BMW’s Return to The Big Grille Actually Dates Back to 1996 and This 7 Series Concept Proves It - story fullscreen Fullscreen

BMW’s Return to The Big Grille Actually Dates Back to 1996 and This 7 Series Concept Proves It

This 1996 BMW ZBF Concept shows how the BMW E65 7 Series would have looked with a long kidney grille and a more retro-futuristic design

The topic of BMW’s large kidney grille is still a much-debated one. The prolonged grille design is actually a design cue that dates back to the 1930s, with cars like the 1936 BMW 328. Now, the long kidney grills have made a return, with most of BMW’s current lineup proudly wearing it (or shamefully, depending on how you’re looking at it). However, BMW’s recent decision to bring back this grille design isn’t as recent as you may think. Back in 1996, Joji Nagashima – the exterior designer behind the E36 and E90 3 Series came up with an interesting concept that paved the way for the controversial E65 7er. It was called the ZBF 7er and was the first concept to bring back the long kidney grille.

BMW's Return to The Big Grille Actually Dates Back to 1996 and This 7 Series Concept Proves It
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Designer Joji Nagashima has been with BMW for over 30 years and talks about its 1996 creation. ZBF actually stands for “Future BMW Family’, translated from German. The car very much resembles an E65, but with some design features from the old E38. Of course, the E65 7 Series came years later, so it was actually the Chris Bangle-designed model that seems to have drawn heavy inspiration from the 1996 ZBF 7er.

What we notice about the ZBF 7er is the extremely clean design, especially on the side, where we see a complete absence of crests and curves. It’s just a clean uninterrupted surface. In order to not be too boring, Nagashima has given the 1996 concept side gills, inspired by the BMW E9 3.0 CSL.

The 7er also featured side-mounted cameras instead of rearview mirrors, in order to improve the sedan's aerodynamics.
BMW's Return to The Big Grille Actually Dates Back to 1996 and This 7 Series Concept Proves It
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Another unique feature is the bespoke 20-inch wheels and Dunlop tires. "In the 1990s, 19 inches was the biggest tire size", the designer mentions. The tire treading was actually cut by hand. Talk about attention to detail.

The body of the ZBF 7er was actually made from metal, by using an old coachbuilding technique that involves hammering the body panels into the desired shape by hand. Nagashima points out that very few coachbuilders in Italy are still using this method. Nagashima first completed a clay model of the 7er, after which he sent it to an Italian coachbuilder.

BMW's Return to The Big Grille Actually Dates Back to 1996 and This 7 Series Concept Proves It
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Looking at the interior, you will notice the same layout we know from the E65 7 Series. The 1996 concept also featured iDrive before it was even a thing on production cars. It even had a joystick at the back that would have allowed the rear-seat passengers to control various functions. The idea was, of course, to replace many of the physical buttons with this system. Something that eventually happened.

The best part is that the 1996 BMW ZBF 7er was a fully drivable car.

Joji Nagashima explains how the board embraced the concept and one of the members even expressed desire to go to an event with it. Would you have loved to see a 7 Series looking like this in the late 1990s? Also, do you think it looks better than the E65 that was inspired by it?

Dim Angelov
Dim Angelov
Born in 1992, I come from a family of motoring enthusiasts. My passion for cars was awoken at the age of six, when I saw a Lamborghini Diablo SV in a magazine. After high school I earned a master’s degree in marketing and a Master of Arts in Media and Communications. Over the years, I’ve practiced and become skilled in precision driving and to date have test driven more than 250 cars across the globe. Over the years, I’ve picked up basic mechanical knowledge and have even taken part in the restoration of a 1964 Jaguar E-Type and an Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint. Lately, I’ve taken a fancy to automotive photography, and while modern cars are my primary passion, I also have a love for Asian Martial Arts, swimming, war history, craft beer, historical weapons, and car restoration. In time, I plan my own classic car restoration and hope to earn my racing certificate, after which I expect to establish my own racing team.  Read full bio
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