Life After Munich

A group of high-profile designers have left BMW’s design studios over the past few years. Time to assess whose loss turned into whose gain. 

Designer Interview: Adrian van Hooydonk, Director Design, BMW Cars
Happier times: Chris Bangle amid his brand chief designers. (l-r): David Robb (BMW Motorrad), Ulf Weidhase (BMW M & Individual), Ian Cameron (Rolls-Royce), Adrian van Hooydonk (BMW), Gerd Hildebrandt (Mini),  photo (c) Car Design News

This photo, taken in about 2006, depicts BMW Group design at the height of its creative powers. Unlike giants such as Ford, GM or VAG, BMW achieved the seemingly impossible in running each of the company’s core brands (BMW, Mini, Rolls-Royce) as a creatively self-sufficient unit. For that reason, a Mini didn’t come across like a de-contented BMW, nor did anybody mistake a Rolls-Royce for a tarted-up 7 series. Every BMW brand’s design possessed its own set of stylistic rules and values.

More than a decade later, none of the people depicted in the photo are in charge any more – apart of course from Adrian van Hooydonk, who’s been running BMW Group’s design fortunes for a decade this year.

The last two years of that reign have been somewhat overshadowed by an unprecedented creative drain though – unprecedented not just regarding BMW Group, but within the industry as a whole. With the Bavarians’ stylistic fortunes currently shrouded in controversy, it would appear to be the right time to take a look at what some of BMW design’s best and brightest chose over continuing their career within the German giant – and how their respective choices have served them.

Karim Habib

photo (c) The Globe & Mail

The highest-profile fugitive, Karim Habib was in charge of the group’s BMW main brand before choosing to leave Germany for Japan and Nissan’s Infiniti brand in 2017.

Habib, whose breakthrough design was the BMW E60’s interior, had left BMW once before, for a brief stint at Mercedes-Benz, before swiftly returning to Munich. There he was promoted and eventually put in charge of BMW design in 2012. The BMW models recently unveiled to non-unanimous acclaim (X7, 7 series facelift, Z4, G20 3 series, 8 series) were developed under his watch.

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On behalf of Infiniti, he most recently presented the QX Inspiration to the public, a run-of-the-mill luxury SUV concept car. How he intends to instil the insipid Infiniti brand’s design with genuine desirability remains unclear for the time being.

Benoît Jacob

photo (c) Haute Living

Renault-trained Benoît Jacob was in charge of the BMW i brand until 2016. The i3 and i8 models, which were and remain the Bavarian’s boldest stylistic statements since Chris Bangle’s departure in 2009, were designed under his supervision (their exterior designer, Richard Kim, has left BMW too).

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Jacob’s new job isn’t too far removed from his duties at BMW i, as his new employer, Byton, is also intending to rewrite the automotive rulebook with an unorthodox product. Even certain graphic elements of the original i cars have reappeared on the Byton m-byte concept car.

Giles Taylor

photo (c)

A former Citroën and Jaguar designer, Giles Taylor spent his first few years as Rolls-Royce chief designer unveiling designs mostly created under his predecessor, Ian Cameron. Only the 103 EX concept car and the recently introduced Phantom and Cullinan models were designed in their entirety under Taylor’s watch. Which makes his surprise move to the Chinese FAW Group last summer all the more astounding – even to his former employer, who has yet (as of January 2019, more than six months after he’d announced his resignation) to appoint a replacement.

photo (c) Esquire Middle East

For the time being, Taylor’s plans at FAW remain as unclear as BMW’s plans regarding his replacement.

Anders Warming

photo (c) BMW

Being the designer responsible for some of the Bangle era’s most significant designs (BMW Z4, GINA, Mille Miglia Concept Coupé), Anders Warming appeared to be destined for great things within BMW Group. His appointment as Mini chief designer seemed to confirm this impression. Yet the Mini production models he oversaw failed to live up to that promise, despite two interesting concept cars (Superleggera, Vision Next 100) hinting at untapped potential.

His surprise move to reborn Borgward would cause quite a stir within the car design community – as did his first work at the Germany-based, Chinese-financed brand, the Isabella concept car unveiled at the 2017 Frankfurt Motor Show.

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Since then, Borgward has had to endure a rather troublesome period, involving significant corporate reshuffling, which has seen first Warming lose executive status, before leaving Borgward entirely at the end of 2018.

For all the differences in their talents and style, what is striking is that three of these four designers have chosen to leave as established and reputed a company (and employer) as BMW behind, in favour of the relative uncertainty surrounding an upstart brand. Remuneration may have been one of the factors behind this decision, but it remains doubtful this was the primary motivation in each end every case – particularly given the risks involved.

No matter what the exact and detailed motives, what is beyond debate is that BMW lost a significant part of its creative competence within an astoundingly brief period of time. Coupled with the controversial reception of the most recent models’ design, one can only strongly suggest that those in charge at the Petuelring and Knorrstraße take a deep and thorough look at what went wrong these past few years.


The author of this piece runs his own motoring website, which you are welcome to visit at



Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

24 thoughts on “Life After Munich”

  1. BMW design is in an awful place. Unfortunately van Hooydonk is still in charge, and judging by recent output, things are getting worse rather than better.

    Time for a complete clear out and a change of approach. It is hopefully not too late to rescue the situation.

  2. Judging from recent results, BMW could do worse that raid Mazda for some new designers. I say a scoop shot of their new saloon EV … miserable!

    1. Poaching talented designers from rival manufacturers will not help if the culture within the organisation is at fault, as it appears to be at the FIZ. BMW poached Josef Kaban from Skoda a little over a year ago, but one talented design leader does not fundamental change make.

      The reason Mazda’s current styling is so good is that the correct culture exists, it seems, right from the top. This is patently not the case at BMW – not at senior Boardroom level, nor within the Design function itself. Van Hoydoonk cannot bear complete responsibility for what has taken place, but nevertheless, the serious rot has set in within his watch, which is (it’s worth restating) getting on for a decade in tenure.

    2. At BMW th sh*t is finally hitting the fan.
      Yes, it all started in the boardroom when someone decided it was a good idea to let a certain Mr Bangle loose on the design of their cars.
      The rot set in with horrors like E65 and E60 and it hasn’t got any better but also not worse since then.

    3. Much as I can sympathise with those who view Chris Bangle’s tenure at BMW as being an act of creative vandalism, I find it a little tiresome to hear the same tired accusations being levelled.

      There can be no doubt that under Bangle’s tenure, BMW’s design direction altered course dramatically and in some cases, too much into the realm of design for design sake. In retrospect, BMW was probably not the marque to carry out such experiments with, but done is done. Of course, one must also remember that the E46 3-Series was a ‘Chris Bangle-directed’ car, as were the Rolls Royce Phantom series and much of MINI’s output during the previous decade.

      Anyway, this gets us nowhere. The problem as I see it is not Mr. Bangle, rather the vacuum that emerged in his place. His replacement clearly lacks vision, seems unable or unwilling to fight for his designers at board level and is up against some of the least visually aware senior management in automotive history. Furthermore, he seems incapable of holding on to the talent that he has/had.

      Whatever horrors Mr. Bangle visited upon the World, (and that remains a matter of debate) the current state of affairs, manifested by flaccid proportions, lazy and ill-judged graphics and the application of some of the most offensive nose treatments since the height of Detroit’s late-’50s pomp, is to my eyes at least, on another level of sheer visual repulsiveness.

      No, this will not stand. van Hoydoonk’s stylistic legacy is far, far worse. History will not judge him well.

    4. To Eóin’s point, apologies for the rather glib comment, and I completely agree that the design direction and outputs thereof are set by the overall culture from the very top of the organisation. Mazda seems to have a strongly bound design integration between engineering and styling, as well as a long term vision for the business as a whole. From a distance, it seems that operating on a tighter budget drives tighter styling outcomes.

      Like Eóin, I’ve got more time than some it seems for the portfolio of designs which Bangle oversaw. I always saw those designs as progressive and deliberate in their intent; those produced since his departure have for anything like that.

    5. Bangle’s legacy is a difficult one to assess. While he helped destroy decades of carefully nurtured stylistic evolution, he also brought something genuinely new, truly original to the table. It was all rather hit & miss, obviously lacked consistency and sometimes taste – but anno 2018, BMW design generally lacks taste, hasn’t had a hit in years and is consistent only insofar as the cars unveiled over the past two years have been consistently underwhelming.

      In addition to what I said in the article, Bangle appears to have been a superior highly respected by (almost) all of his former underlings. Which is quite rare.

    6. Bangle’s original sin remains his 7 series, that does stylistically compare very poorly to its utterly beautiful, peak-BMW predecessor.

      But most of his other signature cars have aged much much better. The first generation 1-Series, the E46 3-series, the E60 5-series and (though I don’t know how much responsibility he bears for them) the two BMWi-cars, that despite their rather aggressive styling remain a pleasure to look at even after having been around for about 5 years now, the time most other daring designs fall into an “I think I’ve had a little too much of them”-slump.

      Being bold but inherently aesthetic to me is one of the highest hallmarks of design quality. In the light of this, it really seems like the Bangle-baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. Such an unforgiving stance by the senior management must in hindsight be seen as a manifestation of a very poor corporate culture.

      The current designs look aged before they have even hit the market. I can only attribute it to the brand’s huge inertia that there are still many journalists writing positively about them. But without new thrust, this momentum will ebb off eventually. But who will bring the turn-around? And: Do the shareholders see it this way too?

  3. BMW design seems to be running on empty at the moment, but their mini-partner Toyota has completely run out of gas, yet nobody has been sent out with a jerrycan for a country walk to a filling station so far. I presume the popular price market doesn’t give a hoot about ugly cars merely reliability, and taste-challenged folk still imbibe Lexuses where they have market share beyond a dribble. The Supra confounds me completely, being a pastiche of every bad idea ever invented since 1960. Perhaps a steady diet of ramen and sake isn’t such a good idea.

    BMW should of course strive for a more aspirational ideal. In the US, its 3 Series is having its lunch eaten by the Tesla Model 3, as a perusal of sales charts shows. The rather annoyed waspishness of some BMW exec or another when announcing the new 3 to the effect that if people wanted handling, then by golly BMW are back in full attack mode and you’d better like it, you heathens, was rather indicative of the stresses in Munich, I thought. Too bad the new 3 chose for its styling theme an updated version of the Chrysler 200 from 2013, all strakes and lines with an added spot of angry fake fascia intakes and exhausts. Add in the new giganto corporate kidney grille design reeking of shiny brass band overstatement, and all combined the result may or may not impress the plebs buying the cooking models. It all seems a bit desperate.

    With Car and Driver magazine very recently dissing the Mercedes CLS with the new inline six as having a “flimsy” body structure, it seems to me that Wagener’s flights of fancy have infested the engineering departments. Being highly commercial and in need of a spot or two of hard advertising cash, one would not expect a US magazine to utter such overt criticism of a high-end German ground-pounder unless it were obviously true. C Series sales are also subject to Tesla attack, while the GLC had a wee spot of bother regarding an instability of the front suspension causing wheels to flap around uncontrollably after hitting big bumps, the latter effect being easy to read about on forums. Is it really fixed? Not all owners are convinced.

    BMW on styling and Daimler on engineering (plus some styling) seem to have reached their limits on model proliferation and the ability to properly design and engineer all of them to previously expected standards. Positions of corporate hubris with actual backup surety of knowledge is at stake; snooty attitudes can survive only so long if the products fail to deliver.

    As for the BMW stylists/designers who have jumped ship, well, none of them seems to have starred elsewhere yet, as noted. Their newfound conversion to the itinerant semi-freelance lifestyle surely reflects the turmoil at their previous home. Either that or every single manjack of them suffers from excess self-confidence and ambition to change the world. Meanwhile, the gravy train for premium German vehicles in export markets may be coming to an end. Imagination can run stale as comfy ruts develop, and those two companies need to buck up rapidly in my opinion, or the ride may become very rough indeed. Potholes ahead!

    1. Though I do think a steady diet of ramen and sake is a great idea, it shall for the record be stated that Japanese cuisine is probably among the word’s most diverse and most sophisticated. Reasons for currently unsatisfying Toyota design must hence certainly lie elsewhere.

    2. Interesting post. The 2002 and early 3´s appealed to a certain type of person, the trend setter or early adopter, people looking for a cut above. And now the 3 series so plainly isn´t a cut above unless you choose a model with a big engine and all the trinket; even then these cars are in poor taste. Due to engineering progress, the quality gap between BMW is much less too. Relating to Daniel´s point below, those early cars really did look a lot better than cars from the other makers. The driving character may have only of secondary importance.

      Today, Teslas don´t look all that special either but every knows the Tesla is the thinking driver´s car. And they cost a lot. Those who like to list moving and shaking among their preferred occupations find the Tesla recipe of high cost, adequate performance and electric propulsion as appealing as they found BMWs of the late 60s and 70s. BMW is still trying the develop the 2002 and 320 formula. That train has run out of tracks, hence the huge grilles and comically over-wrought styling.

    3. Well, the Model 3 has more than adequate performance and handling if one keeps up with things like Road & Track’s all day beating of one at Lime Rock racetrack. It can be M3 quick at M3 prices. And it looks good from most angles without being overwrought. I’m no Musk or EV fan, but over the top styling he has avoided. A Model 3 costs about the same as a BMW 3 series in the US. Battery pack pricing gives the rough equivalent of 330i and 340i pricing, and then there’s the AWD version.

      The discussion seems to have veered to a general slaying of recent BMW rather than what has happened to its second tier designers. I have ready access to a 2006 3 series 6 cylinder in perfect nick (whatever its model number is – I have a great memory but not for Exx trivia anorak recitals). It looks great, goes well even with no turbo and handles superbly. Current ones are not that nice. In any way, shape or form. And that, it seems to me is the underlying drama concerning BMW’s lost way.

    4. Max, I was overstating the ramen and sake thing for a bit of fun. That is a habit of some English writing I think, so obvious silliness on the part of the writer, me, is meant as a dab of humour. Not as judgement.

    5. Bill, I thought so. 🙂 Needless to say, in Germany we tend to be very sensitive with regard to generalizations about other cultures, even if they are meant as a joke. (I also reserve my judgement of the Supra until I have seen one in the metal, so I can’t really comment on your general point at all…)

      Besides, I agree with you BMW vs Tesla observation! I was appalled when recently a rental BMW 430i turned out to be a four-cylinder turbo. It didn’t drive (let alone sound) like a BMW. I wouldn’t see many reasons choosing it over a Tesla Model 3 if I was in the market for that sort of car…

      I also agree with your outlook for BMW and Mercedes. I think both of these brands are just surfing down the wave of their powerful, yet intangible brand asset. The wave will ebb down slowly but surely and they will realize that they have done to little to keep it alive only once sales figures are badly hurt.

      (Lamentably, I think there are a couple of time-honoured brands that have been lured into this brand-before-product mindset. Leica for me is a similar example of a company that has put all its efforts on styling on few of them on engineering, though the brand owes its reputation purely to the engineering… How long can this work?)

  4. For me, it was the E3 that started the wonderful period of BMW design from the late 60’s to the early to mid 00’s, which ended with the demise of the E39 and unfortunate “smiley” facelift of the E46. BMW could do worse than lock their designers in a room with these two cars and not let them out until they understand what makes them so special and fondly remembered, unlike the vulgar tat that now passes for BMW design:

  5. One of the biggest issues with BMW Design, judging from afar, seems to be the burden from the (probably very badly timed) ‘experimentally inspired’ C.Bangle tenure period.

    Notwithstanding that under C.B., some really competent designs were delivered as well – and I personally don’t find the E65 to be that much of a design flop, it was just ill-timed perhaps, somehow, that period coincided with a global, far reaching visual sophistication
    of the general, very broad public. The public which is nowadays, as a majority, the ‘new trend-setting’ crowd, as opposed to tradition when trend-setting was a minority exercise.

    Point in question: as the internet ‘trained’ the global, broad public to become far more visually & stylistically sensitive (exponentially more than ever before…), the opinion makers (‘influencers’, if you will, for want of a less clumsy term), exerted, all of a sudden
    a huge expectational pressure on the iconic brands, for their products to emanate a strong visual message, rooted in their glory days (be it 60s, 70s or 80s, depending on the given brand in question). To illustrate:
    a typical example is the cult-like following & sub-cultural status of the 911 sportscar.
    The ‘influencers’ started overhyping anything which is considered a pinnacle
    of a thoroughly evolutionary product: it was(is) actually so powerful as a global sub-cultural phenomenon, that it practically exerted pressure on Zuffenhausen to withdraw the “narrow-hipped” 911 from its 992 incarnation. It happened.

    To further paint the picture, a certain likeable, down-to-earth Japanese artist, who became world-famous with his absurdly wide-hipped customised 911s with a cute abbreviation, “didn’t help” in this direction either. It’s almost as if the BMW Art Cars have been reinvented in some semi-obscure, tuner scene. Thus, it seems that the new rules
    of the game that the YT-/Insta- era brings, should never be underestimated.

    Now, as Munich’s defining ‘highs’ were obviously the ’02 and E21/E30 in their smaller-car segment (for BMW, a much more defining, crucial segment), and of course the E3 and E24, and even the Gandini E12 & E28 that evolved thereof, it would’ve been much different had its ~2007-onwards models been strongly endowed with clear, visible and significant echoes of those iconic BMWs that made it so aspirational as a brand.

    Which wasn’t the case.
    In that exact very period, they took the liberty of an admittedly, in hindsight, vastly
    overstretched ‘Carte blanche’ in their styling.

    From this point of view, it certainly looks as a missed opportunity, as the unreal public expectational pressure on their current designs is creating an inevitable
    layer of disappointment.

    At the same time, this new culture of armchair-opinion-making, enables certain more mundane brands, those that do not possess such a legendary styling heritage, to have
    it way easier to be successful, as their products are not burdened with the perceived “overly high expectations” (eg. Hyundai, Suzuki, Dacia et al.).

    Another factor that complicates things is the enormous Chinese market, where the buyers’ automotive visual appreciation has a very short tradition combined with a very strong product craving mentality. And it’s a ‘product development driver’ that does not usually produce conventionally appealing designs. It’s just the way things work.

    Nevertheless, BMW will most probably manage to again turn its rich styling heritage into
    a proper visual language, once they figure out how to do it without disturbing their tactics on the above mentioned and increasingly important Asian market.

    The obvious personal changes in their styling department(s) are probably
    hinting at something changing in the near future.

  6. Eóin – “No, this will not stand. van Hoydoonk’s stylistic legacy is far, far worse. History will not judge him well.”

    He was petulant and mercenary during his two seasons at Celtic. Occasional moments of glory, usually against the softest of targets. Looks like nothing’s changed.

    1. To coin a footballing analogy Robertas, there is a notable temptation here to play the man and not the ball, so I will hold fire on Pierre’s Munich-based namesake. All I will say is that it is just as well AvH never played for Barnet.

  7. I’m with Christopher Butt and Max Ohnmacht on this. Bangle’s output and design language were controversial, but needed. And having paid attention to an E60 as it drove in front of me today, it’s interesting how well it’s aging, especially compared to its successors, which are bland and porcine. When the E60 came out, I was the owner of an E39 and I hated the new 5, but I’ve shifted completely (maybe helped by my current E90 328i, which may have been compromised compared to the E60 but still feels right). Heck, I even find I like the E65, Bangle butt and all. Tell me the last time you paid attention to a current 7-series.

    And Mr. Butt makes a really important point at the end – Bangle was a born leader, not simply an accomplished auteur or even disruptor. From what I understand, his larger-than-life personality not only convinced management in a very conservative company take some chances on its style and brand, it energized a group of designers who arguably think too highly of their own skills, and not enough about the role Bangle played in their individual successes. I’m not sure why Bangle left BMW 10 years ago (was he pushed out in the end?) but his presence at BMW, and the car industry in general, is sorely missed.

    1. I like the E65, have done since the initial shock subsided. See one today and it still looks relevant, modern, fresh and interesting. I also think that it cleared the air for the susbsequent Bangle era designs to emerge, making the Z4 and E60 more acceptable to the eye. Further, see the S Class that followed it and one can be in no doubt about the extent to which the shockwaves impacted Mercedes Benz .

      The current 7 is just gruel in comparison- my boss went mad and bought the V12 last year and it’s just long and blingy and crass to looks at; no clear architecture or inspiration.

    2. I would like to claim that I have always liked the E60, especially in Touring guise. But that is probably not quite true because I remember it took me some time to get used to the Bangle style when one Wednesday in 2001 the BMW X-Coupé ( jumped at me from the front page of Auto Motor & Sport. I was in utter shock for at least 15 minutes, if not more. Looking back at it today, I still find the X-Coupé challenging for a variety of reasons. Bangle’s production cars however, really have grown on me since.

      I do also like the E65. But I think the E65 proportions were too radical a break with the predecessors. It looks very big and bloated where the E38 was just so sleek and elegant. Could James Bond credibly drive an E65? I think many 7 series drivers secretly wish they were James Bond, and the E65 gave them something to rant about for ages… (I think the Bangle treatment, including the famous Boot lid, worked much better on the 6 series, btw.)

    3. Max,
      I also remember catching my first glimpse of the X Coupé inside AMS at a train station, while on the way back to boarding school. Like you, I was utterly aghast.

      Even today, it’s not a concept that has ‘matured’ with age – and hence depicts the scattershot quality of the work done under Bangle’s watch rather well.

      E65 is another such case in point: Frankly, it’s such a deeply flawed piece of design that I’m more astonished with each passing year that it ever received the green light in its original shape. That shape, incidentally, was far from an accident, as van Hooydonk’s original sketches prove.

      Even more bafflingly, the E63 Six possesses the kind of coherence and, in certain parts, finesse the Seven so sorely lacks, even thought its design theme is superficially very similar and both cars were styled by AvH.

  8. What always puzzled me about both the E65 and the E60 was the front end styling solution.
    On both cars, the front seems to be not only in clash with convention, but clashing with
    the overall styling of the rest of the car.

    Other than that, they have aged really nice, leaving a very significant visual footprint
    in the cities and on the highways.

    Habib’s interior solution on the E60 is another total deal breaker to me. There must’ve been
    many other ways to skin that cat, and refresh their cockpit evolution whilst still retaining
    the ergonomic delight and sobriety that used to define their Innenraumgestaltung.
    Probably the mgmt, back then, sought a fresh, innovative direction for their
    otherwise relatively stale and too traditional cockpits.

    It wasn’t a good move, although the E90 cockpit tamed those hilly curves and the new dash
    thinking suddenly became much more tolerable (in certain trims even pleasing).

    I still think the only truly pleasant (not comfy!) cockpit of the modern-era BMWs is the orig. E87/E82. Ultrasimplistic, yet posh, with a decisive ‘rennfertig’ scent, and positively claustrophobic,
    as a proper sportscar should be – the proverbial fitting like a glove.

    1. The E60 cockpit is a horror. In terms of perceived quality (which was abysmal, particularly after the excellent E39 cabin had set the bar) this was somewhat amended come facelift time, but the entire layout, graphics and spatial impression remained dreadful. It’s one of those designs that probably looked bold and striking in sketches, but is simply useless in three dimensions and the real world.

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