I’m a big fan of the BMW Group Classic YouTube channel where lately, the German automaker has been pulling the covers off never-before-seen prototypes that inspired the production Bimmers we all know today. Over the last couple of months we’ve seen a one-off E36 M3 Compact and an X6 predecessor, and today’s subject is even weirder.
It’s called the ZBF 7er, and if you watched the previous video on the X6-like high-riding coupe called the ICE, you may have seen this oddity hiding in the background.
The ZBF 7er was created in 1996 — two years after the beginning of the E38 7 Series’ production, but five years before the polarizing E65 7 Series hit the market. As such, it represents a weird in-between, some sort of stop gap between the reserved, stoic and utilitarian BMWs of the ’90s, and the Bangleization that would follow.
“ZBF” is actually a German acronym that translates to “future BMW family,” and “7er” is quite literally “seven-er.” The prototype is completely drivable, and Joji Nagashima, BMW designer and creative director, notes that the processes that went into creating it were remarkably old-school.
The tires, for example, were hand cut, and Nagashima himself drew the tread pattern. No exact size of the diameter is presented in the video, though the designer says that 19-inch tires were the largest available on the market at the time, and the ZBF’s rubber had to be specially-ordered from Dunlop. Even the body was made of metal hammered into shape, an old coachbuilding technique that BMW had to go to a shop in Italy to have done.
Then we move to the interior, which might be my favorite aspect of this car. It very much falls in line with what would have been considered trendy luxury at the time, with lots of aluminum and light-toned wood accentuating beige leather upholstery.
I won’t say it looks modern anymore, with its chunky dash and long, unbroken slatted climate vent running nearly the whole width of the interior, but it still seems like a very refreshing place to be. Right below the tiny infotainment screen is a dial that would eventually transform into the iDrive system — with an accompanying dial for backseat passengers. iDrive haters, you can direct your contempt at this concept. It started here.
While eagle-eyed viewers will notice that the ZBF 7er lacks side mirrors, it doesn’t leave you without a way to check your surroundings. Instead, there are cameras mounted on the A-pillar. I shudder to think of the image quality these optics would have produced 25 years ago, but looking at the interior, I’m also wondering how you’d see the feeds from them. There looks to be two rectangular cutouts on either end of the top of the dash — perhaps they contained displays that flipped up while driving.
Weirdly, at no point does the video ever acknowledge the thing you probably noticed first about the ZBF — its very, shall we say bold front-end design. Cue the references to the current 4 series with that elongated kidney grille. The headlights are also strange, in the way they’re angular and blocky despite the rest of the exterior not being at all angular and blocky. They clash against the rounded kidneys, creating an awkward, dated face that contradicts the car’s forward-thinking ethos. Strangely, we never get to see the rear of the sedan either.
But it’s that jarring 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 some type of way about, started here.