By on December 13, 2011

There I was, at the top of the Sella pass, enjoying a sandwich while taking in the breathtaking view of Italy’s Dolomite Alps. I was a week-and-a-half deep into a much-needed vacation from the rewarding but demanding challenges of running TTAC, and work was the last thing on my mind (besides gathering my thoughts on the vehicle I had just nursed up the snowy pass). Then, all of a sudden, I looked up from my ham-and-cheese and caught a glimpse of the notorious psychedelic swirls used by automakers to hide their forthcoming vehicles from, well, people like me.

In an instant, my sandwich went flying as I lunged for my DSLR and hopped out of the car. Being a writer, not a photographer, I fumbled with the lens cap, losing valuable seconds, and the element of surprise. The sharp-eyed test drivers saw my camera just as I started snapping, and like a flock of startled birds, the three cars sped off down the road. Not even knowing what I had just seen, I heard the blood roaring in my ears, as a great bucketload of adrenalin hit my system. I had just gone from lunching tourist to erlkönigjaeger in a matter of seconds. And like any hunter, I was flush with the thrill of the hunt.

In sober retrospect, I must confess to being a little bit disappointed with both my accidental find and my response to it. First of all, I should have recognized at least one clue that a test convoy was coming: just as I had started eating my sandwich, a brand-new BMW 6-series whipped around a corner, kicking up a rooster tail of snow as it hung out its tail out to an extent that mere mortals would never attempt on such a challenging, snow-covered road. Then, after it reached the summit where I was stuffing my face in my parked car, it turned around and headed back down the eastern side. No normal human being buys a brand-new 6er in order to expertly whip it around a snowy, switchback-laden mountain pass on a Tuesday afternoon… this was a trained driver, scouting the route for the coming erlkönig convoy. At the moment, however, I was simply impressed with the skill of the driver, and didn’t think twice before returning my attention to my sandwich.

When I did finally notice the convoy that had stopped directly in front of me, I struggled at first to identify the cars. Over the past ten days or so of plying European roads, I’ve noticed a few new BMW 1 Series Sportwagons (F20), but I wasn’t able to instantly recognize the two camo-clad vehicles as such. In fact, I also lost valuable seconds staring at what I thought was a Vauxhall or Holden badge, trying to piece together what version of the Astra might be plying these remote alpine roads. Then, after taking the pictures posted here, I attempted to decipher what I had seen through my camera’s display, and my initial though upon seeing the photo at the top of this post was that I had just seen an un-camouflaged four-door sedan version of the Einser sandwiched between the two mules. Which, in a way, I had… what this photo proves, as much as anything else, is how similar BMW’s 3 Series and 1 Series really are. Looking at the photos on my laptop now, I see that the only real discovery I made was that the forthcoming 128i (likely the highest-performing version of the F20, in the absence of an M version) will have twin exhausts.

So, perhaps my discovery wasn’t ground-breaking. Perhaps these photos won’t provide a profound insight into any future BMW models, most especially any BMWs bound for American shores. But the thrill of my accidental erlkönigjagd was enough to make my day… and perhaps our eagle-eyed Best and Brightest will spot something I haven’t. In any case, here are all the pictures I managed to snap.



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18 Comments on “TTAC’s Accidental Erlkönig: BMW Test Mules Spotted In The Italian Alps...”

  • avatar

    Bonus! Looks like your vacation just became a tax deduction. Well, at least write off the sandwich…

  • avatar

    WOW! A 1 that looks good!

  • avatar

    As a former prototype test driver, I have to say I developed a strong dislike for folks who think they are spy photographers. We had inflexible protocol that absolutely had to be followed, to the letter, every time someone pointed a camera our way — regardless of how many spy photos of the vehicle had already been published. Please be aware jobs are at stake every time you do this. At best, everyone in the group misses an opportunity for a lunch or bathroom stop.

    The real spy photographers are tipped off ahead of time and make their photos safely without risking the drivers’ jobs.

    • 0 avatar

      If they’re really trying not to be seen, they’re totally going about it the wrong way. Psychedelic cloth that screams “I’m a prototype” is the wrong approach.

      I think they’re actually trying to get photographed for publicity purposes. Would Ed have strayed from his sandwich if it wasn’t for that psychedelic camo? If the camo was body color, he would never have noticed. If it wasn’t covered with camo, would Mercedes or Audi rush out and implement some sheet metal detail in their own cars from the photograph?

      If someone really wanted info, they could get right past the camo. Ultrasound or other methods could easily get through the camo to see the sheet metal. Ultra small cameras dropped in pavement expansion joints in places where prototypes are common like Enterprise Dr. in Allen Park MI could photograph the undercarriage. Analysis of the vehicles “electronic footprint” could give information about a vehicles drivetrain and engine. All done without tipping off the driver that something is up by pointing a camera in his direction.

      A little exotic for sure and it probably doesn’t actually happen, but the point is that if anyone wanted serious usable competitive information, a little bit of spanx over the sheetmetal isn’t going to slow them down.

    • 0 avatar

      Remember this post when you see something in a public place that’s out of the ordinary or unusually interesting. You won’t, of course, you’ll be taking a picture of it.

      Anything in public is fair game. If you don’t want to share space with the unwashed tax-payer then do your business on your own privately funded roads. No? Thought not.

    • 0 avatar

      If they weren’t covered in psychadelic wrap, they’d look like every other generic BMW hatchback piddling around the mountains. From the photos, and at first glance, they resembled some new VW Golf.

      Hardly exciting.

      I’m betting that if they weren’t covered in the weird body wraps, no one would even NOTICE that they were new models and just look the other way. If you want to hide something, hide it in plain sight. The more attention you draw to a suspected test mule, the more likely people are going to snap photos of it and post it all over the web (which I recall is perfectly legal to do in our free society–for now).

      And the fact that at least one appears to be a 1-series hatch means the Bavarians won’t ship them over to the US because here we want crappy crossosovers instead of functional wagons.

    • 0 avatar

      Had no idea there were protocols to follow when a camera was pointed at you. I’m surprised nobody’s asking what those procedures were like, although I imagine it involves covering up certain parts of the car and driving away very quickly.

    • 0 avatar

      Most of the car companies selling product in North America test their cars for radio frequency interference not far from my house. There are lots of broadcast towers around here. Somewhere I have a sequence of photos showing some Japanese Denso engineers trying to put their hands in front of my camera to keep me from shooting what was at the time the next Cadillac STS. Most of the engineers and drivers from the Big 3 are pretty cool about it and I’ve been able to talk cars with them. Some of the foreigners freak out, though, when I walk up to the car and ask them “testing for RFI?”.

      Ah, found it:

  • avatar

    Quote “The real spy photographers are tipped off ahead of time and make their photos safely without risking the drivers’ jobs.”

    That doesn’t really make them spy photographers, more like hand picked publicity partners.

    As for risking their jobs, why? Because right now, damn near every single person is a potential spy photographer with the ubiquitous smart phone/camera.

    If you lose your job over that, sorry, you’re on public roads and that just comes with the territory. If you want privacy to go a private track with no public access. Then you can complain, but on a public road, you just have to live with it.

    @Ed, nice job, I also think that most of us would’ve been a bit dumbstruck and just looked at the cars instead of thinking about our cameras. Glad you could get some pictures and I agree, the difference in style between a 1 series and a 3 series is very small. Seems to be very typical of German cars in general these days.

  • avatar

    “There I was, at the top of the Sella pass, enjoying a sandwich while taking in the breathtaking view of Italy’s Dolomite Alps. ”

    I would have been more excited seeing pictures of the scenery; but, good work anyway.

    • 0 avatar

      Now that you mention it, was the sandwich any good? Did you get another one?

      • 0 avatar

        pgcooldad: This is still a car site, right? There will be a car review here shortly, featuring photos shot just minutes before I began eating lunch.

        daveainchina: The sandwich was fabulous. Fresh Austrian bread, Iberico cheese, local ham and a little beer mustard (all from a normal grocery store)… it’s possible to eat extremely well in Europe without spending too much, if you do your own shopping. Luckily I had nearly finished by the time it went flying.

        rocketrodeo: Thanks for the perspective. Feedback from folks on the other side of the laptop/camera lens is what makes this site so magical. All I can say is that I was acting on pure instinct in the moment.

        graham: The badge actually says 118i, which I believe to be a red herring. The link in the OP to a German forum shows (in the words “the forthcoming 128i”) confirms that I’m not the only person to see this mule (or one just like it), and the consensus from Germany is that it’s a 128i (the rev limiter is set at 7000 rpm and the speedometer goes to 260 km/h). The wheels on the mule are currently available on the new (F20) 1 series Sportwagon, but that car is not available with dual exhausts (even on mules confirmed to have “M Package” components)… and there won’t be a true M version of the F20. But again, I urge TTAC’s readers to look through the photos and see if I missed any clues that might confirm or deny my conclusions. I have seen photos of very early F20 development mules with double exhausts, plus it could be a diesel version, etc.

  • avatar

    This certainly brings back memories.

    A few years ago, at the opening of the South Florida Auto Show, I spotted an unfamiliar-looking SUV with a Hyundai badge on its nose at a parking lot near the convention center where the show was held. As the SUV left the parking lot, I gave chase, with my son, who was riding shotgun and happened to have an SLR camera with him for a college journalism class, snapping away.

    Alas, by the time I found spy photog Brenda Priddy’s contact information, Hyundai had already let the cat out of the bag and unveiled the current Veracruz.

    • 0 avatar

      A few years back, I saw a camoed Veracruz on the GW Parkway across the Potomac from DC. At the time, I didn’t have a smart phone/camera with me, and I still rue the day. There went my chance to be a spy photog!

  • avatar

    It’s pretty exciting to see new sheet metal that no one else has seen yet. I grew up in the shadow of GM’s Lordstown plant, I’d seen a great number of their upcoming cars back when I lived near there.

    Where I lived in Atlanta, I would routinely see the Ford plant testing cars, sometimes ones that weren’t shown in public yet. Of course, this was before we all had cell phones with cameras. I would also see testers from the Doraville plant, I can still remember seeing the first versions of the U-body, driving in traffic on the top of I-285. It had Opel badges on it, which was really strange to see.

    Now that I live in Michigan, it’s not uncommon to see prototypes or pre production cars. The car companies use the roads around the western Detroit suburbs and I-94 over to Kalamazoo a lot, it seems to me.

    In the 13 years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen pre production versions of many of the domestic makers cars. I see them so often, I don’t even bother thinking about taking photos of them; it’s like seeing deer near the side of the road sometimes.

  • avatar

    What lead you to believe that was really a 128i with the twin exhausts? If it was the badge on what was an otherwise camouflaged test car…I’d reconsider that conclusion.

    • 0 avatar

      The badge on the partially grey einer says 116i if im not mistaken, the 116 doesn’t have twin exhausts. The models that have been released so far also have a different bumper. At least the 120d Sport 5-door i drove a while ago did not have a bumper like that. Nice car to drive by the way.

  • avatar

    The F20 is already on sale in Europe. Not sure why they even camouflaged the cars. Nothing new to see on them safe for the exhausts.

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