BMW Designer Reveals How X5 Took Flight

Mon 8th Jun 2020


The man behind one of the most iconic vehicles of the BMW marque has revealed that the design for the company’s first SUV was sketched on a two hour flight.

Frank Stephenson is regarded one of the most influential automotive designers of his generation and it was during an eleven year spell with the German motoring giant that he was tasked with developing BMW’s famous X5.

In an interview with Car Throttle, Stephenson revealed that after BMW had acquired Rover Group in the 1990s, the company were keen to develop their own version of the Land Rover, and company executives wanted a full-size model in six weeks!

“The BMW X5 was BMW's first SUV, the car was based off the platform that BMW had acquired when it acquired Rover Group. BMW's decision was that it would love to see what a BMW Land Rover could look like,” Stephenson said.

“The brief was to show what a BMW SUV could look like in six months. Chris [Bangle - Design Boss] responded by saying we would come back with a sketch program and we will have some sketches on the wall and we will have a look at it and see which one best fits the image of a BMW. To which they responded, 'No, I actually want to see a full size model... those of us who are in design know that it is very difficult to prepare a full size model of a car in six weeks.

“Chris said there would be a couple of hours on a flight where I could come up with a design, that was a bit scary, to sit on an aeroplane and design a car in about two hours, it's not the easiest thing. I took up the challenge and came up with something that could reasonably be interpreted as a solution to this.”

Launched in 1999, the X5 is still going strong with its fourth generation which debuted in 2018, and though it was was designed as a SUV, it is actually branded as a Sports Activity Vehicle (SAV), which may owe something to the original team who built the design model, event though Stephenson was initially sceptical.

He said: “When I saw the workers it was a bit of a slack jawed moment from me because each of those gentlemen were no less than 70 years old, and my immediate reaction was were these guys capable of working 18 hours a day, seven days a week, six straight weeks - is that even possible?

“Chris said don't worry about the working capabilities of these three guys, they are the same guys in the last 1960s who had actually built the Lambourghini Miura, it was almost as if I was standing in front of Michael Angelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and Rembrandt - it was that kind of awe.”

Stephenson would go on to become Chief Designer at BMW before enjoying success with MINI, Fiat, Ferrari and McLaren, but it was the simplicity of which he designed the X5 which may best be remembered. How many other iconic cars are built on the fly?

“It was a quick lesson in a front end sketch of a vehicle which had never existed before, that had to be immediately recognised as having that BMW family feeling, BMW design characteristics of the 90s and still look fresh and innovative,” added Stephenson. “A lot of people still talk about the original X5 in good and friendly terms because I think it was the stepping stone, the first building block of BMW's commitment to start building off-road vehicles. 

“It was a real good start for BMW, as soon as it was sent back to BMW, as a six-week model, the acceptance was immediate from BMW and it went straight into production as the first ever BMW SUV.”

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