Car Magazine today broke the story that Chris Bangle, BMW’s design chief, will leave the Bavarian company, and more shockingly, the auto industry entirely.
Bangle is the latest in a band of successful car designers to jump from the mainstream, big-brand car firms lately. Murat Gunak walked from VW to form Mindset – and has since been joined there by David Wilkie from Bertone. Franz Von Holzhausen left Mazda (one of the few mainstream brands doing really interesting design stuff) for electric vehicle player, Tesla Motors. And Frank Stephenson left Fiat/Alfa and practically disappeared, before re-emerging at a very different kind of McLaren. It may be nothing, but I wonder if this is a trend? Are big-name car designers getting frustrated with the snail's pace of movement in the auto industry - and having reached the top of the game in their forties and fifties - seeking newer, greater challenges away from the established players.
Bangle upturned not only BMW, but the entire auto industry in the early years of this decade, with his controversial car body surfacing treatment known as ‘flame surfacing’. The idea flies in the face of previous car design convention, because it creates concave surfaces in the body panels. Before Chris Bangle it was customary in car design to try to create only convex surfaced panels, because it was thought this not only gives cars an athletic, muscular look, but allows light fall to across the metal surface to be manipulated better by the designer to create the highlights. The old school reckoned this contributed to the human eye’s perception of how a car looks.Some (slightly sanitised) 'Bangle butts'
Bangle's new approach first appeared on the 2001 BMW 7 series, yet it wasn’t the panel surfacing which stole headlines, but the car's ‘trunk lid’ – the boot, which appeared ‘stuck on’ at the back of the car. He suggested they had to make it look like this to package the trunk space required for the car, but a facelift later tried to address the look. Yet the damage was done, and the term "Bangle Butt" would from this point forward, be forever associated with contemporary BMWs.
It wasn’t until the 2003 BMW 5 series though, that ‘Bangled’ BMWs really shook up the automotive world. Here was BMW, that most conservative of German car makers, going utterly wild with arguably the most important model in its range. I remember having a 15 minute-long stand up row with a colleague in Manchester when we came across our first 2003 5 Series on the road. Did it work? I admired its daring, challenging set of surfaces, details and shut lines. My colleague, a BMW driver, reckoned the brand had lost its mind. It flew in the face of BMW's core design language, laid down 40 years earlier by Paul Bracq - an era that eschewed frivolous change or ornamentation. Stephen Bailey, in his recent book described it thus:
"In the conservative world of car design, this was disruption that may be compared to Picasso's creation of Cubism"
At the time, I remember speculation about how risky a strategy this approach to styling was, and how BMW’s conservative customer base wouldn’t possibly accept it. Yet despite this, the 5 series, and most of Chris Bangle’s other designs such as the X5 and Z4, sold in vast numbers. Testament surely to the quality of Bangle’s work is that the same 2003 5 series still looks fresh and striking six years on. It's received minimal facelifts during its life and will be replaced next year, yet still looks – I'd argue – more dynamic and modern than the current Mercedes E class or Audi A6. Want proof that Bangle was influential? See the form of the current Mercedes S-class (Bangle butt included) and the increasing 'ornamentation' (particularly in detail) on modern Audis.
Audi A1 concept features 'eyebrow' that Audi now claim as a design signifier. But this idea originates from BMW.
In recent years, Bangle moved ‘upstairs’ into a more supervisory role, leaving Adrian Van Hooydonk - who now becomes director of design, in charge on a day-to-day level. Van Hooydonk has evolved the first generation of 'Bangled' models (X5, 7 series) into second generations that right now seem much more palatable than the Bangle cars initially did, but also more boring. But Van Hooydonk also shows signs of stretching things - he takes credit for the recent CS concept and M1 Homage, so those hoping for a complete return to classic BMW-ness may be disappointed.
I hold my hands up and cry I'm a huge Bangle fan. The man's work and thinking was largely responsible for me deciding to switch from Architecture to Car Design five years ago, and while I'm sure many will disagree, I think it’s sad to see one of the true superstars of the car industry depart. I wrote last year that the industry needed more characters like Bangle, and I stand by that. A secretive, introverted industry could arguably do with more characters that are household names - people like Bangle - who at times, seemed more interested in what was happening outside of the car world than within it.
For me though, Bangle’s biggest contributions to BMW and the industry at large weren't the cars he designed, but about culture. When he first arrived at BMW, he reputedly took almost the entire design team out of BMW's Munich HQ, to a Chateaux in the south of France for three months, in order that they could gain inspiration from nature, and escape from the input of engineers who he believed were limiting the imagination of stylists too early in the design process. He enchanted Art Center's Summit in 2007 when talking about cars as 'avatars'. But if you want to understand what the man is really about, and why I (perhaps) come across as upset about this – I strongly recommend you watch this TED video of Bangle talking about how “Great cars are Art”.
"A secretive, introverted industry could arguably do with more characters that are household names - people like Bangle - who at times, seemed more interested in what was happening outside of the car world than within it."
Whatever the case, having seen Bangle speak on a couple of occasions, met him briefly in person, and him having designed one of my favourite cars of all time (the Fiat Coupe), I wish him the best of luck in whatever he does next. If he can shake up whatever that is as much as he changed the auto world, the world will be a more exciting, better place.
Note: Some of the anecdotes and stories in this piece are not referenced in our normal way, as they were picked up from conversations and discussion with figures in the auto industry over the past four years, so don't exist in online or published journals to reference. Interpret them as views of the author, rather than as referenceable facts.
Images - all Joseph Simpson (may be republished under a creative commons license)
Published by Joseph Simpson on 3rd February 2009