Ethos

There’s Nothing Midcentury About Modern-Era BMWs

Reflecting on BMW's lineup while steeping in the Palm Springs aesthetic.

With their just-so sense of modernist style—particularly in the arenas of architecture, loud sport jackets, and cocktail sophistication—the denizens of Palm Springs, California, don’t get enough credit. They canonized an enduring and uniquely American hipster aesthetic back in the 1950s that’s percolated through the decades.

If anything, its appeal is even stronger today, as a visit to the city’s Modernism Week following a full-brand BMW ride-and-drive event in nearby Thermal confirmed. Legions of youthful lounge lizards came to inspect the crazy homes and gardens. Dressed like their old-time forebears but presumably with even greater senses of irony, they rolled and strolled through the Palm Springs streets alongside bespangled alter kockers in outfits so kitsch that one expected to find Joey Bishop around every corner. Old cars abounded.

Over at the BMW Performance Center driving school on the grounds of the Thermal Club track complex a day earlier, things were less cool and a lot colder and grayer. Temperatures fell into the 40s, and the sky opened, flooding thoroughfares never designed for biblical rainfall while closing roads, muddying shoes, and ruining moods. BMW had scheduled track days and plotted a series of on- and off-road driving routes to allow journalists by the hundred to spend quality time with vast swathes of its model line, including the new 3 and 8 Series and X7, plus the latest models from BMW-owned marques Rolls-Royce and Mini. This we hacks did, only now in a new, underwater setting.

As a counterpoint to BMW’s increasing bloat, I’d driven out from L.A. in a red Porsche 911 Carrera T with a seven-speed manual. The lightest of today’s 911 variants and refreshingly devoid of options, this car is stiffer, noisier, and altogether more raw than most of its siblings. Its clutch is heavy, frills are few, and acceleration is brutal when prodded. With a sticker of a hair more than $110,000, the T didn’t even seem expensive.

Not so the Rolls-Royce Cullinan, which can easily soak up $400,000 or more of your capital gains. My first drive in one was largely on the straight, desert farm roads for which it is best suited, though for a tall and heavy SUV it isn’t as unwieldy as you might fear. You would never mistake the Cullinan for beautiful, but it’s perfectly pleasant to occupy, and it certainly has presence. Nowadays, that usually seems to be more than sufficient.

The Cullinan has only two rows of seats, which surely holds out the promise of an even more expensive three-row Rolls SUV, just as the X7 must serve up an extra row over BMW’s X5—for as every good German knows, no market segment can go untended long. A three-row Mini can’t be far behind, and you wonder when the four-row crossover becomes every upscale mom and dad’s go-to.

Setting off for a one-hour driving loop in a BMW i8 (intriguing, and very good), I got lost on the premises of the 344-acre Thermal Club, consisting of four racetracks and a country club. Blundering to find outbound roads, I noticed expensive villas being built on the property, several of them backing up directly against the track. The facility is ringed by tall sound barriers to keep the noise contained, and several of the finished villas feature improbably tall garage doors to permit in-home parking of car haulers and tour buses. Surrounded by farms and distinctly unwealthy people, the level of surrealism is high.

The next day in Palm Springs, the sun came out and I was delighted to stumble upon a star embedded in a sidewalk celebrating Automobile contributor Bob Merlis, a music-business publicist of some distinction and part-time Palm Springs resident. I gave Bob a call and arranged an in-person introduction to his new Simca 1000 Bertone coupe and pillarless 1973 Sedan de Ville with the Maharajah cloth interior and less than 15,000 original miles, a gift from a relative. Also at his fab modernist home, we came across a bevy of Studebakers, including his cherished Avanti. To give a sense of where this town is collectively, two other people on Bob’s street also own the sporty Studebaker, the Loewy-designed coupe being an enduring talisman of Palm Springs style. Modernism is the new classicism.

Meanwhile, I also learned that despite a growth spurt, 911s are still the bomb. And BMWs are quickly growing larger while their grilles grow larger even faster. As the old folk in Palm Springs might say, they ought to get a doctor to take a look at that.

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