The BMW kidney grille has long been a hallmark feature of every model by the German automaker since 1933. For decades, it has been a signature design language that has transcended numerous models from the auto manufacturer.

It remains the face of almost every vehicle from Bayerische Motoren Werke for almost 90 years. And it has evolved dynamically in design as well as innovation. Granted, the signature feature has not been without its fair share of criticism.

In recent years, the BMW kidney grille has undergone a radical new design, which has divided opinions. The new bold design language is currently applied to new models such as the new 4 Series, M3, and M4. Some like it, while some, naturally, do not.

But regardless of some of the flack that it has received, BMW is forging ahead with its new design language. After all it has been a common practice for the automaker to chart new territory for vehicle design, including its signature feature. In the spirit of this unique heritage, we look at 10 design milestones of the BMW kidney grille and how they have adapted throughout the generations.

1933 – The BMW 303

original bmw kidney grille
The iconic BMW 303

A milestone in BMW history in two respects, the BMW 303 was the brand’s first model with a six-cylinder engine, and also the first to have the feature that still characterises every BMW almost 90 years later: Air intake through a double kidney grille. While the centre bar-divided radiator masks may not have been ground-breaking in automotive design at the time, the car achieved a highly sculptural effect with the grille – rounded at the top and bottom, with the BMW emblem punctuated between the upper arches.

1956 – The BMW 507

BMW 507
BMW 507 roadster

The BMW 507 roadster was the first BMW to appear with two large, horizontally mounted air intakes. The creator, Albrecht Graf von Goertz, expressed creative freedom with the design of the double kidney, which BMW designers were not to take up again until the 1990s, with various design projects.

However, the large-format air intakes of the BMW 507 were also necessary, as they were instrumental in providing the only source of fresh air for the radiator of the roaring V8 engine under the flat bonnet.

1961 – The BMW 1500

BMW 1500
BMW 1500

The “new class” mid-range models welcomed a new era for BMW in every aspect: Technologically, commercially, and aesthetically. The kidney grilles of the BMW 1500 were narrower than all previous BMW models and set between two horizontal grilles that spanned the whole car. With its primary and secondary air grilles, the BMW 1500 inspired the front-end design of the core BMW models up to the 1980s, which include the legendary BMW 3.0 CS, BMW CSi and BMW CSL.

1978 – The BMW M1

BMW M1
BMW M1

The first-ever official M-badged independent model, the BMW M1 from 1978 is a special case in the design of the double kidney. The deep-drawn front-end design cleverly incorporates ultra-flat air inlets, while still brandishing the characteristic kidneys as a defining feature of the brand. They are among the smallest examples ever to decorate a BMW.

The design of the double kidney on the BMW M1 was taken up again in the front-end design of later BMW niche models, such as the BMW Z1 (1988) and the BMW 8 Series (1989).

1990 – The BMW 3 Series

1990 BMW 3 Series
BMW 3 Series

An evolutionary leap for the BMW kidney grille followed in 1990 with the third-generation 3 Series: A flat and horizontally mounted double kidney design. Unlike in the first generations of the BMW 3 Series, the two halves of the radiator ensemble were separated again.

Rectangular with slightly rounded corners, the kidneys were separated from the headlamp bands not by grilles, but by surfaces of the car’s body. This design is seen in many BMW models of the 1990s.

2013 – The BMW i3

BMW i3
BMW i3

The front design of the electric BMW i3 exemplifies one of the few occasions where the aesthetic function of the BMW kidney grille takes centre stage. The flat, relatively wide double kidney, with deliberately closed surfaces and blue accents, signifies its identity as both a BMW vehicle as well as an innovative electric vehicle.

Aerodynamics of the BMW i3 are also improved with the closed kidney grilles and the design – similar to that of the BMW i8 – serves as the inspiration for all future fully electric BMW models.

2018 – The BMW 8 Series, the BMW Z4

bmw z4
2018 BMW Z4

The 2018 double kidney gains a new and relatively angular frame shape. The grilles – connected in the BMW 8 Series and unconnected in the BMW Z4 – now form horizontally mounted, wide pentagons. Sportiness is emphasised by the kidneys “opening downwards”, providing a lower centre of gravity visually. Functionally, the kidney grilles serve as secondary air intakes with an active air flap control system that closes as required to reduce air resistance.

In the connected design, as seen in the BMW 8 Series, a camera for the driver assistance systems sits in the middle of the brace connecting the two halves of the kidney.

2018 – The BMW 3 Series Sedan

BMW 8 Series
2018 BMW 3 Series

In the current BMW 3 Series, the modern design of the double kidney combines some familiar features (connected kidneys, directly connected headlamp surfaces, pentagonal frame shape) with new characteristics. The M Performance variants of the BMW 3 Series replace the classic vertical kidney rods with small wedge shapes woven into the mesh structure.

2020 – The BMW 4 Series Coupé

The 4 Series Coupé

The most recent development of the double kidney for series production vehicles celebrated its world premiere digitally in the BMW Group’s design studio in Munich. The focus was on the individual design features, which include the large, upright, and forward-leaning BMW kidney at the front of the car. The new design of the vertical double kidney is a bridge to the future for the German marquee.

2021 – The BMW Vision iNEXT, BMW Vision M NEXT

future bmw kidney grille
BMW Vision iNEXT

With two vision cars, the BMW Group is offering a glimpse of what the brand’s primary distinguishing feature might look like in future models. In the purely electric BMW Vision iNEXT, the double kidney turns out to be a further development of the BMW i3 kidneys. Its closed surface houses sophisticated cameras, sensors, and other technologies for assisted and automated driving.

(Images: BMW) 

written by.
Richard Augustin
Former chef turned writer; Richard has tip-toed around the publishing industry for two decades. When not busy chasing deadlines, you can still find him experimenting with recipes in the kitchen.

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