It is a rule that at every gathering there always has to be that one awkward individual. Whether by accident or by design, there will be someone who will stand out from the crowd for all the wrong reasons. If the individual in question was a car, and the event was the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show, it would have been none other than BMW’s 4 Concept. 

The 4 Concept was an otherwise attractive svelte coupe that had the misfortune of turning up to the party with a whacking big vertical front grille that had all the grace and subtlety of a whacky Met Gala get up at a funeral. To strut out unabashedly at Europe’s biggest motor show, it is little wonder why every conservative critic was unanimous in giving the 4 Concept a good kicking. 

Perhaps the most egregious thing about the 4 Concept was that, without its obnoxious nostrils, there was plenty of like about its appearance. The concept had sleek – if predictable – lines, sharper details, and all the hallmarks of what could be a future example of classic elegance. If only people judged from the rump, up the hips, right up the flanks and stop before its face. Then again, as a concept it is understandable that isn’t quite the direction designers would want to take. 

On the face of it, it almost seemed as though BMW was pushing the boundaries of design expectations for shock value. A bold and bombastic play to wrangle the attention of some eyeballs. But BMW isn’t stopping at that.

For all intents and purposes, it seems as though BMW had turned a blind eye to all the criticisms levied at the enlarged nostrils of the 7 Series and the X7, and have confirmed that what showgoers were seeing was pretty much how the next 4 Series will look like, and the offending grille will be destined for future models. So don’t pack away those torches and pitchforks just yet non-believers. 

Some of the more emphatic of observers would come to the 4 Concept’s defence by highlighting BMW’s historic pre-war models such as the 328 that featured long vertical kidney grilles that stretched from where the bonnet ended to the tip of its chin, and not forgetting the narrow vertical grille arrangement of the Neue Klasse models of the 1960s. As valid as such counter-arguments are, what most critics find repulsive about the 4 Concept was the jarring and brash execution of the grille rather than its mere orientation. 

Rather than scramble towards histrionics or passing it off as pure ineptitude, there is a better way to justify the 4 Concept’s daring grille, and that is context. Context is the foundation on which any artwork communicates its message and meaning. After all, if Andy Warhol would just be a chicken soup lover if the context of the era from which he lived in wasn’t taken into account, we should at least take a look at what a car should look like in the era we live in. 

With more and more people living and spending most of their time in cities it is only fair that a near-production concept such as the 4 Concept is framed in such an environment. An environment that is surrounded by towering brutalist works of structural expressionism, with the unearthly glow of neon lights illuminating the streets and vying for our attention. Dropping something with the restrained classical elegance of a Jaguar E-Type in the middle of such an environment would be as jarring as tweed at a rave. 

Photo by Christopher Burns

It is the reality we live in that explains why the gratuitous grilles of Audi, Lexus, and Hyundai seems to find a ready audience with the inhabitants of the relatively-young population centres of Asia and America. Environments where modern structures of metal and glass dominate the surroundings rather than the brick and mortar of the old world.

This is in stark contrast to the traditionalist world view where such coupes would often reside, in the quiet and inviting suburbs, rather than the busy and often unfeeling machinations of commerce at the heart of any city. Similarly, the 4 Concept would be a discordant assault on the senses when parked on the front porch of a French Riviera chateau but, otherwise, fitting to be seen swagger out of any locked underground carpark beneath a towering glass monolith of finance and business. After all you wouldn’t hang a Monet as a centrepiece in a building designed by Norman Foster.

Like it or not, BMW might be onto something with the 4 Concept. In much the same way how Chris Bangle’s redefined BMW’s products 17 years ago with the divisive fourth-generation 7 Series, the 4 Concept’s bold and confrontational grille might be the touch it needs to revitalise its recent lacklustre design endeavours. If anything BMW could do with a touch of controversy, and based on the “fallout” at Frankfurt, they might be hitting the right notes.

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