Now that I’m a BMW owner, I feel that it is time to unleash my deepest, darkest automotive hot take. If you’ve read my work for long enough, you know that I can find something that I love about every car on the planet. Truly, no car is truly a terrible car to me. Thus, I don’t really have hot takes. The possible exception to this is how much I adore BMWs built under Chris Bangle’s reign as head of design. I’ll say it, that was BMW’s best era of design.
On last week’s installment of Prove Me Wrong, our Matt Hardigree boldly proclaimed: “Steve McQueen looked cool but wasn’t actually cool and you shouldn’t pretend to be him. Instead, if you feel the need to cosplay as mid-century actor you should model your life after James Garner. James Garner was cooler than Steve McQueen ever was.” This resulted in a fun comment section full of stories and enthusiastic discussion. As it turns out, Hardigree didn’t have that hot of a take.
Now, I am somewhat afraid to see how you’ll feel about my own sincere take.
While I love all cars, my heart especially goes out to designs that try something different. Designers at the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Studio in California produced the second-generation Smart Fortwo, a car that specifically goes out of its way to highlight its safety structure as a contrasting design element. It’s bold, it’s a bit silly, and it gets tons of attention. And sadly, as Smart changes its future towards electric SUVs, that fun design appears to be getting lost.
The Freeman Thomas masterpiece that is the Audi TT is also a high watermark in my book. It’s conservative, yet timeless. Give it modern lighting and Audi could probably release it today. Of course, we aren’t here to talk about Smarts or Audis, but BMW.
Chris Bangle has his name on a number of cars throughout history and I think that Autocar nails it on the head when it calls his designs “Never Dull.” Indeed, whether praise or disdain, his designs and cars designed under his lead certainly seem to invoke some kind of response from enthusiasts.
Before his BMW days, the Ohio-born Chris Bangle worked on interior design for Opel, on a replacement for the Panda for Fiat, and even the gorgeous Fiat Coupé. Yep, don’t let the Pininfarina badge mislead you. Bangle’s work is on the exterior, while the famed design house worked in the interior.
Bangle is also credited for work on the design for what would become the wacky Alfa Romeo 145. This is to say that Bangle banged out some bangers even before BMW.
BMW’s Bangle Era
In October 1992, Chris Bangle became BMW’s first American head of design. When Bangle took the lead in BMW design, the company was known for conservative, but still catching designs. BMWs were desirable and stately and didn’t have to be shouty about it. While some of the vehicles designed under his lead continued this trend, there are a few that stand out as completely changing the script.
Autocar notes that the first BMW designed under his leadership was the Joji Nagashima-styled Z3.
The South Carolina-built roadster featured a restrained design. It maintained the classic roadster look with a long hood and short rear. Probably the most exciting element was the side vents.
But perhaps the Chris Bangle that enthusiasts know best appeared in 1999, when he penned the BMW Z9 Gran Turismo Concept. This car wasn’t anything like BMW had on the road at the time. It wasn’t laid back, it wasn’t conservative. Instead, it had evocative curves and in the back, a rear-end design that enthusiasts would later call the “Bangle Butt” when it reached production cars.
As Top Gear writes, this car shocked purists, while others thought it was exactly as the brand needed. I’m in that second camp. There was nothing wrong with what BMW was doing at the time, but Bangle was ready to switch things up.
Perhaps one of the most important designs released under Bangle’s lead was the BMW X5. It is the automaker’s first SUV, and BMW wanted not just to build an epic, luxurious SUV, but also have it fit into the automaker’s lineup. It was a tall order, since BMW was known for sporty driving machines, not an SUV that could do some off-roading. Project manager Eduard Walek joined forces with engineer Chris Chapman, Bangle, and designer Frank Stephenson in BMW Group’s Designworks in California. Together, the designers hammered out an SUV that I think has aged pretty gracefully, even two decades on.
But Bangle’s infamous is not because of the X5, but the vehicles designed under his leadership that would adapt elements from that Z9 Gran Turismo Concept.
One was the Adrian van Hooydonk-designed E65 7 Series. Launched in 2001, the fourth-generation of the brand’s 7 Series was a radical departure from its predecessor. Here’s what a 7 Series looked like in 2001.
And launched that same year, here’s what a 2002 7 Series looks like.
The front, with its droopy headlights, is a dramatic change all on its own. But for many, the truly controversial bit is what happened in the back.
Yep, that’s a similar rear end as the Z9 Gran Turismo Concept, and one that earned the nickname “Bangle Butt.” Recalling the vehicle’s design to the New York Times, Bangle said “in a few years all luxury cars will look like this.” The 7’s design was a bet that BMW would beat everyone else to designs that look like this. And while the vehicles of other brands didn’t adopt such a striking rear end design, the rest of the E65 still feels fresh to me.
Bangle’s influence would be seen throughout the BMW lineup for years. Highlighting them all would take thousands of words, so I will focus on just one more, the E63 6-Series. This is another vehicle designed by Adrian van Hooydonk and for the most part, looks like a production version of the Z9 Gran Turismo Concept.
This is a car that I feel looks a lot better in person than online. In photos, the BMW seems, I can’t put my finger on it…frumpy? I’m not sure how to describe it. But in person, I’m routinely blown away by these things. They’re low and long. Some parts are restrained, while others are bold.
And then there’s the Gina concept. This is one that I’m not so much a fan of, but my colleagues went wild about it after I mentioned it.
This concept featured a fabric skin stretched over a frame. It’s made up of four panels, so to speak. The sides open up like doors, the hood opens up like a zipper, and there’s a trunk, too. This is a car that’s more or less a shapeshifter, as the fabric changes to the environment and how the driver manipulates it. Again, it’s too much for me, but my colleagues loved it.
Back on track, BMW under Bangle’s design lead went on to recreate Mini and brought Rolls-Royce’s opulence into the modern day. The changes under his lead were dramatic, sure, but I think they led to some of the best years in the BMW portfolio from the adorable Mini to the still hotly-desired E90. Bangle left BMW in 2009, and longtime colleague Adrian van Hooydonk took his place. He’s still the head of design at BMW today, and I’d say some of the designs have changed for the worse, not for the better.
When I noted my hot take, our own lovely designer, Adrian Clarke, had something to say about it. I think my suggestion may have almost killed the poor man, but I’ll let him take the megaphone.
I was recategorizing my mood image folders this morning when The Autopian Transatlantic Hot Take Messaging System (two tin cans connected by 4000 miles of string) [Editor’s Note: Um, that’s very expensive polyglycol-coated data string, thank you – JT] rattled on my desk. “Don’t you think…” said the voice of the obviously deranged or drunk Miss Mercedes “that Chris Bangle was BMW’s best designer?” I immediately did a spit take with my breakfast sherry. Don’t judge, it’s rough here in the UK at the moment. This sort of unhinged opinion cannot go unchallenged dear reader, and because I am a qualified car designer who loves the sound of his own voice I’m here to do exactly that.
Now, I know within certain parts of the BMW fandom Bangle has his fervent defenders (gives Thomas Hundal drag queen levels of side eye), but what Bangle essentially did was turn up, leave a big floater in the BMW design pool and then bugger off back to California to make wine.
Prior to his arrival at BMW in 1992, he had been the Design Director at the Fiat Central Studio in Turin. The car that made his name, the eye opening 1993 Fiat Coupe had not yet been released, but it was a progenitor of things to come. Combining avant-garde flourishes like slashed wheel arches and a gradient front vent with retro detailing, it had slightly uncomfortable proportions thanks to its humble Tipo underpinnings. Nevertheless when it was shown there was a collective gasp of “BMW hired the guy who did THAT?”.
Yes, steady stately old BMW. The company that in typical German fashion elevated engineers to god-like status and shoved the designers into a cupboard under the stairs. The design department held essentially no sway, and had been reduced to updating cars developed years prior by Paul Bracq and Giovanni Michelotti. BMWs had a sense of quiet authority and athleticism, but the existing 3, 5 and 7 series were variations on a theme. Same sausage, three different lengths, laughed at the German auto media.
Given this need to totally shake up not only how BMWs were designed but what design actually meant to the company, BMW were charmed by this snappily dressed Wisconsinite who was convinced car design, like the controversial theory of Punctuated Equilibrium needed to have big evolutionary leaps every couple of generations.
And boy did he make some big leaps. Inspired visually by the deconstructivist buildings of Frank Gehry, he took the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum and slapped a set of wheels on it. BMW called it ‘flame surfacing’. They had figured out how to stamp complex compound panels in one go and were determined to use this technology to get a little abstract.
What we ended up with then was a series of BMWs that had incredibly twisted sheet metal and odd details packed with technology for its own sake. Whether it’s the terrifying Terminator limo-of-the-future E65 7 series or the bleak Bavarian futurism of the E63 6 series, these were cold, awkward, spiky cars a world away from the considered driver focus and thoughtful sporting machines that had gone before. The E85 Z4 was a retro pastiche with modern surfacing and a gimmicky ‘Z’ feature line. Industrial Designer Marc Newsom described it as ‘being designed with a machete’. When the E90 3 series was released looking like a bad copy of a Mitsubishi Carisma described over the phone, it represented a clear winding back of Bangle’s ideas as BMW realized the true horror of what it had unleashed.
Now it is worth noting that Bangle was not responsible for original sketches of any of these cars; but as design chief he would have picked what went forwards and developed them from initial ideas. And young designers are not stupid. They soon work out that you’re designing for the chief as much as you are for the customers. And the man responsible for the E63 and E65 was BMW lifer Adrian van Hooydonk who went on to take the top job when Bangle retired to his vineyard in 2009.
As the student became the master and rose to the very top of the BMW design hierarchy (van Hooydonk is now Group Design Director responsible for not only BMW but MINI and Rolls Royce as well) he set about killing any remaining subtlety or nuance in BMW design. Constant revolution and willful in-your-face aggression has taken over from careful evolution, and that is Bangle’s overall legacy and lasting influence on car design.
That and the introduction of bloody iDrive in the 7 series.
So, Autopians, is Chris Bangle one of the best things to happen to BMW? Or is he the reason that some of the company’s vehicles appear to have kidney problems?
(Photo Credits to BMW unless otherwise noted.)