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Chris Bangle: From Black Sheep to Trendsetter

“Christopher Bangle has had a lasting impact on the identity of BMW Group’s brands. His contribution to the company’s success has been decisive, and together with his teams he has mapped out a clear and aesthetic route into the future”

—Dr. Klaus Draeger, BMW Board Member

Chris Bangle is an American-born automobile designer who ultimately became Chief of Design at BMW Group. At the zenith of his career, Bangle was responsible for design oversight at BMW, Mini, and Rolls Royce. He was born in Ohio and earned a master’s degree in industrial design. While in school, Bangle was heavily influenced by the work of legendary architect Frank Gehry. After he finished graduate school, Bangle spent his early career at Opel and Fiat. In 1992, at the tender age of 36, he became BMW’s first American-born Chief of Design. Bangle retired from BMW in 2009 and subsequently formed his own design company called Chris Bangle Associates.

Bangle’s design influence on the industry has been material—and controversial. Bangle’s modern aesthetic preferences represented a radical departure for BMW. During the 1990’s, he set a bold new design direction for the Company. Early in his career at BMW, Bangle worked on the redesign of the popular 3-series and was deeply involved in the development of the first BMW SUV—the X5. His most iconic and controversial design was the E65 7-series which arrived as a 2002 model. This flagship car was a radical departure from its predecessor, the stately and conservative E38.

The conservative but handsome BMW 7-series E38

Bangle’s updated E65 7-series was met with mixed reviews but sales hit records

Despite all the controversy, the E65 turned out to be a sales success and became the best-selling 7-series up until that time. Upon the launch of the 2002 E65, much of the press (and many BMW loyalists) panned Bangle’s designs. In a 2014 article, Jalopnik’s Chris Harris said he initially considered Bangle’s redesign of the 2003 E60 5-series “a crime against Bavaria.”

Back in the early 2000’s, this radical departure in styling direction was more than most expected—myself included. When I first saw the E65 in 2001, I recall being very disappointed. I just didn’t get it. I did not understand why BMW would allow such an alien car to be built. I remember saying to myself, “what were they thinking????” It felt as if Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark had seized control of BMW’s design studios. My negative feelings about the E65 only grew worse when I had the chance to get behind the wheel of my friend’s V12 760iL. The dashboard curved outwards at the middle and inward towards the doors. Gone was the pure and integrated “driver-centric” cockpit that had become synonymous with BMW. The bulbous center console reminded me of a humpback whale coming up for air.

The techno-interior of the E65 was shocking back in 2002—it had no resemblance to the analog and driver-centric cockpits of previous BMW’s

A more traditional pre-Bangle BMW cockpit

Over fifteen years have passed since the introduction of the E65. Ironically, I now find myself looking back on these cars fondly (especially the Bangle-designed 6-series coupe). In an age where so many cars look alike, I actually now find Bangle’s revolutionary lines pleasing to the eye. Compared with other period designs from Mercedes, Audi, and Lexus, the first-generation Bangle cars still appear contemporary.

Like his style or not, Chris Bangle was ahead of his time and he pushed the envelope at BMW. His trendsetting design arguably influenced the entire automobile industry. Today, the spirit of Bangle’s touch can still be seen on new BMW’s—almost a decade after his departure as Chief of Design. His radical approach impacted other major brands and his styling legacy extends outside of the auto industry. Bangle’s reign over BMW’s styling department was, in many ways, remarkable. In 1992, he was a very young man from Ohio who held one of the most influential positions at a leading German automaker. During his reign, he brought significant, lasting, and necessary change to BMW. Under Bangle, BMW’s conservative styling gave way to daring and innovative designs. The aftershocks of Chris Bangle’s influence on BMW (and the industry as a whole) are still being felt today—and will likely linger on well into the future.

The following are some selected videos featuring Chris Bangle:

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3 Responses to Chris Bangle: From Black Sheep to Trendsetter

  1. Peter Neissa January 17, 2018 at 10:26 am #

    There is no doubt that Mr. Bangle’s influence on BMW has been profound, but whether it has been a positive one is up for debate, so far time is not being kind to his design. The E38 is one of the few cars in this world that garnered the nickname “The Flagship” because it was simply a beautifully designed car and stood for the absolute best qualities that BMW could produce. That design still holds its place today, despite the quarter century that has transpired since its release. As a decades long BMW owner, I am not enthused by the current design. BMW today is about performance, not design. It is hard to tell the difference between a BMW and a whole host of other cars, such the Hyundai, Lexus, Buick. Design should be a combination of function, art, and inspiration. The latter two qualities, sadly, have not been a part of BMW’s lexicon since the E38 stopped production. I don’t recall anyone using the nickname the “Flagship” on any seven series built since. The Bangle influence is uninspiring if one were to compare it to, for example, the Maserati Quattroporte, to mention just one. How is it possible that you literally have to be standing beside a 7-Series to know that it is a 7-series, while the E38 still looks fresh and you can spot it a mile away? Let’s not forget that the entrance price for an Aston Martin is the same as the current 7-Series. Really? Doesn’t Aston Martin use the BMW 7-series engine? Yet, despite the 7-series design, the performance of the 7-Series is saving it from heading down the same exit that the Edsel took in 1958. To all of us who do not see eye to eye with the Chris Bangle design, all I can say is, “this too shall pass.”

  2. David Beilman January 14, 2018 at 9:56 am #

    Philip,

    Thank you for a most inspiring Sunday Morning Design Seminar!

    Bangle articulates many similarities that we deal with daily in making Architecture.

    Most refreshing!

    David

    • Philip Richter January 14, 2018 at 5:10 pm #

      Dr. Beilman,
      Thanks for your comments and support. Is it over 10 degrees in Pomfret?

      Looking forward to another ride in the Beck!

      Philip