current design language without at least mentioning the kidney grilles. The two gaping holes in the faces of cars like the M3, M4, 4 Series Coupe, and 4 Series Gran Coupe are some of the most controversial design elements in the entire industry. But BMW isn’t alone. Massive, obnoxiously sized grilles are everywhere but why? Former automotive designer Peter Stevens, a man who worked on both the McLaren F1 and BMW V12 LMR, recently wrote about it for EVO Magazine.
To be fair to BMW, and most current automakers making big grilles, this trend isn’t anything new, according to Stevens. In fact, it began as soon as water-cooled engines, which required large radiators for cooling, became a commonplace.
“Once the accepted place for the engine became the front of the car, a visible radiator ahead of the motor was the obvious place to put it.” said Stevens. “So here was a chance to distinguish one car from another by using the radiator as a big badge. Manufacturers became very protective of this graphic element, even though its shape and position were fundamentally engineering decisions.”
As automakers realized that they didn’t need massively exposed radiators to sufficiently cool their engines, but instead could close off most of the front end with just a smaller intake hole to the radiator, automakers still needed a way to distinguish their cars from others. In the ’70s, GM decided to distinguish each of its brands with a different air intake grille. Giorgetto Giugiaro created on large slatted horizontal grille for the Mk1 Golf, but only cut out air openings where needed, which streamlined the look.
Fast forward to the mid-’00s and Audi introduced large grilles on all of its cars, which gave them immediate road presence and identity. In many ways, Audi was sort of the first brand to really introduce oversized grilles, even if its “singleframe” grille design was very well-received back in the mid-’00s. To be fair to Audi’s original singleframe grille, it still looks great today, on cars like the B7 A4 and the still-beautiful B8 Audi A5. Since then, though, escalation was the only way forward and Audi hasn’t been the only brand to make increasingly massive grilles.
BMW is obviously guilty of this new trend and it might be the biggest offender only because of its history. The kidney grille was always a handsome and subtle design but has now become a caricature of what it once was.
While BMW, Audi, Lexus, and every other brand that makes monster-sized grilles will cite sales figures as proof of their popularity, Stevens actually makes a great point. Most of those customers are lessees, trading in their three year old, pre-king-size grille car, for a new one with said grille because they have no choice. So maybe these grilles aren’t as popular as brands suggest, they’re the only options.
It’s an interesting read from Stevens about the current trend of bigger grilles and their potential future once the industry moves entirely to electric. Check it out.