I’m a big fan of the BMW Group Classic YouTube channel where I amately, the German carmaker has been to pull the covers off never before seen prototypes that inspired the production Bimmers we all know today. Over the last couple of months, we have seen a one-time development E36 M3 compact and a X6 predecessor, and today’s topic is even stranger.
It’s called ZBF 7s, and if you watched previous video on the X6-like high-speed passenger compartment called ICE, you may have seen this weirdness hiding in the background.
ZBF 7s were created in 1996 – two years after the start of production of the E38 7 series, but five years before the polarizing E65 7 series came on the market. As such, it represents a strange middle ground, a kind of stopgap between the reserved, stoic and utilitarian BMWs of the 90s, and the Bangleization that will follow.
“ZBF” is actually a German acronym which translates to “future BMW family”, and “7s” is literally “sevens.” The prototype is completely drivable, and Joji Nagashima, BMW designer and creative director, notes that the processes used to create it were remarkably old-school.
The tires, for example, were hand-cut, and Nagashima himself drew the pattern. No exact size diameter is presented in the video, although the designer says that the 19-inch tire was the largest on the market at the time, and ZBF’s rubber had to be specially ordered from Dunlop. Even the body was made of metal hammered into shape, an old body technique that BMW had to go to a store in Italy to have done.
Then we move on to the interior, which may be my favorite aspect of this car. It is very much in line with what would have been considered trendy luxury at the time, with lots of aluminum and light-toned wood that accentuate beige leather upholstery.
I would not say that it looks modern anymore, with the thick dash and the long, unbroken lamella climate outlet that runs almost the entire width of the interior, but it still seems like a very refreshing place to be. Just below the small infotainment screen is a dial that will eventually transform into the iDrive system – with matching wheels for rear seat passengers. iDrive haters, you can direct your contempt towards this concept. It started here.
While eagle eye viewers will notice that the ZBF 7s lack side mirrors, it does not leave you without a way to check your surroundings. Instead, there are cameras mounted on the A-pillar. I shudder when I think of the image quality this optic would have produced 25 years ago, but when I look at the interior, I also wonder how you see feeds from them. There appear to be two rectangular cutouts at each end of the top of the dashboard – perhaps they contained screens that turned up while you were driving.
Strange that the video never at any point acknowledges what you probably first noticed about ZBF – that’s it, shall we say bold front-end design. Refer to references to the current 4 Series with the elongated kidney grill. The headlights are also weird, as they are angular and blocking despite the rest of the outside not being angled and blocking. They collide with the rounded kidneys and create a difficult, dated face that goes against the car’s future-oriented ethos. Strangely enough, we also never get to see the back of the sedan.
But it is the grating juxtaposition of old and new BMW that makes this prototype so interesting to begin with. The seeds of the E65, the big BMW sedan that everyone feels in one way or another, started here.