Design

BMW's Former Design Chief: Automakers Today Are Fearful Wimps

Chris Bangle is back, and the industry needs him more than ever.

Back in 2003, the then new BMW 7 Series was launched. Compared to its predecessor, this new 7 Series featured pretty outrageous styling. And then the Z4 came, followed by the 5 Series. All were engulfed with what was called “Flame Surfacing” styling language. This came courtesy of then BMW design chief Chris Bangle. The phrase “Bangle Butt” became synonymous with that 7 Series. But it turns out Bangle, who left BMW in 2009, did the most to advance the automaker’s styling to a new level.

It was Bangle who forced other automakers’ design teams to improve their game. Automotive News caught up with Bangle last week at Frankfurt as he toured a former competitor’s stand. He was not impressed, with both competitor and former employer alike. "It's a wonderful stand, it has a wonderful amount of technology they are showing," said Bangle. "But as a designer I am used to a set of uniqueness and freshness and change. This will turn into a critique of (try to guess) and I really don't want it to be published like that, but for the life of me I can't find a new idea. I would love to and they have really good designers, but I've seen this all before in other places.” Ouch. His directness didn't end there.

Companies like that are getting so good at putting a sheen on what you already know that they'll convince everybody that it's new.” So why aren’t automakers encouraging their designers to take things to a new level? Bangle’s answer is both harsh and absolutely correct: "If it's left up to these hyper-conservative, hyper-terrified companies that are so huge, and where everything is resting on a bottom line that could go south at any minute… well, these are the last people to ask for the courage to go forward into the future. The LAST people. They defend their brands like the virtue of Guinevere and they are doing it by putting a chastity belt around the girl and, sorry, that's not how you make kids. That's not how you make a future.”

Bangle now heads up his design consultancy in Italy, just down the road from Pininfarina. He’s working on a new car design project with an unknown (non-automaker) manufacturer that he’s refusing to discuss at the moment. But the fact of the matter is that the car industry needs Bangle more than ever because, let’s be honest here, automotive design needs a dose of radical re-thought. Bangle is just the guy to do that, even all these years later.

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