BMW has made some fantastic looking cars over the years. I’ll be the first to argue that an exciting powertrain and compelling chassis are the two most important parts of any car. But how a vehicle looks matters – as most recently evidenced by the XM debut. With over 75 years of car design behind it, BMW has had some real hits – and here are some of the best.
A gem from the brain of auto design rock star Henrik Fisker (see: Aston Martin DB9), the Z8 bleeds good design from the minute you lay eyes on it. Its design is heavily influenced by the Z07 concept car, which debuted at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show. That concept is in turn heavily influenced by the iconic 507 from late 1950s. Short overhangs, a mile-long hood, and sweetly curving front and rear fenders all promise performance that the powertrain can happily deliver on.
Designed by Joji Nagashima, the E39’s timeless design is best captured by the E39 M5. While visually a bit more exciting than a base example, it builds upon a foundation of great attention to aesthetics. More important is the lack of obvious over-styling – casual observers would be hard pressed to spot the differences between an E39 M5 and its lesser trims unless they knew where to look.
Z3 M Coupe
Based on a mix of E36 and E30 chassis components, the sheet metal of the Z3 is another Joji Nagashima design. While the roadster and coupe are technically the same, the coupe’s irreverent design makes it a winner. The term “shooting brake” gets thrown around a lot, but the Z3 – and Z3 M specifically – is a definitive study of the body style. The Z3 coupe gets a special nod because its almost cartoonish looks do a great job of masking the car’s beguiling performance.
E24 6 Series
The E24 6 Series practically defined the 80s for BMW. Dubbed “shark”, “shark nose”, and apparently “Bayern-Express”, it brought front and center BMW’s drive – and ability – to create an incredibly stylish and high-performing GT car. Fun fact: director of design Paul Bracq was a true renaissance man. While he designed the de facto dictator-mobile, the W100 Mercedes 600, he also designed the iconic 230 SL “Pagoda”, and a Peugeot personally favored by the Pope.
While most chassis codes extend to the entire lineup – and stablemates – the E63 M6 is special. I don’t think the E60 5 Series looks particularly good, and some of the non-M variants of the E63 look downright tragic. However, the E63 M6 (and, I suppose any decently well optioned 6 Series) has aged incredibly well and delivers everywhere that it counts. It pays a great homage to the original “Shark” (see above), the profile is exactly perfect for a GT coupe from the late 2000s, and its one of the last true “sleeper” M cars. Though based on Chris Bangle’s 1999 Z9 concept, Adrian van Hooydonk designed the E63.
E82 1 Series
The 1 Series coupe is a great looking car in all guises. My favorite bits? Lightly flared rear fenders, a high belt line, and dual-tipped exhaust come standard no matter what trim you spring for. The peak of 1 Series design was of course the 1M Coupe, which of course has its own unique origin story from a design perspective. Honorable mention to the E87 and E81 hatchbacks; though they never came to the United States, they remain the object of many a hot-hatch enthusiast’s affection.
The BMW M1’s design paved the way for decades of high-performance, but also served as a launching point for the i8 nearly 40 years later. And while the i8 may be more traditionally beautiful, the M1 is undeniably a great design. Italdesign head Giorgetto Giugiaro worked closely with BMW M head Jochen Neerpasch to develop a beautiful, truly race-ready car. My favorite design aspect of the M1? Everything on the car does its best to point your attention towards the obvious mid-engine architecture. You see it in the i8’s design, too.
The i8 was my original choice for the last spot, but I think the M1 is more fitting and “did it first”. The E46 is for sure the best 3 Series design and is proving to age the most gracefully. Unfortunately, the competition is so close that it just barely misses the list. Same story with the E9X – while a great design, it isn’t enough of a step forward and doesn’t set any new precedents for it to make the list.
What do you think some of the best BMW designs have been?