It’s one of the most iconic pieces of car design in automotive history. We trace the origins and evolution of the BMW kidney grille.
It’s not your imagination, car grilles have been getting bigger over the years. You can see the trend everywhere, from Lexus and Genesis to Audi and Aston Martin, even the grille on the Toyota Avalon appears to be overtaking the front end like a metal lattice-work version of forest slime mold.
No other car company has taken the expanding grille quite to the level that BMW has. The BMW X7 and upcoming 4-Series feature outlandishly large versions of the classic BMW kidney grille. These might not feel so extreme were they not the logical conclusion of a decades-long evolution (surely, they can’t get much bigger, right … right?).
Below, not only will we be tracing the evolution of the kidney grille, but also highlighting the best BMWs from the over 100-year history of the “ultimate driving machine”.
This is where it all started; the 303 was the first BMW car to feature the kidney grille and the first to have a 6-cylinder engine. It came as a two-door saloon or cabriolet.
BMW’s first proper sports car, the 328 was notable for its sleek styling and racing chops. It made its racing debut at the legendary Nürburgring where it won its 2.0L class. The 328 went on to post over 100 racing wins in 1936 alone.
The 335 was the successor to the 326, BMW’s first four-door luxury sedan. We choose to highlight the 335 because of its distinctive its lateral lines bisecting the kidney grille and it’s inset headlights, a subtle nod back to the 328.
It took some time for BMW to return to passenger cars following WWII. The 501 debuted in 1952, built on an entirely new platform. In addition to its version of the kidney grille, the 501 also featured fender side mirrors and coach/suicide doors. The 502 featured BMW first V8 engine.
The car that nearly killed BMW. The 507 was a big money loser at the time, which makes it rare today due to the limited production run. Only 252 were completed. Its design influenced the later Z3, Z4, and Z8.
The 1600 was the beginning of a new era for BMW. Built off the New Class Sedans, the 1600 was smaller, nimbler, and less expensive than previous BMWs. BMW’s first foray into electrification was the 1600 Elektro. It was powered by over 770lbs of lead acid batteries and had a range of approximately 19 miles.
The 2002 wow’d the automotive press when it debuted in 1968. The combination of comfort, driving prowess, and style were clearly something special. The 2002 turbo was the first turbocharged BMW, first appearing at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1973. The 2002 two-door sedan could also be had as a 3-door hatchback or two-door cabriolet. For my money, the 2002s’ are the quintessential kidney grille, small, round, and vaguely snout-like.
The E3 (sedan) and E9 (coupe) marked a return to six-cylinders for BMW cars. The inline-6s ranged from 2.5 liters up to 3.3 liters. The kidney grille got extra company on the front of the E3/E9s, which now sported twin headlights.
The E9 3.0CSL was built for the European racing circuit. The ’73 version featured a wing and other body modifications that earned it the nickname “The Batmobile.” The 3.0CSL was also BMW’s first art car, painted by Alexander Calder for the 1975 24 Hours of Le Man.
The tiny, squared-off kidney grille on the M1 contrasts beautifully with the big bold paneling and hood on this iconic BMW. The M1 was a mid-engine beast and its resemblance to a Lamborghini is no coincidence. The M1 had originally started as a collaboration between the two companies, and designed by legendary car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. But the partnership was cut short by Lamborghini’s bankruptcy and BMW was forced to finish the car on their own.
It doesn’t get more legendary than the E30 M3. From the Radwood approved styling to handling that earned it the title of “God’s Chariot,” the E30 epitomizes all the kidney grille has come to symbolize.
The first of the BMW Z-cars (hence the name), the Z1 roadster was build off the E30’s platform. The Z1 had an inline-6 producing 168hp, a multi-link rear suspension, and slide-down electric doors. Wait, what? That’s right, the Z1’s doors slid down into the door sills. Pretty cool.
The Z8 was light thanks to its aluminum chassis and body, and fast thanks to the 4.9L V8 making 400hp. The classic design, referencing the 507, was done by Henrik Fisker, formerly of Aston Martin. Maybe it’s no coincidence that it appeared in the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough.
The E31 is great for two key reasons, first, it had a V12 paired with a 6-speed manual and second, it had pop-up headlights. Is there a better compliment to the kidney grille than pop-up headlights? Need we even ask?
The 7-Series featured a lot of cool new tech for the era. It was the first European car to have a built-in television and satellite navigation and the first car to offer curtain airbags. But our favorite innovation was that super 90s rectangular design to the kidney grille.
Small, practical, electric. There’s a lot about the little i3 that runs contrary to the classic BMW image. But one consistent through-line is that kidney grille, this time with a nifty blue inlay. Plus, Larry David drives one. If it’s good enough for LD, it’s good enough for me.
The recently discontinued i8 was another of BMW’s attempts at electrification, this time a plug-in hybrid. The i8 has a 1.5L 3-cylinder turbo engine combined with an electronic synchronous motor putting out 357hp and 420 lb.-ft. of torque. Thought the i8 could do 0-60 in 4.2 seconds, many were disappointed with its performance. Perhaps that great supercar look raised expectations too high?
The 8-Series Gs offer a prime example of the final evolution of the kidney grille. Here they are massive, grinning from one headlight to the other, threatening to engulf the entire front end. The current BMW kidney grille has grown to such outlandish proportions one wonder where do designers go from here?
So, what does the future hold for BMW and the kidney grille? If the i4 electric grand coupe concept (currently in development) is any indication, those kidney’s aren’t getting any smaller. The i4 will have an electric motor putting down 530hp and getting a range of 372 miles. The design, with it’s panoramic glass roof and “glass crystal controls,” looks to up the luxury-level ante on the Tesla Model 3 and other electric sedans. The i4 is scheduled for release in 2021.
The Next Vision 100, like many modern concept cars, is so far out it looks to be more at home on a sci-fi movies set than in your garage. Full autonomous driving is just the beginning, check out those stretching fenders, the seamless door to glass paneling, and that huge, illuminated kidney grille.