Design Icons: A Look Back at the E65 BMW 7 Series

The fantastic Chris Bangle-era E65 BMW 7 Series, actually designed by current BMW Group design director Adrian van Hooydonk, is already 13 years old. First unveiled at the Frankfurt auto show in 2001, the E65 was at the forefront of innovation. Despite having more than a few detractors, it later spawned a series of imitators. And it remains a design that has aged incredibly well.

The BMW E65, the fourth generation 7 Series, was born from a radical fastback sketch originally penned by van Hooydonk in 1998. The final production design ended up considerably toned down and more conventional. But looking at the E65, one wouldn’t think that it was toned down design proposal: this 7 Series was such an innovative car! I decided it deserved a quick homage doodle.

The E65 replaced the timeless — but conservative — E38 design. It was a radical new take on what a top class BMW should be. Yet when introduced, it was met with sharp criticism for its bold looks and its new iDrive system, which took some getting used to (especially for older generation car journalists).

Former BMW Group design director Chris Bangle’s design themes have generated intense controversy, both inside and outside the automotive design industry. He strongly defended the criticism, stating that product lines should follow a cycle of a revolutionary generation followed by an evolutionary generation followed by another revolutionary generation. I strongly believe the polarizing effect was needed for BMW: The company’s range at the time (mainly the 3, 5, and 7) was well executed but rather conservative. Not exactly the embodiment of the Ultimate Driving Machine.

BMW E65 7 Series

The avant-garde Bangle approach to both interior and exterior, sometimes described as Deconstructivism even, did not only separate BMW from the crowd, it also separated the 3, from the 5, from the 7. Each car had a very strong individual character while remaining very BMW at the same time. BMW’s board of directors wanted to move the company’s image into the future and they managed to do so unequivocally.

For the E65, this was most evidently embodied at the rear. The high, shelf-like trunk lid — pejoratively coined the ‘Bangle Butt’ — had many critics, but BMW (and Bangle) defended it. Years later it would become a widely used design element across the industry, if only because it proved to be a highly effective way to handle aero as well as provide ample cargo capacity in the trunk.

Apart from perhaps being too visually heavy — especially when fitted with smaller wheels — and lacking traditional BMW cues such as L-shaped taillights, what is there not to like about the E65?

The term ‘flame surfacing’ often used to describe BMWs of the era, was not used (nor liked) by Bangle himself. It is attributed to BMW marketing and sometimes to motoring journalists. Regardless of the source and Bangle’s dislike of the term, I think it describes the cars well. The design language made use of BMW’s new technology of 3D panel pressing, allowing a single press for compound curves. Especially in Titanium Silver metallic, the E65 just works so well.

More importantly, the Bangle 7 Series has no doubt helped many design teams convince their Board of Directors that an outspoken design language is paramount in today’s highly competitive industry. Especially when considering the polarizing E65 became the best-selling 7 Series of all time, with 343,073 units sold over its seven-year lifespan.


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