When it comes time to chart designer Chris Bangle’s contribution to the BMW brand’s aesthetic, few pundits will praise his pulchritudinous perversion of pistonhead passion, or thank him for the aesthetic affectations for which BMW is now known. In other words, the “Bangle Butt” will be Chris’ lasting legacy. Of course, this is also the man who removed the words “flame surfacing” from art school and placed them on the tip of his detractors’ tongues. That and Axis of White Power. (Oh! How we laughed!) Equally improbably, the Buckeye State native helped the expression “Dame Edna glasses” cross into the automotive lexicon. Yup. It’s been a wild ride. Literally.
Bangle may not have been the most pretentious pontificator to ever describe an “ow-tow-mobile,” but it’s hard to imagine who could challenge him for that distinction. The vehicles he birthed were almost as intellectually challenging as the words he used to describe them. But not quite.
The gallery above is a snapshot of the kinda post-Bangle era; all photos ripped straight from today’s BMW website. Strangely, revealingly, most of BMW’s model photos do NOT show the most popular viewing angle: front three-quarter. Those that do are almost all computer generated. It’s a tacit admission that Bangle’s designs lack the kind of cohesion which was once the marque’s defining visual characteristic.
The brand’s Bangle-related fall from sheetmetal grace coincided with two major developments.
It’s easy enough to surmise that Bangle had no say in the matter of whether or not his engineering-obsessed paymasters would equip “his” cars with their fiendishly complicated multi-media controller. But one can guess that he welcomed the device as a break from the past, signaling his own arrival.
In any event, the iDrive appeared in Chris’ first major work: the E65 7-Series [see: main picture above]. The iDrive was a disaster. It drew attention to the brand’s move away from its core, technologically illiterate customers. The iDrive and Bangle’s creased sheetmetal drew attention to each other—and not in a good way. Bangle was off to a lousy start.
The second major event: BMW’s success.
Success has many fathers, and it won’t take a DNA test. There are plenty of pundits who have no trouble putting aside their personal distaste for Chris Bangle’s showy designs to credit him and them for BMW’s dramatic rise in the sale charts. I hate it but I’m a snob. Das volk have spoken.
The counter-argument: false synchronicity. You straighten your tie a car horn beeps. Two events related in time, unrelated in cause and effect. We’ll never know if BMW would have enjoyed more success without Bangle’s rude awakening.
Countering the counter argument, you could argue that BMW’s are still instantly recognizable vehicles, right across the now-vast model lineup. For better or worse, it’s probably for the better. The Japanese have been struggling with this overarching brand aesthetic issue—and failing—for decades. For example, L-Finesse is this decade’s best design language, but Lexus’ badge-engineered sedans and SUVs still don’t speak it well, if at all.
Regular readers can guess my take on this matter: in terms of a car company’s long term health and survival, branding is all. There’s only important question: did Bangle’s tortured designs help or hurt BMW’s Ultimate Driving ethos?
I’m thinking neither. During the Bangle era, BMW maintained its well-deserved rep for driver-oriented mechanical engineering. Not reliability. Fun. Passion. Performance. The latest M5 lost all its visual sang froid. Every. Last. Bit. It’s an ugly, self-referential, over-wrought, arriviste pastiche. (AND it’s cursed with both iDrive AND the world’s worst gearbox.) But the über-5 still goes like hell and corners like the ultimate handling metaphor.
Again, other carmudgeons chiming in on the Bangle bamboozle will have a kindler, gentler take. Members of the autoblogosphere reporting Bangle’s exit, stage right, are sure to couch their criticism carefully, deploying their own obfuscation via words like “challenging,” “daring” and “controversial.”
Truth be told, Bangle took a car company best known for its oxymoronic Oberbürgermeister chic and turned it into an upmarket blingfest. His successor Adrian van Hooydonk has dialed it back a bit, but Bangle lingered long enough to make sure no one cancelled his contract with Fifty Cent. Maybe now they will. Here’s hoping.
Bangle’s departure raises the Lilly Pulitzer question: did he fall or was he pushed? Either way, is his acolyte now, at this very moment, using the ultimate office shredder? Will the Bangle schtick stick? BMW’s Board has been behind Bangle in the most Wagnerian of ways. But their willingness to dump his predecessor’s designs for something entirely new speaks of a new design direction.
Meanwhile, BMW says Chris Bangle is quitting “to pursue his own design-related endeavors beyond the auto industry.” Note: not “outside.” “Beyond.” Egomaniacal to the end, it seems that Mr. Bangle is ready to ascend to a higher plane, beyond mere “automobiles.” We wish him luck in his self-imposed exile from main street.