By Chris Haak
Chris Bangle, head of BMW’s design and the man singly most responsible for BMW’s current design language, is leaving BMW “to pursue his own design-related endeavors beyond the auto industry,” according to BMW.
Dutchman Adrian van Hooydonk, the BMW brand design head, will become Bangle’s successor. Both men had been with the carmaker since 1992, but Bangle is 52 years old, while van Hooydonk is 44 years old. Ironically, while the head of design’s name is usually attached to an automaker’s lineup, Bangle’s successor, van Hooydonk, was the actual designer of the 2007 7-series that started the Bangle butt/flame surfacing revolution. In the photo to the left, van Hooydonk is on the left with his arms folded, and Bangle is on the right making quotation fingers.
Love or hate his designs – personally, most of them eventually grew on me – there is no argument over the influence that Chris Bangle-led BMW design has had on the automotive industry. His 2002 7-series sedan and 2007 Z4 roadster were both shots fired across the bow of the luxury-car establishment that emphatically noted the presence of a new design direction at BMW. While the 2002-2009 Z4 has a more radical design than does the flagship 7-series luxury sedan, the 7-series aroused far more controversy in the automotive world when it made its debut because of the conservative shape of its predecessor. Bangle basically threw out the entire BMW design rule book with the exception of quad headlamps, the twin-kidney grille, and the Hoffmeister kink in the C-pillar. Everything else was fair game; no longer would various BMW models look like different sizes of basically the same car.
It’s hard to argue with the results; BMW’s lineup grew from basically just three sedans (3, 5, and 7) to include three crossovers and a roadster, plus the 1-series, itself a shrunken 3-series under the skin. Having a lineup of eight models makes it unreasonable to expect all of them to look like different sizes of the same theme. BMW is now the top-selling luxury automaker in the world, the company has enjoyed enormous financial and sales success (until 2008, of course), and from a design perspective, his car’s styling cues are unabashedly copied by many of the companies that probably snickered in 2002 when the E65 7-series made its debut. Companies like Acura, Lexus, and Mercedes-Benz can thank Mr. Bangle for indirectly designing the trunklids of their RL, LS, and S-class sedans, respectively. Designers today pay much more attention to surface detailing and proportions than they did a decade ago, with car bodies taking all sorts of interesting shapes and the wheels pushing outward to the corners in most cars – all hallmarks of BMW design established under Chris Bangle’s leadership.
While some in the design establishment supposedly aren’t fans of Bangle’s BMW designs, such as Ford’s design head, J Mays (according to Motor Trend), a designer I spoke with, Justin Thompson (who was on the 2010 Buick LaCrosse team) admired the way some competitors such as BMW and Audi adhere to a consistent design ethos, and indicated that GM was planning to develop a consistent design language for each of its brands as well. When other designers admire your designs, it means you’re doing your job as a designer. In my interview with Mr. Thompson last month, he and his manager also said that they didn’t want to design vehicles that everyone loved; a love-it-or-hate-it design is preferable to one that everyone thinks is just acceptable.
Perhaps the most intriguing post-mortem of the Chris Bangle era at BMW design is that as the first vehicles of his era – the 7-series and Z4 – are redesigned, their most outrageous features have been toned down. The new versions of these two automobiles have generated far less controversy, as well as generating less buzz and less conversation. Perhaps Bangle’s master plan was to push the envelope so far that expectations were then reset, then any subsequent products would not be put under such harsh scrutiny. Or perhaps he was tired of people complaining about his designs, which still look as interesting today as they did seven years ago. I remember before the current E90 3-series was introduced, BMW fans everywhere were dreading the day that their beloved 3 would be “Bangled,” but the design is probably one of his finest works, particularly the coupe. I’m sure that he felt an enormous amount of pressure not to screw up “the franchise,” but after the radical 5-series, their designs have gotten progressively less radical (or more conservative, if you prefer).
We may never know if the more recent BMW designs are changing as a result of Bangle’s waning influence, if he was tired of the withering criticism, or if they were all part of his master design strategy. What I do know is that we’ll be seeing Chris Bangle-inspired design cues for generations, and for that reason, he was one of the top names in automotive design for the past decade.
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