Next time you're stuck in traffic, or strolling through a parking lot, take a look at all the cars' lowest corners at the rear passenger window. How does the line along the bottom of the glass area intersect with the descending C-pillar? Is it a stark, perfunctory angle? Or is there a little curve that kicks back toward the front? This is not usually the place where an observer's eye will fall first, but it holds a great deal of significance—for Bavarian designers in particular when speaking about the BMW Hofmeister kink.
What goes on in this small space is as important an element of the company's styling vocabulary as the famed double kidney grille. This is where the Hofmeister knick, or kink, happens.
One of the big names in contemporary BMW styling is Ohio-born Chris Bangle, who created many influential lines between 1992 and 2009. He also presided over the looks of Mini and Rolls-Royce when he became group design chief in 2007. His thoughts on the BMW Hofmeister kink are enlightening.
"It would be better to use the German spelling 'Hofmeister Knick' not 'kink.' Less 'kinky.' It serves two purposes: one, it permits a reasonable-sized fixed glass triangle to give the rear door window a stabilizing 'straight' drop guide, permitting it to be as far back as possible and still get the glass down all the way. Secondly, it extends the daylight opening of the upper with its extra piece of glass and pushes the door's opening line far back over the wheelhouse, allowing a better entry/exit. If it is too 'pinched' and extended, it actually makes opening the door harder. But beginning the curve of the opening around such a 'knick' is a good way to get a useful opening."
The Hofmeister knick (let's obey Mr. Bangle) is named after Wilhelm Hofmeister, who worked at BMW from 1955 to 1970. As part of a styling team that developed the New Class Neue Klasse of BMW cars, he incorporated it into the '61 1500 compact sport sedan and it's been part of the corporate look ever since. As the C-pillar heads downward, it suddenly kinks forward at the pillar's base. This is meant to highlight the car's rear-wheel-drive configuration, another significant component of BMW's core identity.
"Wilhelm Hofmeister was one of the first design directors of BMW," Bangle says. "And, like all of us, passionate about what we do. He got his name attached to something he promoted."
That's right, the knick was not Hofmeister's invention. This shape had been used before as early as 1951 on the Kaiser Deluxe, an American car (despite the German name). Hofmeister was originally a mechanical engineer and had more of a reputation as a good manager than a creative artist. He was in charge of an in-house team but would also commission freelancers such as Giuseppe "Nuccio" Bertone, one of Italy's legendary designers.
Bertone's studio-come-coachworks penned and partially built around 600 examples of the BMW 3200 CS, a coupe whose rearward side windows sported the telltale curve. Both this and the 1500 debuted at the 1961 Frankfurt auto show. So perhaps Hofmeister's legacy owes Bertone a sizable debt of gratitude, since the Hof was no doubt well aware of what was being produced by his outside contractors.
The plot thickens, however, when we learn that a certain stylist who has since become another giant of Italian design, Giorgetto Giugiaro, was working for Bertone at the time. And he might well have been involved in penning the 3200 CS. Looking into the history of the C-pillar corner, Bangle says, "In my time, it evolved rapidly from a weld-and-fill rust generator of the 1960s and '70s to the cut-and-paste weld seam of the Audi and Opel uppers, to the one-piece fully integrated pillar and rear quarter-panel we know today, beginning with the E34 5 Series.
"I was at Fiat at the time and you had to be there to appreciate the shock the E34 had on all of us outside the BMW circle when that C-pillar debuted...super-elegant, it set the tone for all such intersections to come." Even if there are no new ideas under the sun, that doesn't stop other car companies from using the same good ones. The knick is now part of a wider car design language.
"One might think it an imposed restriction," Bangle says. "But in reality, it is quite a help when designing cars for the brand. The Hofmeister knick—never a 'dog-leg'—is a wonderfully rich motif and brand icon. Tuning that curve and arguing over the chrome trim—'Please, God, let them make it in one piece'—and all that goes with it is the stuff that makes designing fun.
"And personal. I would wager every 'mother' of a BMW feels only he or she could have made that knick just right. Principal designers on a car are always the car's 'mothers.' Those claiming to be the 'fathers' are too numerous to mention and some even try to get their DNA in long after the 'Conception Time is Over' bell has rung."
Kinks, however, are not necessarily sacred cows. Could there ever be a time when BMW might abandon its archetypal arc? Karim Habib, current head of BMW design since June 2012, says: "So much of what influences design is constantly changing, from consumer tastes, social values, and trends to various regulations.
Certain BMW design elements, like the Hofmeister kink, are constants that act as anchors for us. While these elements evolve over time, they allow us to maintain that essential BMW design character that has existed for 50 years."
Don't hold your breath waiting for a knick-less BMW, then.