Chris Bangle: Damned by success

Leftlane news notes today that BMW Group Chief Designer Christopher Bangle has gone from car design pariah to messiah, based on the fleet of BMW look-alike models cropping up on rivals’ stands at the Detroit Auto Show this week. Mild-mannered Toyota, which once mimicked Mercedes’ staid lines, is now clearly aiming now at high-flying BMW with the more emotional styling of its new IS and LS models. Even rival Mercedes, which lost the global lead in premium car sales to BMW this year, is taking on Bimmer attributes, with models that boast a more muscular, dynamic stance — just look at the new S Class.

But is all that flattering imitation going to be good for BMW? Bangle’s achievement was to make BMW stand out from the pack. His controversial design turned heads. Even that big heavy 7 Series bumper — “The Bangle Butt” — which didn’t look half as big on US roads, got everyone talking about BMW. Love Bangle or hate him, BMW rose above the controversy as a design innovator. Bangle’s cohort, Adrian van Hooydonk (now head of BMW Brand design), told me last month that BMW will stick with the new design language eight years — a full model generation — through 2010. But that’s starting to look like a risky bet. If Toyota, Mercedes and Infiniti start borrowing from BMW’s distinctive look, the provactive will become the banal. Just listen to the buzz in Germany, picked up over lunch today with a car expert in Frankfurt: “Mercedes is starting to look like Lexus.” I doubt BMW’s management will wait until Germans are making similarly snide remarks about its cars. I’d wager BMW’s execs are really mortified by Bangle’s imitators at the Detroit Show. Before BMW goes stale, Bangle and van Hooydonk better hurry back to the sketching pad and dream up a new outrageous look for BMW.

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