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 Euro-centric notions of automotive style were formed during the 1950s in the styling studios of the Italian carrozzerie – Pininfarina, Bertone and their ilk, who fired imaginations and rendered dreams in hand-beaten alloy. For decades these designers and artisans were nameless, faceless men but during the 1980’s, the car designer emerged from obscurity and into the consciousness of the auto-literate.
However, by the 1990’s the reign of the Italian styling houses had reached its apogee and with manufacturers establishing studios of their own, the era of the auteur designer 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 doesn’t it seem ludicrous to assume that even as persuasive an individual as Bangle 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 wank . But then, extrapolating upon design is habitually a one-way ticket to pseuds corner, no matter how little one ends up saying.
Bangle was eloquent and savvy, he gave good copy and projected the image of the visionary, the prophet. So what if he name checked Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid as influences? There was little real substance to it and after all, architecture and car design are not natural bedfellows, nor should they be. But surely it’s more about inspiration, ideas, difference – or the appearance of it? Industrial design is not art, although there is some art or artifice in it’s creation. Bangle himself once proffered the idea of the car as art – the designer as artist, but it’s possible he was simply being mischievous.
Over the past decade or so we’ve seen an enormous convergence between concept car and production reality. In that time, technological advances and perhaps a degree of new millennium thinking produced some creative solutions that morphed from the show stands and actually saw production. The motoring public quickly adapted to more daring surfaces, and soon came to expect production models to live up to the promise embodied within the show car.
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 Wizard of Oz curtain to see the levers being manipulated. It could be argued that Chris Bangle’s styling studios have been 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, which are characterised by fearfulness, aggression, and excessive displays of emotion. The Bangle-era BMWs were characterised by highly emotive and dramatic forms. Within this emotive language however, there was retained a strong discipline. Bangle’s 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 the shapes to appear genuinely novel at a time when few others could create such complex forms in production. Smoke and mirrors then? Perhaps Bangle was simply a showman – an automotive Barnum?
Of course he was not directly involved in designing any of the so called ‘Bangle era’ BMW‘s. As Director of Design, that would simply not have been his remit. For example, Adrian van Hoydoonk was responsible for the E65 7-Series and E63 6-series.The E60 5-Series was penned by the late Davide Archangeli. Joji Nagashima did the E90 3-Series saloon (and also the preceding E39 5-Series, held as an exemplar of marque-specific perfection by BMW traditionalists).
Equally, it’s probably fair to say that the Bangle-era has never been responsible for a genuinely beautiful automotive shape, but whatever one’s opinion, all have been visually arresting and even the least attractive had some fascinating details to their credit. Perhaps only the E65 7-series falls into the category of ugliness, but time has been kind to worse shapes than this.
However, by far the most cohesive of ‘his’ car designs remains the E60 5-Series and the one most likely to be studied by design students in the years to come, much as the Mercedes W124 is today.
But despite outraged traditionalists, BMW undoubtedly benefited from the Bangle era, in vehicle sales, but most notably from the PR value in 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 Bangle’s influence in the surface treatments of cars as humble as Hyundais and as patrician as Mercedes-Benz’s. Not only is it now seen to be de-rigueur to treat surfaces as something fluid and malleable, it is necessary for them to convey the emotion we so treasure in our current climate. Lamentably it can also be stated that this era has been marked by a lack of beauty, visual discord appearing to have displaced harmony. Is this Chris Bangle‘s fault?
Arguable, but to make that assertion could be seen as a tacit admission that his influence has been significant. Perhaps in this coming era, where the motor car has to sell itself all over again, we may see a shift back to elegance in an attempt to win over the sceptics.
Meanwhile, Bangle himself has regrouped, founding his own industrial design consultancy and acting as sage to a new generation of designers who revere him. So it strains credibility that, as some would assert, following his departure from BMW, the board have sighed with relief and come to their senses. More that Bangle has served his purpose, given BMW the image they required and the growth they needed.
Time and need has shifted and BMW, the most brand-savvy and marketing-led motor company of all, have realised that as they enter a vastly altered commercial landscape, they require a new aesthetic and fresh leadership.
Regardless of how his body of work is viewed, it’s likely Chris Bangle will remain inextricably linked to this particular school of car design. For him, immortality beckons and for that alone, he should be applauded, if only for his ambition. Certainly, the car design world now appears a good deal more barren without him in it’s midst. Even BMW’s own mainstream output has regressed in intervening years – the current range appearing torpid and dull by comparison. Can it be that he was right all along?