Reassessing Chris Bangle’s BMW Legacy.
Only a handful of individuals shape what we drive and by dint, what populates our streets and driveways. Our Eurocentric notions of automotive style were formed during the 1950s in the styling studios of the Italian carrozzeri, who fired imaginations and rendered dreams in hand-beaten alloy. For decades these designers and artisans were faceless men but during the 1980’s, the car designer emerged from obscurity and into the consciousness of the auto-literate.
But a decade later the reign of the Italian styling houses had reached its apogee and with manufacturers establishing studios of their own, the era of the auteur was already numbered. Men who had previously studied together and cut their teeth, notably in the studios of Uwe Bahnsen at Ford, were now vying for the big jobs at the styling studios at Renault, Fiat, Volvo and Audi. A new era of car designer was dawning.
Infamy is not for everyone, so why did Chris Bangle choose its path? Was it simply the case of a mediocre talent in possession of some interesting ideas and gifted with extraordinary powers of persuasion? Some have argued so, but it seems ludicrous to assume that even as persuasive an individual could talk the BMW board into committing €billions to a risky and unproven adventure by sheer force of personality.
What Chris Bangle always had in abundance is what former US President George H. Bush once described as The Vision Thing. In fact, this appears to be the chief purpose of the in-house design director, which may be one of the reasons they almost all, to a man (and they are all men) speak such unadulterated toss. But then, extrapolating upon design is habitually a one-way ticket to pseuds corner.
Bangle was eloquent and savvy, he gave good copy and projected the image of the visionary, the prophet. By citing Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid as influences, was he perhaps merely underscoring his outsider status? Industrial design is not art, although there is some art or artifice in its creation. Bangle proffered the notion of the car as art, and the designer as artist, but it’s equally possible he was being deliberately provocative.
Over the past decade or so we’ve seen a convergence between concept and production car. In that time, technological advances and perhaps a degree of new millennium thinking produced creative solutions that morphed from the show stands to the production line. The motoring public quickly adapted to more daring surfaces, soon coming to expect production models to live up to the promise embodied on the show stands.
As shape and form became exhausted, designers had little option but to fiddle with the details, courtesy of new material technology and some very clever software, and hope that nobody thought to peer under the curtain to see the levers being manipulated. It could be argued that Bangle’s styling studios were at the vanguard of this trend, leading the huddled masses, pied piper-like into a multi-radiused deeply reflective future.
Perhaps Bangle’s espousal of disharmonic forms became popularised because of they reflect the times in which we live, characterised by fearfulness, aggression, and excessive displays of emotion. The Bangle BMWs displayed highly emotive and dramatic forms, but within this however, there was retained a core discipline. The rationale was surprise – nothing was quite as it seemed.
Yet strip away the showy details and the basic shapes were relatively conservative – mostly three volume saloons. The use of surface treatment and BMW’s innovative abilities in metal stamping allowed shapes to appear genuinely novel at a time when few others could achieve such complex forms in production. Smoke and mirrors then? Bangle as automotive Barnum?
Not that he was directly involved in designing any of the so called ‘Bangle-BMWs – of course, that would not have been his remit. For example, the E65 7-Series and E63 6-series were the work of Adrian van Hoydoonk. The E60 5-Series was penned by the late Davide Archangeli. Joji Nagashima penned the E90 3-Series saloon (and also the preceding E39 5-Series, held as an exemplar of marque-specific perfection by BMW traditionalists).
Nevertheless, it’s probably fair to say that the Bangle-era never led to a genuinely beautiful automotive shape, despite all having been at least visually arresting. Yet only the E65 7-series falls into the category of genuine ugliness. Conversely, by far the most cohesive of ‘his’ production designs remains the E60 5-Series, the car most likely to be studied by students in decades to come.
But despite legions of outraged traditionalists, BMW benefited from the Bangle era, in vehicle sales, but most notably from the sheer amount of column inches he inspired. It’s tough to put a price on that. The company also basked in the halo of the trailblazer, the arresting designs giving voice to the expensive engineering beneath. Whether car design itself benefited remains open to debate, but what can be said with some certainty is that it was changed quite radically in his wake.
Today you can see the Bangle influence in the surface treatments of cars as humble as Hyundais and as patrician as Mercedes-Benz. Not only is it now de-rigueur to treat surfaces as something fluid and malleable, it is necessary for them to convey the emotion we treasure in our current climate.
Lamentably too, it can be stated that his legacy is one of visual discord, which appears to have displaced harmony. But is this Bangle‘s fault? Possibly, but to make that assertion could be seen as admission of the significance of his influence.
Meanwhile, Bangle himself has regrouped, founding his own industrial design consultancy and acting as sage to a new generation of designers. But following his departure, it strains credibility that as some would assert, the BMW board sighed with relief and came to their senses, more that Bangle has served his purpose.
But regardless of how his body of work is viewed, immortality beckons for Chris Bangle. Certainly, the car design world now appears a good deal more barren without him. Even BMW’s own output has regressed, the current range seeming torpid and limp by comparison. Could it be that he was right all along?