What a difference pressing a button can make. One jab of the index finger upon the simple gray device that BMW has mounted on the steering wheel of its newest and most exclusive vehicle launches you into one possible future. It transports you to a time when you will be able to drive a car that reduces this country’s dependence on foreign oil and emits no pollution or greenhouse gases. Pressing the button transforms the BMW from a well-finished, good-handling, slightly odd-looking sedan to a well-finished, good-handling, slightly odd-looking sedan that runs on hydrogen.
For the sake of drama, one would think that BMW at least would have painted the button red.
In reality, the transfer from gasoline power to hydrogen power requires one push of a button that was preceded by about 20 years of research and development. Moreover, BMW will build only 100 examples of this car, the Hydrogen 7, so initially it will have no impact on oil consumption. And technically, it is not a zero-emissions vehicle; BMW calls it “virtually emission-free.”
The Hydrogen 7 runs on either gasoline or hydrogen. When the car is in hydrogen mode and you floor the throttle, you might detect a high-pitch noise emanating from the engine bay. It is not the sound of a typical V-12, and it is not the sound of this particular V-12 when it is running on gasoline. But the noise is not unpleasant. And when using hydrogen, the car, which is based on the long-wheelbase 7 Series, drives exactly as it does when it is running on gas.
To the standard 7 Series platform, BMW has added a 25-gallon stainless steel tank that stores the hydrogen at a temperature of -253 degrees Celsius, the point at which the gas becomes a liquid. Think of the tank as the world’s best thermos; one BMW engineer claims that if you put Frosty the Snowman inside, he would not fully melt for 13 years. The tank consumes half of the car’s trunk space and, by forcing the rear seats closer to the front seats, it takes away almost 5 inches of rear leg space. However, neither seems to be a prohibitive price to pay for a car that produces virtually no emissions.
BMW, the only consistent proponent of using hydrogen to power fairly traditional internal combustion engines as a solution to future car-related problems (e.g., worldwide fossil fuel depletion), de-tuned the V-12 so that when it is using gasoline, it produces only 260 hp, as opposed to the 438 hp that the V-12 normally generates. BMW says it tinkered with the engine so that, as a driver switches back and forth between gasoline and hydrogen, the car performs exactly the same. By making this adjustment, BMW also concedes that, at least with current technology, when an otherwise enormously powerful V-12 is fueled by hydrogen, it produces only as much horsepower as a capable gas-powered motor of half its size and half its cylinders.
However, BMW understands that its hydrogen engine will have to produce more horsepower if it is to be accepted as a real alternative to gas engines. The company recognizes that throughout the world only a handful of liquid hydrogen pumping stations are operating, and it also foresees having to contend with the perception that hydrogen is dangerous, given its relationship to the Hindenburg disaster. The car emits trace amounts of nitrous oxide, so it is technically not a zero-emissions vehicle, and it has a range of only 125 miles on hydrogen, versus 300 on gasoline. (The engine switches to the gasoline tank automatically when the hydrogen runs out.) Furthermore, before a hydrogen car can be completely viable, science and industry must determine how to generate a sufficient volume of hydrogen without consuming fossil fuels to produce it. The challenges are large and many, but BMW will try to enlist some assistance.
Next year the automaker will distribute worldwide 100 Hydrogen 7 cars free of charge to drivers who are prominent in politics and business—people who can help build the infrastructure needed to make hydrogen cars viable. If you are influential enough, BMW might be in touch. If not now, then likely soon, for the company plans to build other cars powered by hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engines in the near future.
Hydrogen power might be BMW’s most forward-thinking innovation, but the company has made countless less dramatic ones in its recent history. In 1986, it introduced the first intermittent windshield wipers that varied their speed according to the car’s speed. The following year, BMW debuted a 5-liter, all-alloy V-12, becoming the first German carmaker to do so since the pre–World War II glory days of Mercedes-Benz and Maybach. Then it offered the first application of xenon headlamps, in 1991. Three years later, the 7 Series became the first vehicle with an occupant sensor in the front passenger seat to prevent unnecessary or potentially dangerous deployments of the car’s airbags.
As useful, comforting, and occasionally life-preserving as these advances might be, taken individually, each appears to be only a baby step in automotive progress. Such incremental achievements are to be expected from a corporation that has more than 100,000 employees and annual sales of almost $60 million. However, every now and then, BMW introduces a feature more exciting—and more obvious—than the liquid-cooled alternator, which it also debuted. Prior to the Hydrogen 7, the most recent example of such an introduction came in 2001, when BMW presented the 745i, which, like any radical departure from the norm, had its share of early critics.
The configuration of the 745i, part of the same 7 Series generation that forms the basis for the Hydrogen 7, was consistent with every BMW since 1961: front engine, rear-wheel drive, strut front suspension. But its proportions and details were alien to a brand—and a segment of the car market—known for clean, conservative styling. Most notably it had what would become known derisively as the Bangle Butt, named for BMW’s chief of design, Chris Bangle. (Actually it was Adrian van Hooydonk who designed the car; Bangle only approved the design. But the van Hooydonk Butt just does not have the same ring to it.) The 7’s tall, spare-surface trunk lid and relatively small, low-mounted taillights made it appear, at first glance, as if a steamer trunk had been left accidentally on the back of the car and then painted over.
The rest of the 7’s styling was unconventional as well. Its high, nearly unadorned body sides lent a thick and heavy look to the car. Its droopy headlights conveyed the impression that the car was profoundly unhappy. Critics, who had grown accustomed to a particular style from BMW, howled. Bangle was ruining the brand, they said. Many derided the car, and some ridiculed Bangle himself.
“It’s interesting,” says Tom Purves, CEO of BMW North America. “Going to auto shows several years ago, you got the distinct impression that people weren’t very happy with [Bangle]. Now, people are coming up to him and asking his opinion.”
Sales success of the 7—which garnered a larger share of the full-size luxury car market than any 7 Series since the model’s introduction in 1977—validated BMW’s change in styling. As elements of this new design—tall tails, diagonally slashing contour lines, soft forms interrupted by sharp creases—filtered down into successive BMWs, a curious thing happened. That much-maligned van Hooydonk Butt began appearing, albeit in subtler forms, on competing luxury cars. Consider, for example, the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the new Lexus LS460, and the Acura RL. Bangle’s signature smooth panels interrupted by sharp ridges (as seen on the Z4, 5 Series, 3 Series, and the new X5) seem to have informed the increasingly complex forms of Lexus’ new design aesthetic, as well as the shapes of Mercedes’ more recent efforts.“The 2001 model was full of innovations, and some were very, um, hotly discussed,” says Uwe Greiner, product manager for the 7 Series. “If you make a car innovative, and BMW customers expect that from us, then you have to show it in the design. And now you see it on many of our top competitors’ cars.”
Inside, the 745i was no less innovative and just as controversial. The company had moved its shifter from its traditional location on the center console to the steering column, and in the process it became a bizarre sort of spring-loaded toggle switch. Taking its place on the console was a large aluminum knob—the dreaded iDrive controller. The 7 Series’ styling (and that of subsequent BMWs) might have been polarizing, but this control system for the car’s entertainment, information, and climate was almost universally confounding.
Marshaling the myriad electronics systems under the control of one knob would seem to be a sensible idea, but the iDrive transformed formerly simple operations into multistep episodes. Nevertheless, Audi, Acura, and other manufacturers introduced their own versions of the iDrive within a couple of years.
Its flaws notwithstanding, the iDrive demonstrates BMW’s willingness to take chances on innovative concepts, and the company’s record of risky moves has only accelerated as the automaker has grown from the niche manufacturer that it was in the 1970s into an industry giant that sells 1.3 million cars per year.
For a company that dates to 1916, BMW’s history matters less to the brand than one might expect. Yes, throughout the years BMW has maintained the same logo: the blue-and-white stylized spinning airplane propeller that alludes to the company’s origin as an aircraft-engine manufacturer. Certainly the 328 roadster of the 1930s was an influential and technically impressive car. And, indeed, the 1956–59 Albrecht Goertz–designed 507 roadster remains one of the all-time most beautiful cars. Little of that matters, however, to the BMW of today.
The modern history of BMW began in 1960, when Herbert Quandt and his family, who had owned about 30 percent of the company’s stock, acquired 50 percent. Unable to find its way in post–World War II Germany, BMW had been foundering. It was suffering from a lack of brand identity, as evidenced by its building both the 12 hp bubble car, Isetta, and the ultraexpensive and exclusive 507 roadster. By 1959 BMW was hemorrhaging money at such a rate that it was nearly sold off to rival Daimler-Benz to become, essentially, Benz’s parts supplier for southern Germany. “No one in the company ever forgets that time,” says Purves. “You can trace our cultural origins to that crisis.”
Without the Quandts’ filling the white-knight role, BMW would be as relevant today as Wanderer or Cord. Instead, with the family’s commitment and its money, BMW introduced an all-new car that embodies almost all of the characteristics still associated with the brand. The so-called New Class of 1962, of which the 1500 was the first model, was a midpriced, rear-drive, inline-engine-powered sedan that rode comfortably and handled excellently. In other words, it was the definition of a modern BMW. The company did not build another roadster for 30 years, and it never again produced anything resembling the Isetta. Instead, BMW continued to refine the New Class concept.BMW’s cars projected a consistent image of well-engineered fun, and the company’s message was even more unwavering. When BMW North America was founded in 1975, the company roughly translated its German slogan and came up with “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” That simple and slightly arrogant slogan has been the company’s advertising line and guiding principle ever since.
In 1986, BMW enhanced the Ultimate Driving Machine when the company’s M division introduced the first M3. (Incidentally, that particular M3 was the first road vehicle to employ a two-stage intake manifold for better power generation at varying engine speeds.) The M division’s products eventually would include versions of the subsequent generations of the 3 Series, the 5 Series, the Z roadsters and coupes, and the 6 Series. Together, they formed a family of performance vehicles that BMW marketed as a unique brand. Mercedes followed suit by bringing independent performance shop AMG on board and following BMW’s game plan. Cadillac’s V-Series and Audi’s S-Series also show BMW’s influence.
Just as subbranding owes its origins to BMW, so does the concept of the modern sports sedan, specifically to the 2002. This was the vehicle that established the BMW brand in the United States in the late 1960s and the early ’70s and laid down the pattern for virtually all sports sedans that followed. American carmakers of that era generally viewed performance and practicality as mutually exclusive attributes. The 2002, however, embodied both traits. It, along with the 3 Series models that followed, charted a new course for premium performance cars—one that competing automakers still are trying to follow. Witness the Infiniti G35, the Lexus IS series, the Cadillac CTS, the Mercedes C-Class, and the Audi A4.
In 1999, BMW presented another new concept: the sporty sport-utility vehicle. Into a vehicle class that seemed inherently unsexy, BMW introduced the X5, which sacrificed off-road capability and cargo-hauling capacity for superior performance. The X5 outsold BMW’s more conventional performance/utility vehicle, the 540i station wagon, 40-to-1 in the years both were produced. Soon after the X5 came the Infiniti FX, the Porsche Cayenne, Land Rover’s Range Rover Sport, and the Cadillac SRX, among others.
An innovation is not always as obvious as creating a new vehicle class or changing the way a driver operates his car, yet it can be no less significant. BMW’s Valvetronic system uses an engine’s valves to eliminate throttle butterflies. It improves the engine’s efficiency and thus increases both fuel economy and power. The company’s use of exotic, lightweight materials including magnesium engine blocks and carbon-fiber body pieces usually is covered by either paint or a hood.
BMW credits its more recent innovations, both large and small, to a relatively flat corporate structure. While a company the size of BMW will never have the freewheeling atmosphere of a Silicon Valley start-up, it lacks some of the strict hierarchy common to large corporations. Employees are encouraged to create informal networks with other employees across traditional lines of departmental demarcation. “The culture of BMW is unique,” says Purves. “Employees, especially engineers, are given the freedom to come up with solutions.”
Perhaps an internal combustion engine that runs on liquid hydrogen, as seen in the Hydrogen 7, will become the norm for future motor vehicles. Or maybe it will end up as just a curious footnote in automotive history. Either way, it certainly will not be the last fresh idea from BMW.