Up until recently, BMW has been generally considered as one of the few auto manufacturers with consistently good designs. Detractors will claim this is due to very small, incremental changes through the years. I disagree; citing that consistency is a quality to be admired. That said: it’s an undeniable fact that the hallmarks of BMW design have certainly changed through the years. The once-trademark grills and Hoffmeister kink jump to mind, but there’s one other design feature that has solidified BMW’s iconic status throughout generations: the headlights.
They’ve spawned shirts, posters, and even entire aftermarket lighting solutions. There’s no shortage of love for BMW lighting designs, and today we count down the five most iconic ones.
Bangle Era of BMW: 5, 6, 7 Series
Love them or, more likely, hate them – the Bangle era is the definition of iconic. Most enthusiasts can spot a Bangle design a mile away, for a range of arguably good reasons. And it’s usually the early-2000s 5, 6, and 7 Series that attract the most magnetic criticism. Unfortunately, most of the designs have not “come around” in the last few years. Particularly the earliest of the E65 7 Series designs will stick out in most people’s minds as being downright ugly.
So, the lights. The rear lights of the E65 were split across the trunk horizontally. But also, splashed on the rear-most corner of the rear quarter panels. Completely disconnected, the rear end became quickly disjointed and jarring to look at. The front sported bulbous, bubbly headlights that just seemed alien at the time. The E63 6 Series and E69 5 Series shared most of these qualities and receive similar objections. Less disparaged is the E90 3 Series – many don’t even realize that Bangle designed it! Until the end, I’ll defend the 6 Series – the sharklike attributes pair well with the alien looking features. But for the most part, the Bangle era is “iconic” of questionable design.
M4 GTS / CS OLED Lights
The M4 GTS was a bit of an anomaly when it debuted. But there was never any doubt that the OLED taillights it sported were excellent. One of the most-duplicated designs on the aftermarket, the OLED lights were exclusive to the M4 GTS and CS. Not even the comparable M3 got them – speculative info suggests they were simply too expensive to develop. They all came from OEM supplier Osram, and were in development since 2012.
OLED stands for organic light-emitting diodes, producing light via a film of semiconducting materials. The M4 GTS was the first vehicle ever to feature OLED tech, each taillight featuring 15 individual OLEDs. It’s just another example of BMW pushing ahead when they didn’t necessarily need to. From both a design and technical point, OLEDs pushed BMW’s benchmark just a little bit higher.
G07 X7 LCI, G70 7 Series and Split Headlights on BMWs
BMW’s LCI X7 and brand new G70 7 Series feature bold new lighting designs. When flagship models start sporting a brand-new look, that usually means it’s only a generation or two from trickling down to every other model. With the 7 Series now using Swarovski crystal in the headlights, it’s clear that BMW has committed in a big – and expensive – way. And while the future is always uncertain, there’s no doubt that the new X7 certainly offers a lot in the way of presence – largely due to the controversial new front end.
E9 / 3.0 CSL “Dual Headlights”
While technically the E9’s predecessor also featured “dual headlights”, the E9 perfected it. Debuting in 1968, the 2800 CS was the first of the E9’s and sported a pair of headlights that didn’t look out of place all the way into 1999. And even later – the next round of lighting followed very closely in its footsteps. Since most people will scratch their heads and look at you funny when you start talking about an “E9”, the more accessible name is probably the 3.0 CSL.
The identifying feature that endured over 30 years of design is individual, circular headlights. And while this isn’t something that was necessarily unique to the BMW design language at the time – that nod goes to the kidney grills – BMW is one of the only brands that chose not to reinvent the wheel and keep that design even through the 1980s and 1990s. That along with the grills helped establish a very identifiable front end and make BMWs instantly recognizable. No other brand – before or since – carries that kind of cache from a simple pair of headlights.
E39 5 Series “Corona Ring” Lights
The E39 5 Series is responsible for the evolution of the CSL’s double-headlight design. BMW dubbed them “corona rings” and they showed up on almost every BMW made between 2000 and 2015. More substantive is the fact that they started popping up on other OEM’s cars – everything from the Mercedes G-Wagon to the Dodge Challenger.
I like to believe that at least part of the reason “corona rings” caught on is because the cars that first featured them were just such iconic and great-performing BMWS. But realistically, the corona ring caught on for much simpler reasons. Most importantly, it looked a lot better than almost any other headlight on the road. And secondly, it did a great job of satisfying the growing pressure for vehicles to include “daytime running lights”. Whatever the reason – corona rings look amazing still today and are another shining testament to BMW’s good design sense.