BMW's Chris Bangle Designs His Own Exit

Chris Bangle, the head of design for the BMW Group since 1992 and one of the most controversial and well-known designers in the auto industry, resigned his post on Monday, according to the company.

His exit, say people familiar with the company, was not forced. Rather, said the same executives, the designer had been laying groundwork for an exit for many months.

Bangle achieved infamy as well as fame in 2001 when he introduced the BMW 7 Series at the Frankfurt Motor Show to catcalls over a high squared off trunk lid that came to be known as the “Bangle butt,” as well as a new console mounted computer-mouse-like knob that was designed to control most of the electronic functions of the car, called iDrive.

But to pin down Bangle’s career as merely controversial is unfair. “It’s difficult to find a designer in the auto business who thoroughly dominated discussion in a given decade and Chris Bangle did it in two decades,” says Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics, Birmingham MI, who has worked with several automakers on design and product planning.

When Bangle was hired at BMW, the company was embarking on a mission to shake up its design footprint. “We were making sausages at different lengths, and management at that time, especially chairman Eberhard von Kuenheim and technical director Wolfgang Reitzle, felt we needed to break away and chart a new course for the company and the brand…we were going to be introducing SUVs and new sports cars and we needed a design language in which to do it,” Bangle said in an interview with me for a book I wrote in 2004, “Driven: Inside BMW, The Most Admired Car Company in the World.”

Bangle oversaw the design of numerous breakout and brand changing designs for the BMW brand and BMW as a company including the 2001 and 2009 7 Series, three generations of 3 Series and 5 Series, BMW’s foray into SUVs, including the X5, X3 and X6, as well as the 1 Series, and the comeback of the 6 Series. He also oversaw the design of BMW’s recent re-do of the MINI Cooper, as well as the MINI Clubman, more so than the design of the original 2000 MINI. And he led the design of the Rolls Royce Phantom after BMW acquired the iconic British brand.

Automotive journalists have been harsh on several of Bangle’s designs when they have been introduced. But in just about every case, such as the 2001 7 Series and Z4, criticism tempered after a year or two as it became clear that rivals like Toyota, including its Lexus division and Mercedes, were adopting some of Bangle’s design cues and principals to their cars and SUVs.

“We aren’t copying anyone else’s design language, not even our own, and I think that makes some people uncomfortable,” said Bangle in a previous interview with me.

Because BMWs are so loved by their buyers, and by the media, anyone who is head of design is going to be much scrutinized. Bangle has been a lightning rod not only because of the risks he has taken, but because of where he has taken them.

There is a reason why risky avante garde plays seldom debut or even end up on Broadway, and why the New York stage is most often filled with crowd pleasing revivals like “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Damn Yankees.” Few companies and few creative talents are comfortable airing out their riskiest ideas in front of the masses. That was Bangle’s assignment, and history will probably treat him better than the present day media has.

Bangle also pushed BMW to acquire Designworks, the California design studio that had been doing some contract work for BMW in the early 1990s. Bangle’s idea was that having a design studio that did work in a variety of industries and categories would not only inform BMW’s design studio, but it would also give the company’s designers a steady outlet of work outside of cars and SUVs that would keep the talent fresh and energized. Still, the only automaker to own an independent design studio, it has proven to be a useful recruiting tool, and training ground, as well.

Bangle’s most recent high profile design is of the Gina, an experimental concept car that seeks to replace the vehicle’s static metal or fiberglass skin with a one of cloth that can change the shape and aerodynamics of the car The idea is that a car could be made to be as safe as current cars, but that the shape can be flexible. It is an idea that Bangle had as far back as design school in the early 1980s.

This is a video featuring bangle talking about the philosophy around Gina.

Bangle has been restoring a home in Tuscany Italy where he figures to spend most of his time. And in private conversations, he has talked of making wine and perhaps opening a Grapparia. We’ll check in with him later this week and ask what he plans.

Bangle’s role as BMW Group design chief is being assumed by Adrian van Hooydonk, who has been in charge of the BMW brand designs for the last couple of years.

Hooydonk, who previously was director of Designworks, has led the designs of several influential BMW designs such as the 2009 7 Series, X Coupe concept, X5 and 3 Series.

There has been a much whispering over the past several years about who is the more talented designer, Hooydonk or Bangle. Who deserves more credit for successes? Who was more responsible for the X5 and Z4? In the automotive design arena, there is always backbiting, credit grabbing and the like. Though I have never heard it uttered by either man.

My observation of any car company is that designers are usually as successful as their bosses allow them to be. Up until now, Bangle has been over Hooydonk, so it has been Bangle’s leadership that has steered BMW’s sometimes risky design endeavors during what has also been its most financially successful period of time. Bangle has been in charge of hiring, assigning designers to their respective projects, directing internal competitions, teaching, leading, inspiring.

Hooydonk is extremely talented. But he will have a tough act to follow.

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