Reassessing Chris Bangle’s Bayerische Motoren Werke Legacy.
Only a handful of individuals shape what we drive and by consequence, what populates our streets and driveways. Our current notions of automotive style were formed during the 1950s in the styling studios of Detroit and within the Italian carrozzieri, who fired imaginations and rendered dreams in hand-beaten alloy. For decades these designers and artisans were largely faceless men but during the 1980’s, the car designer emerged from obscurity and into the consciousness of the auto-literate.
But within another decade the reign of the Italian styling houses had reached its apogee and with carmakers moving to establish studios of their own, the era of the auteur was already becoming numbered. A new era of car designer was dawning.
Chris Bangle did not, as some might suggest, hail from outer space. The Ohio-born designer, a graduate of the Art Center design College in Pasedena, California, began his career in Europe; first at Wayne Cherry’s Opel studios at Rüsselsheim, where he developed the interior styling for the well-regarded Opel Junior concept. In 1985, he joined centro stile Fiat in Turin, where he worked on a number of Fiat Auto designs, most notably the 1993 Coupé Fiat.
His appointment as Claus Luthe’s successor as BMW design director in 1992 surprised everyone, Bangle telling auto journalist Russell Bulgin he hoped nobody would discern his influence, but this statement proved in hindsight to be strikingly, some might suggest, provocatively underplayed.
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 appears ludicrous to assume that even as persuasive an individual as he could talk the famously astute and conservative BMW board into committing €billions to a risky and unproven adventure simply 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 primary purpose of the in-house design director, which may be one of the reasons they almost all, to a man speak such unadulterated toss. But then, extrapolating upon design has habitually been a one-way ticket to pseuds corner.
Bangle was eloquent and savvy, he gave good copy and projected the image of the visionary. Citing Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid as influences, was he perhaps merely underscoring his outsider status? 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 recent years we’ve witnessed a marked convergence between concept and production car, where technological advances and new millennium thinking produced creative solutions that brought the show stands to the production line. With the advent of more daring forms, motorists quickly came to expect to see dreamscapes rendered flesh.
As shape and form have become exhausted, designers had little option but to finesse at the peripheries and hope that nobody thought to peer under the curtain to see the levers being manipulated. Now, courtesy of new material technology and some clever software, they could lead their customers, pied piper-like into a multi-radiused deeply reflective future. It could be argued that Chris Bangle’s styling studios were at the vanguard of this trend.
Another theory for Bangle’s espousal of disharmonic forms is that they have reflected the times in which we live – characterised by anxiety, aggression, and excessive displays of emotion. The Bangle BMWs displayed highly dramatic forms, but within however, was retained a highly disciplined core. The rationale however was surprise – nothing was quite as it seemed.
Strip away the showy details and the basic shapes were relatively conservative – mostly three volume saloons. The surface treatment and BMW’s innovative abilities in metal stamping (and plastics) 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?
It is irrefutable that despite nearly all having been at least visually arresting, the Bangle-era never led to a genuinely beautiful automotive shape, the American’s rationale being more that of a visual disruptor. Yet only Adrian van Hoydoonk’s E65 7-series truly falls into the category of genuine ugliness. Yet even the most cohesive of ‘his’ production designs (Davide Archangeli’s E60 5-Series for example), remains a car equally admired and detested by commentators and aficionados alike.
To this day, arguments rage as to how much or indeed whether BMW benefited from Bangle’s tenure. What is clear is that the company was not only ready, but desperate for a change in direction – the carefully husbanded ethos of gradual evolution having reached something of a watershed by the mid-’90s.
Certainly there was an uplift in vehicle sales once the ‘Bangle-cars’ came on stream, and for a time, BMW basked in the halo of the trailblazer, the arresting designs giving voice to the expensive engineering beneath. But there remains a strong, vocal and rather influential voice which maintains that Mr. Bangle and BMW’s Forschung- und Innovationszentrum were neither a good nor a fitting match.
Certainly, in his wake, BMW appeared to have lost its way stylistically, as realignment stagnated into banality. Even for Bangle’s most ardent detractors, there is no comfort currently to be found at the Petuelring.
Across the wider design community, his legacy remains equally subject to (often heated) debate, but what can be said is that he has changed it quite fundamentally. Not only is it now de-rigueur to treat surfaces as something fluid and malleable, it is equally necessary for them to convey the emotion we treasure. Everybody’s Chris Bangle now. Lamentably too, not only is his legacy one of visual discord, it also manifests itself in a host of less-talented imitators. Can we lay the rise of Gorden Wagener at Bangle’s door? I’m rather afraid that we can.
Before one breaks something irreversibly, it’s often worthwhile to have an idea as to what one intends to replace it with. While Bangle is evidently a man of no little talent and considerable intellect, it’s difficult to escape the notion that Bangle’s departure left BMW with the doors metaphorically blown off, but with little cohesively to put in their place. Certainly, whatever he ultimately had in mind remains an unfinished opus and one which seems unlikely to be revisited now.
Is it possible he simply ran out of Troys to burn?