Avoidable Contact #89: If BMW were a person, would this be a cry for help?

BMW iDrive old vs new commercial column thumb

“Hey, Grandpa! Have you been sniffin’ at the gas pumps too long?” And with that witty phrase, we’re ready for the longest four minutes and seven seconds you’ve ever spent on the Internet. The plot of this BMW i-something video goes like so: A new electric BMW SUV (the iX) arrives at a museum, where it is bullied by an early-production BMW 760Li sedan. Bullied, you ask? Yes, because both of the cars are alive and can talk. The 760Li, which at the age of 19 is not old enough to drink vodka or rent from Hertz, talks like a crusty old grandfather; the iX has a smooth, female, insufferably superior voice.

Humiliated by the obvious technological (and moral!) superiority of Female Electric Wagon, the 7 Series yells a few swear words before having a toxic masculine breakdown and running (er, driving) away in tears. The iX has to find him and reassure him that he “used to be really cool.” Then they decide to share a parking spot together; it’s unclear whether or not this is meant to be some sort of May-December romantic fling or not. (Readers who are, shall we say, of a certain age will perhaps note the similarities to famous Saturday morning cartoon Little Johnny Jet.) The museum curators, who are portrayed as alternately stupid and lazy, agree to forget anything they saw. THE END.

Nearly every automaker in the business has been shamelessly mining the often shallow veins of its “heritage” in new-car marketing since well before that oh-so-cranky 760Li rolled off the assembly line, but this profoundly odd video is something new: It’s an attempt to puff up the new product by humiliating and minimizing what’s gone before. The closest campaign I can recall is probably the infamous “This Is Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile” series of ads, meant to promote the W-body, Saturn-shaped front-wheel-drive Cutlass Supreme back in the ’80s. That was both cringeworthy and ridiculous, but it was also really just a straightforward attempt to get “import intenders” to change their gas-guzzler image of the brand.

This BMW video, by contrast, burns the Bavarian village of brand equity in a feckless attempt to save it. One unusually bright fellow on Twitter suggested that the whole thing is some kind of underhanded ploy to rehabilitate the tattered reputation of the E65 Siebener, often considered to be the worst “big BMW” in the company’s history. Nearly everything that could go wrong with that car did, in fact, go wrong, from the avant-garde but profoundly unlovely styling, to unpredictable antics on the part of the Microsoft-based first-generation iDrive, to a reliability record that could strike fear into the heart of a Russian oligarch. While it’s true that the 7 Series has never received much critical acclaim, with even the handsomer examples suffering from a diverse ensemble of mechanical maladies, the 2001–05 models are often considered to have approximately the same place in the marque history that Requiem For A Dream has in the film oeuvre of Jennifer Connelly.

It’s a nice theory, but I don’t think the BMW marketing crew is that sophisticated. This is the second time in six months that the company has attempted to denigrate its past in order to sell the iX, the first being a social-media disaster in which BMW responded to critics of its new i-cars with a deliberately insulting “OK, Boomer.” You get the very strong sense that BMW:

  • is determined to go all-in on battery-powered cars; and
  • thinks its entire history and legacy is a handicap, not an asset, in that headlong flight towards political salvation.

Perhaps the choice of the unloved 760Li is subtler than it seems; how much more upset would the fanatics and loyalists be if the marketeers had used a 2002tii, E28 M5, or V-8 “Lime Rock” M3 as the target of their derision? The V-12-powered E65 owner base isn’t going to complain, since they long ago had to choose between paying for Internet service or buying the requisite number of high-pressure fuel pumps needed to keep the cars going. (In fairness, if you are willing to be patient and do the work yourself, a 2006 or so 760Li is a delightful way to experience that Maximum Autobahn Sedan feeling, thanks to its 439 horsepower and unflappable high-speed demeanor.)

Your humble author’s experience with BMWs is neither extensive nor negligible; I learned to drive in my father’s five-speed 733i, worked for both David Hobbs BMW and a newly-independent BMW Financial Services before the turn of the century, bought a new 330i Sport back in 2001, and managed to win an endurance race in a borrowed E30-generation 325i about five years ago. I don’t think there’s anything special or irreplaceable about the brand; in fact, when people tell me they are buying an M3 I tell them to buy a Corvette, and when people tell me they are buying a club-race BMW I tell them to buy a K-swapped Honda Civic so they can go faster with less effort. So why am I utterly horrified by this rather crass video and all of its implications? Why do I take it personally?

Maybe I’m tired of the hip-young-woman-replaces-worthless-old-man trope that is seen nowadays everywhere from banking websites to television advertisements, usually accompanied by some Kindergarten Communist art in which all the people are flat doodles. As I approach late middle age, with a personal repair record to rival that of a daily-driven 760Li and a resale value that is even worse, I can’t help but wonder if our indifferently educated and ideologically fervent younger generations are, in fact, equal to the task of keeping the bridges and airplanes securely over our heads. I should note that my father’s generation thought the same thing about my generation. I should also note that their concern was justified. It’s hard not to feel suffocated by a world that has embraced mediocrity to the point that the current Boeing 737 is apparently more dangerous than the 1966 original.

Alternately, perhaps I’m genuinely sad for BMW and the people who work there. They had a wonderful 40-year period from the first 2002 to the last V-8 M3 where it often seemed as if they could do no wrong. Even their bad cars vibrated with a sort of tangible enthusiasm—a sorted 528e stick shift is more fun than any 127-horsepower big sedan has a right to be—and the good ones were unforgettable. True, we griped about them when they were new, the 2002 enthusiasts decrying the 320i and the E46 fanatics bemoaning the E90, but in the end we were often won over by their virtues, willing to canonize them as they depreciated into road-course affordability. And the brand identity stayed consistent. You recognized a BMW when you saw one. The company’s most cynical efforts could occasionally thrill us; the first X5 was a gorgeous vehicle and so much closer to the intent of its sedan counterparts than anything from any of the competition.

To this very day, BMW knows how to make you feel special behind the wheel. My 75-year-old father recently wandered out of his Southern home and bought, of all things, a black-on-black M240i convertible. With all-wheel drive. By all rights it should be a horrid little mish-mash, the ugly Harkonnen villain to the handsome Atreides Duke known as the M2 Comp Coupe—but in reality it’s a blast to drive and he loves it. It runs twelves in the quarter-mile, the same way a big-block Corvette couldn’t quite run them when Dad came home from Vietnam. Didn’t even cost that much, compared to the clunky SUVs surrounding it on the roads.

Henry Ford might have said “History is bunk,” but nobody really believed him until recently. We’ve become obsessed, as a society, with the tearing down of anything that might remind us of a past in which we were not personally the narcissistic center of everyone’s attention. Raised on the shoulders of giants, given world peace by Reagan and abundant food by Borlaug and cheap computing by Grove, we’ve decided to devote ourselves to an endless spiral of ideological pursuits, a circular firing squad in which the loudest accusations are always taken at face value by hordes of people who have lost any connection with the ancient art of critical thinking. In such a world, is it any surprise that this advertisement for BMW is, in fact, an advertisement for the cancellation of BMW as we once knew it? For the unpersoning of the ambitious 12-cylinder 760Li and all the engineers who struggled to make it work despite its unprecedented complexity? For the ridicule of the past, so it no longer outshines the penny-ante present?

It may well be the case that the new BMW iX is a very good car; it may well be the case that the 2002 BMW 760Li (which was not the car that introduced iDrive, by the way; that’s sloppy scriptwork) was a very bad car. Nevertheless, this video, with its witches’ brew of arrogance and ignorance, is not how I would prefer to be informed of these facts. I hope that fellow on Twitter was right. I hope the most common reaction to this video is a deep and renewed interest in maintaining and even restoring those ugly old “big-body Bimmers.” I hope there are some young people out there who see it on YouTube and have an American Graffiti-style reaction to it. I’d like to see a couple of “Zoomers” bring their newly-acquired V-12 sedans out to the next cars and coffee. “Hey, Grandson! Have you been sniffin’ at the high-pressure fuel pump too long?”

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