As much as I want to, I just can’t get excited when the regulars on one of those Discovery Channel shows find the remains of some Etruscan vase in a constructions site. It’s just some old crap that got buried. Who cares? I’m also not particularly turned on by uncovered early screen tests from now-popular actors. Brad Pitt in a school play or Pringles commercialPringles commercial? I’m not interested. But a dog-eared render of a manufacturer’s went-nowhere, long-forgotten concept car? Suddenly I’m geeking out like a Taylor Swift fan finding tickets on StubHub.
More of these things turn up every day, but there are some that I almost wish appeared. In particular, I’d like to find some sketches of concepts from now-rock-star car designers from before they were stars. I’ve imagined what one of these might look like.
Easily one of the best-known and most controversial designers of the last twenty-five years is Chris Bangle. This American’s tenure at BMW created some of the most polarizing car designs in recent history. Love his work or hate it, Bangle is one designer that truly pushed the envelope of the design at one of Germany’s best-known brands. The linear flanks of “traditional” looking BMWs such as the E39 suddenly took on far more complex contours, a term that the press dubbed “flamed surfacing.” Suddenly rectangular headlamp units became unfamiliar shapes, with lines that flowed from the nose to the rear of the car and terminating in ways never before seen on Munich’s products. “It looks like two separate trunk lids stuck together,” cried some critics of the rear design of Bangle’s first true example of his philosophy, the E65 7-series. The “Bangle Butt” became a major point of contention, yet that controversy certainly got people talking about the brand. Hard to believe that a kid from Wisconsin that started out wanting to be a Methodist minister could cause such an international ruckus in car design.
But where did his career start? Before Munich and a stint at Fiat in Italy, Chris’s first job was at General Motors from 1981 to 1985. While he was known to be working with the Opel division, I’d like to imagine if he had a hand in some well-known GM projects that appeared later in the decade.
We’ve talked a lot about the GMT 400 in the last few weeks, from a design study to looking at the Holy Grail versions of the truck. The GMT400 could quite possibly be the cleanest, most modernist design of a pickup truck ever created, with nearly perfect alignment of every cut and crease around the entirety of the vehicle.
What if Chris Bangle had been involved in the creation of this truck? Bangle is known for disruption, and you can be damn sure that anything he’d bring to the table would upset the apple cart of pure functionalism.
Look at one of Bangle’s most well-known designs from his tenure at Fiat, the 1995 Coupe. Even the wheel “arches” aren’t really arches, with curved masses above them that blend into the hood and rear decklid. Up front, the two separate forms almost creates the illusion that the nose is lower to the ground than it really is.
You get the sense that if given the opportunity, Chris might have tried to apply this sort of philosophy to GM’s trucks, going counter to the typical “truck” tradition of the bigger-and-blunter-the-nose-the-better. I’ve added the machete-slashed side sculpting that characterized the Fiat Coupe. My guess is that the reasoning to do this would breaking up the slab-sided nature of the truck sides in a way that Dodge did with the fender-bulges on the 1993 RAM. Like the Fiat, the nose is tall yet gives the impression of being lower. I added pop up lights but my feeling is that the lower-lever “Work Truck” varieties might have had exposed sealed beams sunken into these apertures to look more like the Fiat.
Damn, this thing looks strange. Can you see this truck carrying bales of hay on a farm in rural Iowa? I can’t.
Ah, but what if we imagine a GMT400 concept from later in Bangle’s time at The General? Maybe a few years in, Chris would have refined some of his design language to more conservative play of concave and convex sculpting of the flanks. Also, we’d see the first appearance of Bangle’s signature deck lid where a separate form sits atop the crease line running from the front of the body. The not-as-controversial BMW E60 featured this kind of detailing:
Applying these details to a GMT 400 creates a less bizarre truck than one like the Fiat, with a nose that looks a bit like the Envoy from the early 2000s:
You can see some farmer coming into a GMC dealership in Salina, Kansas and just staring at this damn thing, slack jawed, and wondering what the hell happened. That’s likely what many owners of large BMWs did when they saw the 2002 E65 under the lights in the showroom with this kind of detailing:
Thankfully, Chris never got the chance to change people’s perception of what a pickup truck might be. Still, don’t get me wrong; I have great respect for what Bangle was trying to do at any of the studios on his resume. I actually bought one of his products in spite of the styling years back, but over the twelve years I spent washing its flanks and “Dame Edna” headlamps I honestly really warmed to the design. Listening to Bangle’s talks on inspiration and the reasoning behind why his creations look like they do, I truly appreciate them and almost start to like them.
Of course, about an hour after the podcast ends, I look at an E65 and sort of cringe. Sorry Chris, but I’d much rather have an E38, thank you.