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BMW's Chris Bangle – Ed Was Right All Along

  • May 26, 2006
  • BMW, The Car Biz
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It would be difficult to think of anyone in the international automotive industry more admired and reviled as BMW’s design boss, Chris Bangle. Automotive designers at other companies are envious of his job and many detest the now-characteristic look of his design philosophy. Some automotive journalists and enthusiasts believe he irreparably damaged BMW as a carmaker. But not only are the Bangle BMWs (and MINIs and Rolls-Royces) considered rousing sales successes by company execs and competitors alike, some other automakers are adopting much, if not all of the Bangle design philosophy and language. Helluva thing for a guy raised in Wisconsin.


Born in Ohio – Raised in Wisconsin – Art Center – Of course, Germany Was Next

Born in Ravenna, Ohio fifty years ago this October, Bangle was always something of a non-conformist. I met Chris in 1977 and have stayed in touch with him since then. After graduating from Art Center he was hired by Opel in 1981 to work in the interior studio and within two years he was promoted to interior chief. Chris led the design team that was responsible for the interior of the eclectic Opel Junior concept car. Following the untimely death of Opel design boss Gordy Brown, Brown’s imagination-bereft successor pigeon-holed Bangle as an “interior guy.” Much to GM’s loss as things turned out.
Bangle Moves to Fiat After Purgatory at Opel
But Chris wanted to do more than the innards and after after four years in Rüsselsheim (one of which he described as “purgatory”), Chris was hired by Fiat where he assumed the duties of Chief Designer. While at Fiat, Chris led the team responsible for the styling of the Fiat Coupé. Built from 1994 to earl 2001, the Fiat Coupé was a noteworthy design in that it was neither modern nor retro. Chris and the design team had designed a car that was outside of the timeline. It was bold. It was quirky. It was brave. It was distinctive. One thing it wasn’t was boring. And by the standards of the time and given the market limitations of the brand it was saddled with it was also successful.
BMW’s Homogenous Designs Led Management to Find a Design Leader To Break the Mold
As the BMW product range expanded during the late 1970s through the mid 1980s, BMW design had become increasingly evolutionary and conservative. By the early 1990s in Germany, the phrase “eine Wurst, drei Größen” in regards to BMW’s passenger car lineup came about. The term, which literally translates to “One sausage, three sizes,” referred to the evolutionary design of BMWs. The 3-Series, 5-Series and 7-Series were being perceived as a single car offered in three sizes. A few members of BMW management (as well as the Quant family that controls the largest block of BMW share) were rightly concerned about perception that, over time, could significantly impact sales in the wrong way. The company went looking for a new chief designer.
Following the launch of the Coupé Fiat, Bangle caught the eye of a couple of big-shots at BMW and in October of 1992 he was made the company’s chief designer. In the intervening years, Bangle led a design organization that gave BMW management everything it was after… distinctive cars that, while obviously being BMWs, couldn’t be confused for one another. These include the radically proportioned 7-Series, the challenging 5-Series complete with headlamps that look all he world like Dame Edna’s glasses, the Z4 roadster that brought Bangle’s “Flame Surfacing” philosophy to life and there’s more to come.
7-Series Shock – Bangle Butt and iDrive… iDrive Saves Bangle?
First to arrive was the 7-Series. Large and imposing, most of the automotive media, their minds so lacking in imagination, could never have understood what was behind the car’s design. Along with the radical sheetmetal the new Seven brought a radical change in the vehicle/driver interface. One that would prove to be even more controversial than the car’s styling… iDrive. An arcane, overly complex way for controlling pretty much everything except defroster and seat adjustments, iDrive was said to be be the thing that let Chris keep his job. Truth is, even with the combination of the radical design and iDrive, the current generation 7-Series is the most successful to date. And that’s been pretty much true for all of the over-the-top Bangle designs. And now other companies, Audi, Lexus and even Mercedes, are adopting more than a few of the concepts pioneered by Chris since he joined BMW.


Back in 1999 Chris told me he was working on a few things that would change the industry. Chris has always been the kind of guy who often speaks in high-minded and frequently theoretical terms, but someone who I have NEVER underestimated. And sometimes respected.
“Change the industry, huh?” He just nodded.
To say I was more than intrigued is an understatement. And now, seven years later I realize Christopher Edward Bangle wasn’t exaggerating He was telling the truth.
And he knew it all along.

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