2009 BMW 750i: You Owe Chris Bangle an Apology
August 05, 2009
You owe Chris Bangle an apology.
When the American assumed the leadership of BMW's design group in 1992, BMW chairman Eberhard von Kuenheim and technical director Wolfgang Reitzle asked him to make BMW a leader in design, matching the company's burgeoning success in matters of engineering, marketing prestige and commerce. The world car market was in a recession and BMW had decided that the best way out lay in product excellence.
Bangle and his associates decided that the classic BMW shape had gone about as far as it could since the first 3 Series was introduced in 1976. To their way of thinking, BMW was simply making the same kind of sausage in different lengths, applying a unified design look to every model line in a stodgy Mercedes-like sort of way. Instead Bangle decided to pursue a direction in which each model would have its own unique look, becoming a kind of artistic expression of its own automotive spirit.
And as soon as the 2002 BMW 7 Series appeared, people began to hate Chris Bangle.
They hated the strong new look, especially the unique tail treatment reviled as "Bangle butt" that had been adopted (as Bangle explained) to help keep the dramatically taller car from looking narrow and clumsy. They hated iDrive, the first production application of a console-mounted telematics interface. In fact Time Magazine later named the 2002 BMW 7 Series as one of the 50 worst cars of all time.
The 2009 BMW 750i shows us all just how wrong we were -- and not in a good way, either. Even in these BMW photos, this car is boring and formless. It's marketing, not design.
BMW has steadily retreated in its design aspirations since 2002 and it has brought us to this turgid reinterpretation of the 7 Series, which looks as if someone had left a bar of soap in the shower just a little too long. New regulations for pedestrian safety make it difficult to draw the front of any car with any delicacy, but the pronounced schnoz of this car is pretty unpleasant. And the flaccid lines of the rear deck now make the car look narrow and ungainly from the rear, just as Bangle warned us. This is the adaptation of the new 7 Series package to the old pre-2002 sausage and it doesn't work at all.
Chris Bangle led BMW design for almost two decades, and his judgment enformed the design of three generations of the 3 Series, two generations of the 5 Series, two generations of the 7 Series, the return of the 6 Series, the introduction of the Z4 and the 1 Series, and the entry of BMW into the world of sport-utilities with the X Series. Bangle also oversaw much of the Mini project and the renewal of Roll-Royce. Even a cursory examination of cars from designers across the planet reveals design elements taken from cars that Bangle brought to production, notably the Bangle butt of the 7 Series and the controversial flame surfacing of the Z4. No other automotive designer of the recent past has been so influential.
Bangle left BMW last February on his own terms. He wasn't pushed out, but reportedly he could see in the design approved for the 1 Series that BMW was retreating again into being a sausage-maker. And he must have been disappointed in the reaction of so many self-styled design experts in the media who dissed him at every opportunity.
But we were wrong about Chris Bangle. He pursued the kind of excellence that makes BMW such an interesting company, only to discover that most BMW drivers seem more interested in prestige than art. In fact, the whole episode suggests to me that too many BMW drivers might be just as shallow as everyone says, the kind of guys who drive around with their foglights switched on just to remind you that they have foglights and you don't.
A couple weeks ago I spent a dinner in the company of a group of automotive designers who had gathered as the jury for the annual Michelin Challenge Design competition, and it was interesting to hear acknowledgments that their opinion about many of Bangle's design innovations had become thoroughly positive over time.
So Chris Bangle, we apologize. You were way better at the design thing than we recognized. Maybe we've learned that it's a lot easier to draw something that looks the same than it is to draw something that looks new. Maybe we've learned that there's a difference between automotive marketing and automotive art.
Enjoy that farmhouse in Tuscany that you're restoring.
Michael Jordan, Executive Editor @ 13,680 miles