Chris Bangle, shown with his design team during his years at BMW.
He is one of the most influential designers of the last two decades – and one of the most controversial. All of which added up to a Lifetime Achievement Award for Chris Bangle, the former BMW styling boss that gave the world the notorious “Bangle-butt.”
The annual Design Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Bangle this week during the annual Eyes on Design Automotive gala, the capper to a weekend event that focuses specifically on styling. And controversial as he might have been, there are few that would argue that Bangle didn’t have a significant impact on the shape of the modern automobile.
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“Chris was constantly exploring new ideas and innovations in design, as seen in the GINA concept,” noted Alec Bernstein, director of advanced communications, BMW DesignWorks USA.
Now running his own design studio in Turin, Italy, the 55-year-old Bangle became BMW’s first American design chief in 1992, quickly creating a splash with the Z9 Gran Turismo concept. Few designers seemed more willing – or ready — to relish controversy, Bangle either penning or overseeing a series of distinctive and often debated products during his 17 years with the Bavarian maker.
But arguably no model generated more controversy than the 7-Series, known internally as the E65. BMW was an also-ran in the premium luxury segment and had decided it was time to tackle rival Mercedes-Benz’s dominant S-Class. The new 7-er was bigger, bolder – and featured such unusual design elements as its hooded headlights and huge decklid – which critics quickly dubbed the Bangle-butt.
Initial reaction was anything but positive. Sales slipped sharply and Time declared the new 7-Series one of the “50 Worst Cars of All Time.” But after a slow start the demand began to click, eventually becoming the best-selling 7-Series ever. It ultimately helped BMW overtake its Stuttgart rival to become the best-selling luxury automotive brand.
Of course, that’s just one of the more distinctive designs to emerge from the BMW studios under Bangle’s reign. He also brought forth the Z3 roadster and its successor, the Z4 – as well as another love-it-or-leave-it design, the Z Coupe.
Bangle introduced the concept of “flame surfacing” to BMW, allowing the maker to use the latest computer technology to create distinctive, if not always elegant, compound surface curves and bold design elements like the 7-Series’ rear deck. A student of industrial design and architecture, Bangle has often pointed to Frank Gehry as one of his strong influences.
Martin Smith, a senior designer with Ford, suggests Bangle has steered automotive stylists to provide more “surface entertainment.”
Patrick le Quement, of Renault, meanwhile, suggests that Bangle’s “designs have a great deal of presence, and they’re well proportioned. He’s been highly influential. My only concern is his use of concave surfaces: they’re hollow shapes and lack that tightly muscled look I feel helps design.”
Whichever side of the debate one falls on, however, it is clear that Bangle continues to have an influence on automotive design even after leaving BMW to work on his own.