Chris Bangle

BMW’s brand-new 2 Series Gran Tourer is a controversial car. After professing that an MPV will never fit with its brand image, the new premium mini-MPV is a step out of BMW’s comfort zone of producing driver-focused upmarket cars. That said, it does fit their ideologies of competing in and inventing new niches; and this new territory for BMW is not new territory for competitor Mercedes – Merc’s B-Class is the 2 Series Gran Tourer’s raison d’être.

This isn’t the most notable feature of the Gran Tourer though; look at its surfaces. Those fiery, undulating lines undoubtedly fall under the ‘flame-surfacing’ design language, ushered in by Chris Bangle. It even has what looks to be a – dare I say it – ‘Bangle Butt’. Of course Bangle himself is no stranger to controversy, so it’s lucky we got to talk to him recently, and got his perspective on what the hell is going on at BMW; from the seemingly contradictory 2 Series Gran Tourer, to the groundbreaking i3 and i8.

“In some ways, they [the i3 and i8] were being started as I was leaving, the last show car that was there during my time was the 2008 BMW M1 Homage Concept Car done in this fashion, and the layered look itself comes out of studies we had done there, so in that sense it’s very much part of a philosophical approach that I feel very much at home with. I think it works very well on the i8 – it makes quite a statement on the road. The i3 is less clear on what it’s trying to be, harder to categorise, but it looks like an extension of the same philosophy.” he says.

So even after his departure from BMW in 2009, Bangle’s designs are still making waves across the industry. Strong reactions are Bangle’s bread and butter – from the much-reviled E65 7 Series, which actually made sales of the previous E38 generation spike once the replacement was revealed, to the i3 and i8 which are now making waves across the industry with their hyper-futuristic design. It seems it’s somehow impossible to be indifferent to his designs. Why? After pausing to speak perfect Italian to a design associate, he answers:

“Perhaps it was a long period void of discussion, void of anything that was at all challenging. If you have a diet of one kind of food for a long time and somebody introduces something else, and tells you it’s nutritional or even tells you it’s good for you; just because it’s different you’re going to get people who say ‘wait a minute, I’m used to this; why are you giving me something different?’ And you will also get people who say ‘finally, a change’. So the context of change is written as much by what is doing the changing, as the atmosphere of change that it was brought into. If you were to do a fairly good analysis of where car design had been up until that moment, the most challenging phenomenon to date at that point in time – we’re talking about around 2000, 2001 – had been the introduction of retro. And retro is, all around goody-feely; what are you not going to like about it? We already went through the period, we know we like it, so seeing it again is, well, what are you going to say, no?Plus it was combined with hot-rod proportions like big wheels and short overhangs, a tendency to slam the uppers, which again was goody-feely; who doesn’t want bigger wheel, etc? Car designers had been setting the scene of piling sugar on top of sugar on top of sugar for your diet, the menu that we as car design chefs are serving you, when we at BMW came up with some ‘alternative proportions’, let’s put it that way (which is definitely not piles of sugar, it’s something else).

"So of course you’re going to get reactions out of that. I still get letters from people who say ‘I find this BMW of that time period particularly dramatic’ or ‘I was wrong, you were right’, I always respond with a nice thank you letter and say that I appreciate their words and please give credit to the team who did them––there was a lot of talented designers and modellers and engineers to acknowledge.  Taken al together I am happy that people reacted at all; I mean if they hadn’t reacted, that would probably be even worse.”

It’s easy to understand why – design is an emotional process of an incredibly personal nature, so any evocation of emotional reaction, positive or negative, is exactly what the designer wants. It’s fair to say that Bangle has had the best of both of these in his past. But what the critics did not see is Bangle’s love for the industry, and how badly he wanted to improve it, bring out something challenging and different – to leave his mark upon an industry at risk of homogenisation. GINA, the fabric-skinned milestone of Bangle’s career at BMW, aimed to do this by breaking all the boundaries of car design.

“I think very definitely it created a change moment which lots of design followed in its wake, because it introduced variations on sculptural surface language that we hadn’t really explored before. Negative surfaces, positives, the idea of a spline––a theoretical that emerges in the middle of a surface––lots of things like this were in the discussion but they hadn’t been formalized.  Before GINA we may have had the shape-idea in our heads butwe didn’t know where it was coming from or where it was going to go. And then with the GINA car, you could see its relationship to textiles, surfaces with tension or being morphed and changed, and suddenly all that language began to make sense. That, I think, justified many of the approaches we took with hard metal and doing it in metal, and that in turn I believe led to many spin-offs in other companies. So very much this sculptural era that we’re in now has a lot of its roots in GINA. If you notice, GINA is very devoid of line, it has character of lines, but it doesn’t have line in the sense that there’s one line that starts at the front, ends at the back that’s a way to divide things proportionally. Most BMWs have what’s called a ‘Zica’ line at BMW, the sports cars were a notable exception, but this one in particular, if you look at it from today’s vantage point, it seems overly surfaced and underlined – too few lines, the same could be said for the X-Coupé that was done in its wake, and that language that today you’re seeing in all kinds of new cars, I think GINA can take a lot of credit for having kicked that off.

I think car design went through a four-year hole, about the time I left it was starting to go down into it – very little in terms of inspirational newness, not a whole lot of challenging design work being done, and it’s started to come out of it, there’s some interesting pieces being done, and particularly things like the Citroen guys, deciding to make a statement with their brand, with car design, which is admirable – they did some interesting things with it. Other companies have done a lot less in the meantime. So it’s not like I’m super excited about car design right now, let’s just get that out of the way, more like I don’t complain as much any more.”