Any discussion about contemporary BMW styling simply cannot happen without big kidney grilles being mentioned. The X7 and facelifted G11 7-series paved the way, and now, it’s more of a surprise when a new BMW (like the G42 2-series) comes without giant nostrils.
However, as proven by the ‘7er ZBF’ concept, BMW mulled over a grille upsizing programme a whole lot earlier. Built way back in 1996, the ZBF (Zukunft BMW Familie or ‘Future BMW Family) was designed by Joji Nagashima, a man with the E36 and E90 3-series, the E39 5-series and the Z3 all on his CV. And yes, at the front of this prototype is a pair of tall kidney grilles. The car hadn’t been seen by the public until very recently, and this week, it was showcased via an ‘Inside BMW Group Classic’ YouTube video (below).
Just a couple of years into the life of the E38 7-series, BMW was already wondering how its future luxo-barges might shape up. The result was a much bigger car than the E38, so large that it needed 20-inch wheels to fill its massive arches. 20s were unusual back then, so Dunlop had to make a hand-cut set of tyres especially for the car, featuring a tread pattern devised by Nagashima.
Unlike BMW’s current cars, the ZBF married its large kidney grilles with far more understated bodywork. There’s a notable absence of fussy lines, although the car’s flanks are livened up with a bigger, more retro take on the side ‘gills’ the manufacturer uses on much of the current line-up.
Giving an incredibly early preview of design elements we’re seeing much more of in the 2020s, the ZBF also featured retractable door handles and cameras in place of traditional wing mirrors. Despite all this futuristic stuff going on, though, the concept’s body was built in a very old school way - the panels were hand-beaten by coachbuilders in Italy.
Inside, the shape of the dash is similar to that of the E65 7-series revealed in 2001, but with a much more interesting blend of materials. The car also features an early forerunner to the iDrive system, although here, the famous rotary control is fitted between both the front and the rear seats.
So, although the E65 went a very different way stylistically with its modest-sized grille and infamous ‘Bangle Butt’, the ZBF still ended up having plenty of production car relevance. We can’t help but wonder what the following 20 years might have been like had the ZBF’s look been adopted, though. Something for those savvy enough with Photoshop to play around with, perhaps.