No car designer in recent history comes close to touching former BMW Group design chief Chris Bangle for controversy. For decades to come, auto scribes will pen articles looking back on his influence on BMW’s lineup, most of which will mention the “Bangle Butt” within the first 100 words.
Bangle’s 17-year tenure at the German automaker ended in 2009, after which he vacated the auto industry, started up a design firm bearing his name, and left his past products for the punditry to debate for all time. Well, Bangle is back, in a manner of speaking, and he’s working on a vehicle from an unlikely source.
He also spilled his guts at the Frankfurt Auto Show. The man known for avant-garde flourishes and risky design adventures claims “hyper-conservative, hyper-terrified” automakers are just re-toasting the same slice of bread.
“They’re being asked to do little more than just ‘give me a little twist on what we just did,’” Bangle told Automotive News Europe, referring to modern-day designers. “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.”
He continued. “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.”
Pushing memories of the prodigious rumps and glitter-lined peepers of the Bangle-designed 5, 6, and 7 Series models for a moment, the man’s comments aren’t without a solid nugget of truth. The previous decade brought with it a crop of daring vehicles, and with it, successes and flops. Leaving BMW out of it, we saw the Honda Element and Scion xB, the Nissan Cube and Toyota FJ Cruiser, the Chevrolet HHR and SSR, the Chrysler PT Cruiser and Dodge Magnum, plus the first-generation Nissan Murano. And that’s just the “boxy” segment.
Outside of Germany, where safe, conservative styling goes to thrive (now that Bangle’s gone), long and straight character lines and giant, gaping grilles are the order of the day. There’s reason for this, as “daring” is likely to keep one crop of buyers away while another salivates. Much safer to not offend. Or is it?
Notable duds have emerged from automakers’ attempts to play it safe. Think of the toned-down seventh-generation Hyundai Sonata, which even the automaker admits, “Didn’t turn heads.” Think of the ninth-generation Honda Civic, a bland, beancounter-designed car that disappointed journalists and forced the automaker into an emergency design refresh. Think of the eighth-generation Chevrolet Malibu, which garnered snores after the attractive, well-received seventh-generation model garnered sales.
Though the ANE story’s author kept the brand’s identity a secret, Bangle made one of BMW’s competitors the target of pointed criticism. Saying the brand makes great use of technology and has a “wonderful” stand at Frankfurt, Bangle claimed “they have really good designers, but I’ve seen this all before in other places.”
Burn. Suffice it to say that company probably doesn’t have Bangle’s name on its speed dial.
Still, we said Bangle was back in the game, and not just because he was mouthing off at an auto show. The designer claims he’s impressed with the outside-the-box attitude of startup companies, admitting that his design shop is working on a car for just such an outfit.
“It’s an existing company that comes from a manufacturing point of view — not an automaker,” he said, leaving its true identity a mystery. Bangle claims the company approached him to create a concept car more than a couple of years ago. The vehicle’s final design is now nearing completion, and its reveal should come “sooner than later.”
“I feel strongly enough about this that I would put my name on this,” he added.
Let your minds go wild.