To shape the future you need to understand your past. That’s what writer Jan Baedeker learned from his grandfather – and what BMW is demonstrating with the 7 Series.
The task my grandfather faced in the 1950s was no easy one. Like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather for over 130 years before him, he produced travel guidebooks for the family-owned publishing company. Generations of travelers had taken themselves globetrotting, exploring ancient temples and marveling at Gothic churches with the little red books in hand. However, the post-war era brought about a change in the way people travelled; old-school culture-vultures had to get used to sharing the road with independent tourists spreading their wings in their first vehicles. That was the challenge for my grandfather: to produce a guidebook for this new breed that could transport the publisher’s classic values into the future with credibility intact – in other words, without selling its traditions and convictions down the river.
Remaining true to one’s principles
While leafing through old family albums, I’ve often wondered: How can a company constantly reinterpret the values that have evolved within it for generations in its own individual way? In other words, how can it avoid dancing to the tune of others or simply succumbing to trends? And how can it stay innovative and consistently improve its products, but still remain true to its principles? In a period of such radical change, my grandfather did the logical thing: he bought himself a BMW 502 – a convincing blend, if ever there was one, of the traditional and the modern. This was a car whose classically imposing form earned it the nickname the “Baroque Angel”, but under whose hood lay a modern, lightweight V-8 with impressive power.
In a world that seems to flash past more quickly all the time, we cherish the promise of stability and authenticity. And what could be more authentic than a brand that has held onto its values over many decades?
The metallic silver BMW, which my grandfather proceeded to drive across all of Europe on his work trips, combined the brand’s vehicle-making heritage with the appetite of a new generation of drivers for sporty ability, dynamic flair and elegance. In so doing, it laid the foundations for the success story written by BMW’s large, continent-crossing sedans.
Ambassadors of advanced technology
The BMW 2500 and BMW 2800 luxury models of the late 1960s – and, above all, the original 7 Series launched in 1977 – sowed the seeds for BMW’s longstanding tradition of innovation. It is a commitment the Munich-based engineers and designers continue to honor earnestly to this day. Indeed, while the various generations of BMW luxury sedans were all standard-bearers for their respective eras, they also shared an ambassadorial role for ever more advanced technology.
The first BMW 7 Series took its well-heeled clientele by surprise with its digital engine electronics and on-board computer, while the second generation made a similar impact with its Xenon headlights, Park Distance Control and lightweight 12-cylinder engine. The third-generation 7 Series of the 1990s featured power adjustable Comfort seats, Dynamic Stability Control and – in a first for any series-produced vehicle – a built-in Navigation system. In 2001, BMW treated the new millennium to an avant-garde take on traditional 7 Series virtues. Much as the new 7 Series’ design language and its intuitive iDrive operating concept polarized opinion at the vehicle’s launch, their influence over the luxury class as a whole proved lasting.
Experience is an irreplaceable resource
Given the BMW 7 Series’ history of incorporating innovations into its design, the fact that its character has remained undiminished by the passing of the baton over the decades, from one model to the next, is astonishing. However, the obvious family resemblance shared by the various model generations - from kidney grille to Hofmeister kink - is far more than a nostalgic gesture. Rather, it represents a promise of credibility in a world overpopulated by artificially constructed corporate images and brands.
As consumers, we are now wise to the fact that genuine style icons cannot be manufactured in a test tube, so to speak, and that tradition and experience are irreplaceable resources in establishing standards for the long term. Items only became objects of desire as a result of rigorous development and innovation, not to mention an enduring commitment to ideals such as quality, functionality and elegance.
The rediscovery of craftsmanship likewise fits in with our new, sustainable idea of luxury. Rather than brand image hogging center stage, it is the hours of work, expertise and experience invested in an item that underpin its value. All of a sudden, the hipster hotspots of cities from Paris to Tokyo and Berlin to L.A. are dotted with young, style-conscious urbanites lovingly hand-sculpting sunglasses from horn or forging penknives using time-honored techniques. Such an approach ensures every piece they make is unique.
Yet these “discoveries” – celebrated by magazines as the latest big thing – already have a tradition elsewhere. Take BMW Individual. Since the early 1990s BMW’s personalization experts have been employing lavish handcraftsmanship to fulfill vehicle owners’ requests. From elaborate iridescent color-changing paint finishes to hand-braided leather detailing, the BMW Individual Manufactory will turn its hand to anything that promises to break the boundaries of series production.
A car with a history and a soul
In a world that seems to flash past more quickly all the time, we cherish the promise of stability and authenticity. And what could be more authentic than a brand that has held onto its values over the passing of decades, and calls on its own experience and that of its customers to constantly create new things? With the 7 Series, BMW has succeeded in developing a vehicle with which customers have been able to identify for more than 30 years – which has a history and a soul, and in which we recognize the passage of our own lives.
When I watch the first examples of the new, state-of-the-art BMW 7 Series cruise by, I will be reminded of my grandfather traveling across Europe in his “Baroque Angel” – on the scent of a new era, with eyes peeled for moments of inspiration big and small.
Jan Baedeker is editor of Classic Driver magazine. His work sees him traveling around the world – like his great-grandfather – from his home in Zurich.