By on February 7, 2012


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Inspired by an impromptu meeting and discussion I had with Chris Bangle and Jack Telnack at the 2008 Detroit Show, originally published in Speed:Sport:Life three years ago, but I think it is equally true today —- JB

“…so we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A Dark Knight.”

It feels more than a little trite and melodramatic to begin this column with a quote from a Batman movie, but if the auto business has any profession which lends itself to celebrity culture, it is that of the stylist. Harley Earl set the template: physically enormous and personally outrageous, he created our modern notion of the automobile as aesthetic object. And while there have been many flamboyant “superstar” designers who followed in his footsteps, from Tjaarda to Stephenson, history will surely acknowledge that a few men managed to accomplish more than merely sketching a pretty shape. Bill Mitchell brought us the 1961 Chevrolet, which set a visual template for modern sedans that persists to this day. William Lyons fathered the XJ6, perhaps the greatest sporting sedan design in history, even if he didn’t actually draw it. Alex Issigonis invented the “small car” as we know it today, and Giorgetto Giugiaro rationalized it into the unmatchable first-generation Golf. Marcello Gandini created the supercar; Jack Telnack revitalized the Mustang and with it an entire generation of automotive enthusiasm.

Years from now, when the smoke of history clears, another name will be added to that list of designers who were capable of re-imagining the automobile. Born and raised in the American Midwest, Christopher Edward Bangle joined BMW with a rather singular goal in mind: to create what would be only the second major design direction in the company’s history. His complete and utter success in this task has permitted BMW to become a major player on the global stage; along the way, he rewrote the design language for the entire auto industry.

Such is the man’s star power that, like George W. Bush, Bill Gates, or the Almighty Himself, Bangle is regularly blamed for or credited with the accomplishments of others — but it isn’t necessary. His own successes are enough. To understand them, and to grasp why it is possible to respect or even admire the man himself without particularly loving his creations, we will have to take the advice of David E Davis and open our hymnals…

…not to page 2002, as DED Jr. originally commanded, but to the year 1962, when the BMW Neue Klasse debuted.


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The BMW Neue Klasse would spawn the 1602, and in turn, the 2002.

It seems almost impossible to conceive now, but forty-seven years ago BMW was very far from being an unstoppable market force or a purveyor of so-called “ultimate driving machines”. Germany was still recovering from the nightmare of the Second World War, no more distant in time from 1962 than the First Gulf War is for us today and powerfully present in the memories and mindsets of Germans in a way that a brief overseas bitch-slapping could never be for the average American. The floundering Bayerische Motoren Werke had scrimped and saved to create a new family-sized sedan, complete with a rather extravangant one-and-a-half-liter engine. For those efforts, they were promptly rewarded with more business than they could handle, even though the “1500″ model couldn’t break the hundred-mile-per-hour mark, it had only four cylinders, and it could easily be hidden behind a modern Hyundai Accent. In other words, it was a BMW, but not as we know them today.

Still, the car was a success and it was eventually developed into the two-liter, two-door 2002 that captured the heart of Car and Driver’s chief editor and made BMW the expensive, exotic choice of the leather-driving-glove crowd in the early Seventies. By then, BMW was on a roll and had developed a “full-sized” sedan, the most common US-market variant of which was the “Bavaria”. The conception of the Bavaria is a story in itself, involving as it does the amazing Max Hoffman, but but suffice it to say that in general size, style, and (six-cylinder) power, the Bavaria set the template for BMW’s products in this country. It would be several more years before the 325e brought the inline six to the US-market 3-series, but by then the general idea of BMW — sporty, expensive, square body, round headlamps, six cylinders — was pretty well-fixed in the American mind.


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The “Bavaria” was a full-sized BMW, equipped like a German “2500″ model but with the larger “2800″ six.

The Eighties and early Nineties were good times for the men from Bavaria. In the space of thirty years, BMW transformed itself from a niche company that sold fewer than ten thousand miniscule “bubblecars” and irrelevant, mostly disregarded high-end luxury cars to a solid volume player worldwide. There was just one little problem.


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The successor to the Bavaria was the E23, available in this country as the 730i, 733i, and 735i. As you can see, it was not a major stylistic change from the Bavaria.

The entire reputation of BMW, particularly in the United States, was based on the Neue Klasse sedans and the derivative “02″ coupes. Among BMW enthusiasts, the 2002 was widely understand to be the “heart” of the company. For that reason, every successive BMW was required to pay visual homage to the Neue Klasse, which meant round headlamps, a relatively square profile, a big greenhouse with a kinked rear window, and a set of proportions best suited to a small car.


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More than twenty years after the first big BMW sedan debuted, the E32 735i was still required to “sample” the proportions and details of its predecessors.

This required styling relationship to a sedan which had been hastily designed for a 1961 introduction into the German family-car market was both blessing and curse. Bimmers (for the record, a “Beemer” has two wheels until you cross the pond to the United Kingdom, where they call everything from Bavaria a “Beemer”) were instantly recognizable worldwide and as such possessed very powerful branding. It would be virtually impossible for a Rip van Winkle from 1962 to recognize a 1993-model Chevrolet or Ford, but he would have no trouble picking out a BMW from the crowd.

On the debit side of the equation, BMW was rapidly starting to look a little, well, stodgy. Audi had long since embraced avant-garde aerodynamic styling, a change undertaken in somewhat more reserved fashion by Bruno Sacco and his W201 “baby Benz”. The Japanese had launched three luxury brands with flagship cars that simply looked far more modern than any Bavarian box ever could. When the E38 large sedan and E39 midsized sedan were introduced in Europe, the press started to grumble that, just maybe, BMW was being a little conservative in its visual approach. CAR magazine went farther, referring to the E38 as “depressing and timid”. Truth be told, they had a point: the E39 was virtually identical to the outgoing E34, and the very few styling changes it did have were generally held to be unfortunately executed.


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The 1997 E38 big BMW probably represented the nadir of BMW’s styling paralysis; it looked like a squished E32, with a relatively cramped interior and crass-looking headlight assemblies that became even uglier in the “baggy-eyed” mid-cycle refresh.

Faced with the prospect of perpetually redrawing the same basic car, an approach memorably described in the UK press as “selling the same sausage in three different lengths”, the board members of BMW AG made what had to have been an unbelievably difficult decision: they looked to the outside for help. That assistance came in the form of a man who had recently gained notoriety for drawing a series of bizarre-looking Fiats, someone who said that design leadership consisted of taking the customer where “they don’t want to go”. Chris Bangle had worked at Opel prior to his Fiat engagement, but it was with the Fiat Coupe — a raw slash of a car which would later donate much of its fundamental proportion and design thought to the infamous “X Coupe” concept — that he caught the attention of BMW’s management.


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This was not your grandfather’s Fiat. As it turned out, it wouldn’t be your kid’s Fiat, either. His Fiat would be the New 500, which was a retro rip of your grandfather’s Fiat.

The attractiveness of the Fiat Coupe could certainly be debated, but its originality and vision were plain to anyone with a bare minimum of aesthetic sense. The BMW board, in many ways a puppet whose strings were pulled by the mysterious Quandt family, gave Bangle its full public support. No matter what happened, the new design direction would be pursued to its conclusion.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Europe, another “luxury” manufacturer was returning from a frustrating, unprofitable dalliance with modernism. Jaguar had built its seminal XJ6 sedan with fairly minor alterations from 1968 to 1986, having considerable success along the way and escaping the hellhole known as British Leyland, but the successor “XJ40″ had been publicly crucified for its “digital dash” and — horrors! — square headlights. Shortly afterwards, Ford rescued the company from a financial collapse which was more or less entirely the XJ40′s fault and immediately threw in a quick “retro” restyle to bring the “X300″ into visual line with the 1968 original. Sales went up, customers were happier, and plans were made for the “X350″ successor to imitate the retro look. Although the X350 was a technologically daring aluminum-unibody sedan in the mold of the Audi A8, it would not be permitted to visually differ from the X300, which was itself intended to be nearly indistinguishable from the 1968 XJ6.


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Well, this looks different, doesn’t it?

The first production “Bangle BMW” was the “E46″ 3 Series, but anybody who had bothered to take a look at the concept cars being shown at the same time, most notably the aforementioned X Coupe, should have known that the real future design direction of BMW had yet to appear. When it did, it literally shocked the world. The “E65″ 745i full-sized sedan looked like no BMW in history, which made it quite a departure from the company’s previous practice of having all BMWs look like every BMW in history. (Understanding, of course, that “history” started in 1961.) The E65 could hardly be accused of being beautiful, but it struck a chord with buyers. For the first time in most peoples’ living memories, a genuinely new BMW was available.

Naturally, the always-fickle Press As A Whole completely forgot their vicious panning of the previous-generation 740i in their unseemly haste to dogpile this “challenging” new Bimmer. The BMW board never blinked in their determination to back Bangle; the E60 5-Series which followed was an uncompromsing extension of the styling themes seen in the E65. “Flame surfacing” entered the automotive enthusiast vocabulary, along with the less complimentary (and utterly inaccurate) “Bangle Butt”.

The man behind the aforementioned Butt held fast in the face of criticism from all quarters. Although Bangle had not styled the new generation of BMWs himself, he cheerfully served as the lightning rod for the storm of negative reaction, the board continued to back him, and sales continued to climb. The leather-driving-glove crowd was eventually won over by the sheer mechanical excellence of modern Bimmers, although the “Letters” section of Roundel continues to boil over even today with cartoonish indignation. While Mercedes-Benz writhed in quality-control turmoil and Audi plotted a future renaissance, BMW quietly assumed the title of the world’s premier mass-market automotive brand.

Jaguar released the sublime and satisfying X350 in 2003, complete with perfected “homage” styling calculated to satisfy the most ardent Jaguar traditionalist… and the car fell on its face, setting off a chain reaction of events that would eventually result in the brand’s sale to an Indian industrialist. Meanwhile, BMW went from strength to strength; the long-awaited arrival of the “Bangled” 3-Series (a tag which ignored the fact that the 1999 3 Series had also been “Bangled”) proved to be an unqualified success. Still, there was a sense that BMW was pulling the reins tighter on its maverick design team; each new BMW appeared just slightly less daring than the one before. Who could blame them? After all, it’s one thing to bet the farm, but it’s quite another to bet the farm, win the bet, and leave your chips on the table to do it all again.

In a conversation I had with Mr. Bangle at the 2008 NAIAS, he noted rather caustically that his “old” E60 was still the most “challenging” car on the market, years after its release. The 2009 release of the relatively conservative new 7 Series (castigated as “timid” once again by the ever-schizophrenic UK press) does nothing to invalidate that statement. The past half-decade has also seen the fundamental principles of Bangle-era styling stolen, excuse me, “appropriated”, by everyone from Audi (with their “emotional surfaces”) to Toyota and Lexus (the LS460 and current Camry, in addition to looking exactly like each other, also look like generic-label versions of the E65). Even Jaguar has finally wised up and delivered a car — the new XF — which contains just enough “flame surfacing” to look vaguely modern.

What would a BMW without Bangle be like? It is hard to imagine that even the most doggedly mundane of stylists could have squeezed two more generations of sausages from the Neue Klasse tube, but had they done so, the highways would look very different today. We simply take it for granted that the “man from Ohio” solved a variety of automotive styling problems on our behalf. Ever notice just how tall cars are today? That’s a packaging requirement, and it can be done awkwardly (the non-flame-surfaced 2008 Taurus) or invisibly (the flame-surfaced 2010 model). Ever bothered to read the Euro pedestrian impact standards? They forced blunt noses and tall bonnets on sedan makers, who were then able to look at a BMW to get a sense of how to meet those requirements. Have you noticed that the trunk on a 1999 740il is a “two-person” trunk while the new 750il has luggage room for four? That’s courtesy of the “stacked” trunk profile popularized by you-know-who.

My friends in the blogosphere are stage-whispering to anyone who will listen that Bangle was “forced out” or “pushed”, but anybody with a lick of sense can see that it was time for the man to walk away. What’s left for him to do? He has saved BMW from a Jaguar-esque retro-fate, re-imagined the way cars are styled in the twenty-first century, and lived to see his critics either dwindle into irrelevance or voluntarily engage in shameless “copypasta” of his ideas. Why not walk into the sunset? His parting phraseology — that he is moving “beyond automobiles” — could be an indicator of anything, or of nothing.

Chris Bangle has taken a million morons’ hatred, ignorance, and misunderstanding squarely on the chin and kept moving the art of automotive design forward, often alone, always under fire. From the crucible of fifteen years’ effort and battle, he’s emerged as more than just a “hero” or “celebrity” designer, more than just an opinionated controvery artist. If you ask me, he’s earned a rest. And if you love BMWs in particular, or just cars in general, he’s earned your thanks, as well.

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78 Comments on “Avoidable Contact: The man who saved BMW....”


  • avatar
    stottpie

    since when was the e65 in the same league as the e38 in visual aesthetics?

    when i see a e38 or even e32 drive by, it looks classy. when i see an e65, it makes me puke a bit in my mouth.

    • 0 avatar
      LeMansteve

      +1

      The E38 is the most timeless 7-series ever. My neighbor has a 740iL with the 5 spoke M-parallel wheels. It is at least 10 years old and simply gorgeous.

    • 0 avatar
      arbnpx

      Agreed, plus the E38 is widely regarded as more reliable than the E65. If the E38 was really “the nadir of BMW’s styling paralysis”, then I’m fine with that, because the E38 is still one of the most sought-after large Bimmers.

      The E60, E63, and E65 were universally reviled for their bulbous proportions and garish styling. Probably the best caricature of this is Jeremy Clarkson’s review of the E60 M5; he loathes the car… up until the moment he pushes the “M” button.

      I still remember the first time I saw an E90 on the road in the mid-2000’s: “What is that, a Lexus?” At that point, BMW had lost their way, until their redemption of the E92 3 series coupe unveil, which restored some semblance of the E46’s grace.

      Chris Bangle was not BMW’s “savior”; if anything, it was Adrian van Hooydonk and the F10 5 series, illustrating that BMW had recovered from their flame-surfacing insanity. About the only misstep they’ve had recently is the F20 1 series hatchback in Europe, which probably has the ugliest nose to come out of BMW since… the E60 5 series. Prior to a 1 series coupe restyle for the US, someone needs to fly over to Munich, bring up diagrams of the F10 and F30 front fascias, and say, “See this? MORE of this.”

  • avatar
    Brock_Landers

    E65’s two other important reasons for success was its technology/interior and the way it drove. Lightyears ahead of the competition at the time. Impact to the executive segment and luxury car market as a whole is comparable to the launch of LS400 in 1989. Those cars have changed the luxury car game. Prior to LS the game changer was W116 Benz. E65 has been the only car that snatched the “default represantative luxury sedan” throne from the S-class (partly because of the horrible quality and subpar interior of the W220). Ofcourse until the W221 took the throne back again. But there was a period when seven-forty-fizza ruled the hearts and minds of hiphop stars and diplomats alike.

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      What he said.

      I’m not trying to disparage Bangle, but even amidst the almost self celebratory shallowness of the dot-com, hip hop, Paris Hilton and Abramovich contingents, an obviously superior car is difficult to denigrate.

      Also, for a generation or more prior, a population increasingly indoctrinated into “expert” worship, had been fed a steady diet about BMWs being for the car cognoscenti. In an environment like that, any design that departs from whatever anyone else was doing, could be passed off as not just being different, but better. Never mind actual merit.

      On a more Bangle positive note: Those svelte, minimalist earlier Bimmers, depended on low beltlines and upright greenhouses to work. Once safety and wind noise expectations conspired to demand higher beltlines, the old style design direction would simply look boringly slab sided. Bangle did find away to make those slab sides have some interest, regardless of whether one finds them beautiful or not.

      Those Bangle shapes are also harder (read more expensive) to produce; and a bit of gratuitous spending is a good way of making it hard for cheaper brands to imitate your look too closely; ensuring a bit of exclusivity for those who do pony up for what was becoming an increasingly self consciously upmarket brand.

      In other words, Bangle did what all good industrial designers, as opposed to pure artists do; adapt “his” products to technological/legal/social changes that would render the existing paradigm a bit obsolete.

  • avatar
    Flipper35

    Whoever is responsible, there had to be a better way to style the rears on those cars. It looks like they got to the c pillar and said screw it.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    I believe Volvo bangled better than BMW.

    • 0 avatar
      Hildy Johnson

      Which Volvo models do you have in mind?

    • 0 avatar
      racer-esq.

      Exactly, Volvo did it first and did it better. It’s just that Volvo’s “Bangle butt” actually worked well and flowed with the car, so it didn’t create any controversy.

      Hildy – the 2008 S80, which came out four years before Bangle’s 7.

      • 0 avatar
        Jack Baruth

        The Hyundai XG, which came out at the same time as the Volvo, featured a stepped trunk which (I think) was far closer to that of the E65 in execution.

        I would suggest, however, that the E65 trunkline pays just as much tribute to that of the E32, which has a step in the profile and a very tall trunk.

        Everyone I know who went from an E32 to the E38 complained about a drop of trunk and passenger space, FWIW.

      • 0 avatar
        racer-esq.

        Good point on the Hyundai. A crease, at the door sill level, that extends into a higher than door sill level trunk is present in a lot of cars. Hyundai and Volvo do seem to be amoung the first to make the crease more dramatic.

      • 0 avatar
        iNeon

        Chrysler’s mid-size line had bangle butt in 1995. The neon had it in 1994.

      • 0 avatar
        cdotson

        The 1994 Honda Accord had a “bangle butt.” I thought it was more aptly-named the “van Hooydonk-badonk” though.

  • avatar
    Advance_92

    The Bavaria worked because in the early 70s (71? 72?) Max Hoffman was able to convince BMW to let him sell a simplified version of 2800. Remove expensive and complicated parts like the self-leveling suspension, keep the big engine and lower the price. BMW NA reversed this pattern when they took over and made a ton of money marketing the anemic 528e as the ‘fake luxury’ of the early 80s.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      How is the 528e “faux luxury”? While not fast by modern standards, even the lowly 528e was a decent performer for its time, and the torque-tuned engine was very well suited to the automatic transmission that most Americans want. The 535i was the very same car with the full-fat motor, and it was an absolute ripper. The e28 was a beautifully engineered car no matter which engine it had under the hood.

  • avatar
    PartsUnknown

    Great story. In my opinion however, the E39 5 series and E38 7 series are the most beautiful modern era BMWs. They are classy and have a presence that many modern cars do not possess. I have grown to like the E60, and maybe I’m one among the “millions of morons” without any aesthetic sense, but I don’t feel that the Bangle BMWs can sniff the E38/E39’s jock.

    • 0 avatar
      rem83

      I agree with you about the E38 and E39 – both are classicaly elegant. I too am one of the ‘millions of morons’ who believes that design simply to be different is not the same as good design.

    • 0 avatar
      burgersandbeer

      +1. And not just your opinion. I always thought it was the general consensus that the E38/E39 were a high point in BMW design. This article is certainly the first I have heard of criticism toward the E38/E39.

      I guess the reaction to them may have been different when they were released.

      • 0 avatar
        Zykotec

        And you are all wrong. Even as design is offcourse subjective, the E39 in particular looks like melted e34 at best, which was the last good looking 5 series. And in what othder direction could they have taken after the e38/9’s. Even lower, even more rounded? Even if Bangles cars aren’t as but to jump sideways and abandon the sectioning of the last model for every generation.

      • 0 avatar
        rem83

        @Zykotec – No sir, it is you who is wrong.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        @Zykotek

        What direction could they have taken? They could have gone directly to the CURRENT generation of F-cars, which look like evolutions of the e38/e39 and not at all like the Bangle-mangles.

        BMW did really well with the Bangle-era cars because they launched into a boom period just as their Stuttgart rivals stumbled. But imagine what the sales would have been if they had actually been good-looking! I bet for every person who bought one because it was different and avantgarde, another bought something else because it was ugly.

        The board stood behind Bangle because it is just not done to admit in Germany that you are wrong.

    • 0 avatar
      PartsUnknown

      “design is offcourse (sic) subjective”

      That was the only (mostly) accurate part of your post. I find the E34 very attractive, but the E39 a fuller realization of the styling language. Simply my view, others may (and do) disagree. No one is wrong, however.

      • 0 avatar
        Zykotec

        Just melting the previous generation and then adding compressed air to bloat it at the middle so that both the front end and rear end looks to small is not realizing a styling language…not in my eyes at least…

      • 0 avatar
        PartsUnknown

        “melting the previous generation and then adding compressed air”

        Using such odd hyperbole lends little weight to your view on this. I’m no engineer, but I’ll assume that the E39 was styled without melting an E34 and using compressed air. We get it, the E39 is ugly, thanks for sharing.

      • 0 avatar
        Zykotec

        Ok, I admit I don’t really think that how they build the car (it sure looks like it though)
        Unsurprisingly it’s one of the more aerodynamic large sedans of the 90’s though. And the M5 version isn’t quite as ugly. (a lot of cars designed in the 90’s did look worse btw, I’m no BMW hater)

    • 0 avatar
      noxioux

      Bangle + BMW = MEH

      Passed a lady in one of these in the parking lot just a few days ago, and thought to myself that it had to be one of the poorest looking new cars I’d seen in a long while.

    • 0 avatar
      Amendment X

      +1 The E39 and E38 always work to turn my head in traffic. Timeless, elegant, and conservative. BMW’s styling zenith, eternally.

      Great article, Baruth! The Bangle-loving was a lil’ crazy, but superb story.

  • avatar
    Type57SC

    When you think about ‘was X a good thing’, you need to consider the alternatives. My friends in BMW tell me that Fisker’s proposal also made a clear progression, but had the advantage of attractiveness. But Bangle’s Board connections won the day. That 6 series was way worse than even the lumpy ass of the 7 series. I’ve never understood why Joji Nagashima wasn’t given the top job long ago. He seems to get proportion and restraint, and seems to get that BMW should be the “Ultimate Driving Machine” not the “Ultimate Success Badge”. i miss my E39 terribly.

  • avatar
    LeeK

    Great article, Jack. I’ve never understood the vitriol of the BMW elite regarding the horrors done to the brand by Mr. Bangle. It strikes me as you look at new Lexus, Kia, and Hyundai vehicles today, they all pay homage to the stylistic trends introduced by Chris. Also, it’s all about sales and you note that BMW continues to grow, for all kinds of reasons. The supposedly dreadful styling doesn’t appear to have hurt BMW’s bottom line.

    Like many visionaries, Chris Bangle’s influence on automotive design will be readdressed in a more positive light as time marches on. The Shock of the New and all that.

  • avatar
    rem83

    Hrm, the M1, Z1, Z3 and E31 seem to disagree that all BMW’s were derived from the Neue Klasse

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      The phrase you’re looking for is “the exception proves the rule”. The total production of all the cars you mentioned, together, would be just enough business to run BMW’s South African assembly plant for, oh, eight or nine months.

      • 0 avatar
        rem83

        Well, I’d agree with you, except Z3 production was actually over 296,000 units, which is nothing to sneeze at – especially if you consider that E38 total production was just over 327,000. Besides, we’re talking design, right? BMW really only seemed to feel that their mainstream sedans had to look like mainstream sedans.

        Oh, and the Z8 was apparently designed by Fisker. Sure, it’s easy to design a roadster that’s prettier than a sedan, but the Z8 has a particular elegance and beauty to it’s design. The Z4 may be “edgy” but there’s nothing particularly beautiful or graceful about it.

        So, I guess – is your thesis that Bangle was a successful designer because BMW sold a lot of cars designed by him? I don’t know about you, but I don’t judge popularity among the masses to be the true success of car design, even if the accountants do. By that token, you might as well say that the Cayenne is the best designed Porsche because they sell so damn many of them.

      • 0 avatar
        niky

        The Z3 was a Bangle.

  • avatar
    tedward

    You’ve convinced me that Bangle ended up being wildly influential to the auto industry (and definitely worthy of a write up as such).

    You haven’t moved me an inch from my perception of “his” BMWs as ugly, tacky, overstyled and generally far less desirable than their predecessors. As far as I’m concerned they are still in the woods styling wise.

    edit: I get it though, I’m willing to allow that Mr. Bangle contributions may have been good for BMW, just not that Mr. Bangle produced any good looking BMWs.

  • avatar
    Johnny Canada

    Thankfully relegated to the dustbin of history.

  • avatar
    Hildy Johnson

    I’m with the majority here. BMW indeed needed fresh ideas, but Bangle was the wrong answer. BMW was successful despite Bangle, not because of him.

    The folks that really ought to thank Bangle are the ones at Audi.

  • avatar
    geeber

    The “template for modern sedans” was NOT the 1961 Chevrolet. It was the 1961 Lincoln Continental, which featured a wide “C” pillar, minimal chrome, flush-mounted front and rear bumpers and very little sheetmetal sculpturing.

    The 1961 Chevrolet was an attractive car, and a breath of fresh air after the overblown 1959 and 1960 models. But it was the 1961 Lincoln Continental that had the lasting influence on design – an influence that continues to this day.

  • avatar
    turbobrick

    Two person vs. four person trunk… I’m glad you specified luggage, I thought we were using the old “dead hooker scale” for measuring trunk volume.

  • avatar
    Davekaybsc

    The E39 M5 remains a gorgeous car, and to a lesser extent the 540i Sport does too. The more basic E39s though are a bit boring by today’s standards. I do admit that the E60 has grown on me. Initially I hated it, but today it looks pretty decent, certainly better than the very dull looking E-class of the time.

    Now I think it’s reversed. The E-class despite its issues looks sharp, and I think that design is aging well. The F10 looks kind of bloated. The side profile and the rear are not bad, but the front is just not attractive. The new F30 3 series is much more successful than the 5, and I’m glad that BMW finally broke from copying and pasting the same interior in every car since the X5 with the new 3 series.

    Further, with their different “lines” I think BMW is doing a better job of catering to the customer that buys on interior design than Audi, which is a first. You can have the inside of the 335i “your way” where as with the S4, you’re kind of stuck with black on black, or mostly black on black.

  • avatar
    carguy

    If you want to make the case for Bangle as a force for good at BMW (which he was) then I would not use the 7 series as an example. While the E38 had great understated elegance, the E65 had garish bling that was an instant hit with well to do night club owners and footballers. No doubt it sold but it also changed the appeal of the vehicle – and for me it killed it.

    Fortunately BMW has walked back most of the styling excesses but kept some of Bangle’s ideas which has resulted in some distinctive and handsome cars. Now if only they would hire a visionary that could lead them back to nimble handling and communicative steering, all would be well again.

  • avatar
    slance66

    Well Jack, it was a good try. As the owner of an E90, I like the look of the car (which does not have the Bangle Butt). Judging by sales of Bangle 3 and 5 series cars, I’m not the only one. But I’ll confess, I like the 2008+ C class better, and I think the Lexus IS is “prettier”, if more feminine along the way.

    But I can see his design influence in the 2008 C class I liked so much, the new Sonata and Optima, clearly the Accord and later the Camry, along with dozens of others. Did some of them improve on the look of the E60 for example, and fix the “butt”? Yes. Just as the 3 series coupe was an improvement and the new 3 series and 5 series are just gorgeous.

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    Long ago, I had a BMW 2002. It was reasonably good looking and a pleasure to drive. The early 3-series cars were technically better but no more pleasing to see. The first 3-series car to stop me in my tracks with my jaw hanging open was the E36. For the first time, a BMW was stunningly beautiful. The E46 was a refinement on the same theme. Among the 5-series models, the pinnacle of elegance was the E39.

    Because they are edgy, the subsequent 3- and 5-series models have lost that elegance. The 3-series coupes have improved as the edges have been softened. The model that would best suit me is a 1-series coupe. However, its styling is such a mess that you would have to lead me to it blindfolded. I would kill for a 1-series that resembled an E30 or E46.

  • avatar
    TokyoPlumber

    Perhaps Bangle can be seen more as “creative destructionist” rather than “savior”. He helped pull BMW off what was a very conservative design path – one that would probably have been detrimental to the long term health of the brand. The aesthetic success of his BMWs may be debatable. However, the styling risks taken by Bangle enlarged the design space for his successors.

    I’d like to hear more about Jack’s meeting with Mr. Telnack. In my view Jack Telnack was the most influential North American car designer from the early 1980’s to mid 1990’s. Telnack deserves every bit as much attention as Bangle.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Jack: (very starstruck) OMG ITS JACK TELNACK

      Bangle: Yes it is.

      Telnack: Yes I am.

      Jack: OMG I LUVVVVVVVED THE 1979 MUSTANG I MEAN MY GOD IT BASICALLY CREATED THE TEMPLATE FOR THE MODERN PONYCAR AND HEY THE 1994 WAS TOTALLLY BACKWARDS AND UM I LUVVVED IT

      Telnack: (frightened) I need to catch my ride to the hotel.

  • avatar
    racer-esq.

    Bangle made unattractive BMWs, but created a break that allowed later, better BMW designers (with nowhere near the self promotion skill) to start fresh. I will give him credit for that.

    Flame surfacing has been around since the 1950s (the flames were called scallops), going in and out of style since then. Interestingly, Bangle’s most iconic car, the 7 series, is completely devoid of any surface detail. It’s as slab sided as any BMW.

    As pointed out above, Volvo created the modern two tier trunk (Bangle butt) with the 1998 S80, which came out four years before the 7.

    Jack – They say money talks and bullsh*t walks. Your money said it would like two very conservatively styled Phaetons, with no flame surfaces or two tier trunks, and zero Bangle designed 7-series.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      The only BMW I’ve ever owned new — a 2001 E46 330i Sport — was a Bangle car.

      When I had the Phaetons, I was self-employed (as a mid-level coke dealer, according to authoritative reports on “VW Vortex”) and I didn’t want the profile associated with a BMW. This was brought home to me in dramatic fashion when, on one of the not-totally-infrequent days when both Phaetons were in the shop, I was publicly chastised by one of my partners for “driving that flashy Porsh”. the “flashy Porsh” in question was an ’83 944.

  • avatar
    tallnikita

    Sorry didn’t read the article yet – will do on the train.

    But regarding what Bangle did to BMW, ever since the first Bangle Butt, I have been confusing BMWs with Nissan Altimas. Especially in the dark. Especially after Bangle left and Altimas got those sculpted rear ends. 3, 5, 7 series, all the same problem – take the label off and they look like any other Japanese car.

    That they continue to sell and do well is actually a tremendous surprise to me. Probably something to do with Merc C class now looking a lot like a Honda Accord.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    Chris Bangle saved BMW the same way Mark David Chapman saved John Lennon.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      “Avoidable Contact: How the W-body saved the Monte Carlo”

      “Avoidable Contact: How Chris Gaines saved Garth Brooks”

      “Avoidable Contact: How Eli Roth saved horror movies”

  • avatar
    Zykotec

    Great article, and I agree completely that Bangle , if not saved, at least gave BMW a chance to renew their design philosophy, while still staying quite true to the original. (Anyone who’s seen a 1970 BMW should understand) The only logical way for BMW’s original design philosophy to continue would have ended in the Lexus IS, and the Mitsubishi Galant of the late 90’s, which I’m guessing was two of the reasons they decided it was time to make a change.
    and IMO, the E39 really was BMW’s ugliest car to date…

  • avatar
    windnsea00

    To me the turn of the century was the golden era for BMW designs: Absolutely love the Z3M Coupe (owned one), E46 M3 and touring, E39 M5, 740i Sport, and Z8.

  • avatar
    replica

    Guess I’m part of the uneducated philistines. The last BMW that made me stop and stare was the E39. Still looks new today. Timeless. The first wave of crazy “Bangle” designs look very dated now.

    • 0 avatar
      Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

      E39 Touring turbodiesel would theoretically be my dream car, but even if you could get them in the USA I doubt I could afford to keep one in good repair.

  • avatar
    Type57SC

    I think you’ve miss interpreted the quote “selling the same sausage in three different lengths”. I considered it to refer to having the same design language closely adheared to in 3, 5 and 7, not that they had to keep one generation close to another in look.

  • avatar
    obi1kenobi1

    How on Earth did the 1961 Chevrolet “set a visual template for modern sedans that persists to this day”? How was its styling in any way different from every other car on the road in the 1960s? The only car that did anything close to that was the 1947 Studebaker, which replaced the fastback and bustleback trunks of the era with a long, flat trunk, but even that design template has unfortunately been thrown out in the last decade or so. Unfortunately, no 1960s car created any visual template that lasted past the 1960s (apart from the mid ’60s introduction of the cheap plastic dashboard, those are still everywhere).

    I completely agree that the Bangle BMWs have been very influential, but that just means that all cars today are incredibly ugly. The E38 is the most beautiful BMW of all time, after the 8 series.

    By the way, I had to look up “flame surfacing” since I’ve never heard that term before, and I still don’t understand what it means (apart from a pretentious way to say “creases”).

    Also, I don’t see how anyone with eyesight could compare the Bangle Butt to a Volvo trunk. The worst part of the Bangle Butt is the trunk perched atop the rear quarter panel like a strange hat, while the Volvo has a traditional trunk with an upright back.

  • avatar
    replica

    Can I blame Bangle for cars not having windows anymore? Or do I just fall back on my “blame Bush” meme?

  • avatar
    A Caving Ape

    I’m with everyone else who still thinks that the quintessential Bangle BMWs are still quite ugly, whereas the older models still hold up quite well aesthetically. You could draw the comparison to Porsche- the 911 may look like every other 911, but it’s still beautiful. I think BMW would have been just fine going with that technique.

    I hadn’t considered his influence on the rest of the industry, though. You make a persuasive case for it. Still, I wouldn’t go so far as to thank the man.

  • avatar
    james2k

    Having owned an e38 for years and with an e39 M5 as my current daily driver, it’s hard for me to aesthetically connect with recent BMWs. I can’t tell if it’s my ownership bias but few if any current BMWs thrill me visually. But every time I see a well kept old 740i, I get a little misty. And the e39? Perfection.

    Oddly enough, I’m still a Bangle fan. I like the controversy and discussions he generates. I like that he’s got a weird take on things. The GINA fabric car, for example. How cool was that?! And Jack makes a great point on how BMW managed the transition to current EU regulations on pedestrian safety.

    It’s a convenient narrative but let’s be careful to assume causation between the BMW’s post e39 styling directions and the sales success of the brand. Effective marketing, clever lease/financing “deals,” and mistakes by their competitors all played a part. Jaguar may have fallen flat holding onto the past but Porsche clearly hasn’t been hurt by slavishly adhering to their design heritage. And now I’m thinking about the Panamera and now I’m going to be sick. Thanks.

    Finally, Jack, you are still my favorite car guy by far. I’ve been reading TTAC daily since the Farrago days (miss that guy) and your insightful writing keep me coming back for more. Your piece, “The Advocate: Freakonomics And The Autojourno Life” is one of the best I’ve read. Keep up the great work!

  • avatar
    Maymar

    I once saw an interview on the Youtubes with Bruno Sacco, where he talked about his intent on designing Benzes – that it wasn’t good enough for the car to look good when it came out, or even for it to still look good when it went out of production – it had to look attractive and reasonably modern a decade or so after that generation had gone out of production (figuring there’d still be a large number of them on the road). In other words, a design that’d have to hold up for at least 20 years.

    But that’s not how luxury car ownership works these days, no one’s thinking long term, they’re only thinking through the end of a lease term, and I’d buy the argument that Bangle revolutionized the market by thinking in that context, that a car has to look impressive for 36 months or so. That said, I still like the E60.

  • avatar
    probert

    -I agree with many of the posters here that the Bangle BMWs wer ugly. I think there’s a reason for this perception that goes beyond just “taste”.

    What made his surface treatments and shapes possible is hydroforming. The man took that manufacturing technique and ran with it. The problem was that his shapes had little to do with how we perceive cars; there was no sense of musculature beneath the steel – the cars seemed to bend like a banana in the middle – there was no organic point of reference. One of the best examples of this organic identifier is the xj6.

    The xj6 is lovely but you can’t live in the past. Of this modern idiom one of the best examples – to my eye – is the Toyota Celica; an elegant blend of curves and creases that is taut and purposeful.

    I have to say that I really don’t understand Mr. Bangle, and the argument that the cars looked boring and he made them interesting isn’t compelling. I’d also like to mention the BMW 3000cs only because it’s a beautiful car – something BMWs haven’t been for a long long time.

  • avatar
    tjh8402

    Based on sales figures, one could certainly argue credibly that Chris Bangle saved BMW. However, this older BMW owner (and fan) definitely believes that the modern era ones will never age as gracefully as the older ones. The E38 and E39 are some of the most timeless and classy large sedans and its painful to look at the E60 and E65 and consider what they became. They were the start of everything that’s gone wrong with modern BMW’s, both stylistically and philosophically, moving away from being “Ultimate Driving Machines” and towards being “Ultimate Computer Gadgets.” I still remember Road and Track describing the E39 interior as “classic BMW. Wood, leather, and an emphasis on the driver’s needs.” Does a car really need anything else? I thought I remember seeing somewhere that BMW’s female customer base expanded greatly in this time period as well. That should tell you everything you need to know.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Interesting contrarianism, Jack. Me I think every styling trend that Bangle has promoted or exemplified has been bad. The modern German car is to me, ugly, and the rest of the world is slavishly trying to copy them, and it all bad news.

  • avatar
    Driver123

    Huh? I’ll take those old sausages E34/E39 over my current 5-er any time. It’s not “retro”, it’s called “classic” and “timeless”. BMW didn’t look like Toyota back then.

  • avatar
    FJ60LandCruiser

    Bangle may have been a brilliant designer, but it all falls down to the Emperor’s new clothes analogy. The Bangle Era Bimmer’s were ugly as hell. I wouldn’t want to buy any one of them, regardless of how avant-garde or contrarian his ideas may have been. I liken it to the bubble butt Nissans/Infinitis/Fords of the era. They have all aged and are atrocious by modern standards.

  • avatar
    niky

    I love that this article is coming from you, Jack. Of all people to defend Bangle, I wouldn’t have thought you’d be it. (Especially as you’ve voiced strong opinions against over-analyzing design in reviews before!)

    Chris Bangle was out there, but really, what he did do at BMW, and in the Automotive world in general, was make it acceptable to use these styling cues which work so well with new cars.

    Volvo did show a way to have the big trunk merged with low body contours, but it’s a path that very few followed until the Bangle-butt came along for reference.

    Flame-surfacing is subtly different from scalloping in that it dynamically pulls the body-line over the body instead of keeping it as a discrete form. Visually linked swage lines (a la “Bangle”) are used to good effect on cars like the Mazda6 and Sonata.

    The Bangle-era took the standard square headlight template and threw it out the window. On today’s tall-faced cars, the idea of stretching headlights to fill the void is one that is now used quite often… sometimes to good effect, sometimes not.

    Sometimes, Bangle-ism was just weird. Other times, as with the Z4 and 5-series, it was exceptional.

    Was Bangle the greatest designer ever? Most likely not. Influential, yes, definitely. A hack? Lest we blame everything on him, it was Van Hooydonk who penned the 7-series. Which is why it tickles me pink whenever people say: “Thank God van Hooydonk replaced Bangle…”

    Look at the 1-series now… this is what you get, people.

  • avatar

    Either love him or love to hate him, you can’t deny he kicked the auto industry in the butt and made them think about design and moved the lot of them forward.

    Good job. Now, I glad BMW has fixed the Bangle Butt.

    Cheers!

  • avatar
    timmruss

    Chris Bangle…Influential -> Definitely, for the good -> definitely NOT.

    Here is a conversation that happened at the debut of 7er that clearly states the situation and have a look at it Jack, that came from one of your stated “best designers”

    Tom Tjaarda, after staring at the but of the 7er:

    Tom Tjaarda: I don’t see it, this looks as if it has been taken from 2, maybe 3 different cars, and in a haste welded together. If there is a point of style I don’t see it here, this car should came with a chocking hazard…”

    Search this and you will cleary find it.

    Because of this screw-up Audi thrived to current en vogue status, owned by BMW for many years.

    And this comes from a E60 535i owner.

    (BTW the low point of Bangle design is NOT 7er but poor Z4, which is a horrible mish-mash of lines with no purpose.)

  • avatar

    everyone gets incensed about the outside. Bangle didn’t do badly there.

    Whoever did the interiors took a functional insides and turned it into an Ikea fantasy without the functionality.

    For the record, I LIKE i drive.

  • avatar
    406driver

    An interesting and well written article, certainly making the reader think.

    To answer the main question I think you have to define what success means for BMW. If it means selling lots of sets of wheels the Bangle era was very successful. If it means getting approval from car enthusiasts it was a failure. The cars were panned in the press and among many enthusiasts for ugliness although there was grudging approval for the high standards of engineering and other aspects of design. Remember that one of the BMW fanbois sites even ran a petition asking BMW to fire Bangle.

  • avatar
    KimJongJefferson

    great article.

    it seems that BMW has gotten Bangle out of their system:

    the new(er) F10 5 series seems to be a natural progression of what the e39 was.

    the new F30 3 series seems to be a nat. prog. of what the e46 was.

    after a brief detour, BMW does seem to be going back to an evolution of previous design. good and bad.


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