Chris Bangle may be history's most infamous car designer, ridiculed for taking a visual language that BMW carefully developed over fifty years and gleefully drowning it in a bath tub. At the time I thought he was a madman, or maybe a moron. Maybe I was the moron.
There is a brilliant stand-up sketch by the British comedian Peter Kay in which he explores the young mind's propensity to mis-hear song lyrics.
I defy anyone to watch it and not nod in concurrence as S-Express repeats on your adult brain – were they really singing about Audi Quattros? Pre or post Torsen differential? 10 or 20 valve?
I am beginning to feel the way about car design and styling. I mention both criteria because I was once carefully lectured by someone very designer-like and much cleverer than me on the distinction between the two but can't for the life of me remember which was which. I think I asked if the car would slide.
My inner luddite likes to categorize both styling and design as 'how stuff looks.' The pertinence here is not one how one defines the meaning 'good looking,' but the tense in which it is used – I am increasingly looking at cars I once found repellent and thinking them attractive in 2014, and vice-versa. Did I just not see things properly back then? Please tell me the same is true for you?
And now this has happened: I am increasingly looking at the work of Chris Bangle, supposedly the slayer of attractive BMW's, and thinking he might have been a genius.
Before I became so drunk that the asparagus mouse exited the way it had entered, I once listened to Chris Bangle deliver an after-dinner speech about cars, and the industry that produces them. It was the most lucid, percipient talk of its type I've ever heard – well, at least I remember thinking that before I blew chunks. I also recall him repeatedly using the word 'paradigm' in the most unctuous way possible. A joyous kind of pre-orgasm holler of the lets-change-every-established-rule type.
At the time, or at least in the build-up to that evening, I thought Chris Bangle was at best a madman, at worst a criminal. He'd taken the finest mainstream design language of them all — the demure yet purposeful BMW saloon — and sodomized it with a special brutality. When we saw the E65 7 Series we could barely contain the contents of our stomachs. He parried the criticism by insisting that BMW needed a new direction and that only a complete schism with the past would provide suitable change. So he went bat-shit-crazy with the Seven. Which looked terrible in 2001. And which now, especially the facelifted model, so-help-me-Lord, looks pretty damn good to my eyes.
The Houdinery deepened with the 2003 E60 5-Series. Born with a face for radio, I thought it was a crime against Bavaria – gone was the Hoffmeister kink, gone was the driver-slanted centre console, gone was all the BMW DNA; incoming was 'flame surfacing.' I interviewed Burkhard Göschel just weeks before he left the company and he laughed demonically about the situation: "What do you think of our flame surfacing, hohoho-hahahahaHAHAHAHA." he asked, shaking his head in mock disapproval — his not knowing what to think confusing me into not knowing what to think either.
A BMW board member as perplexed by BMW's design language as the rest of the planet in 2004.
There are some brilliant stories about Bangle's legendary ability to create an evangelical following among his staff and team – perhaps even the board of BMW. Go and look at a first generation Bangle-BMW Z4, then spy the previous Z3 and tell me how the hell he managed to get that past the suits. He must have spiked a few drinks. Like so many Bangle shapes, it's looking really quite good now. My favourite completely non-verified tale involves the sign-off for the E63 6-Series. It is alleged that several different design proposals were considered and after some tantric downtime in a green spot, he randomly chose the one we have now. I have no idea if this is true or not, but I sincerely hope it is. Guess what? The E63 6-Series is looking very cool these days. Especially as an M6.
There's a black E61 550i Sport Touring that must live near me and with every passing week the creases in the flanks seem cleverer and the overall proportions quite perfect for a car of its type. The Sport moniker is important though – Bangle clearly wasn't a simple aesthete – I can't speak for BMW USA, but the model mix between SE and Sport on an E39 5 Series (the previous model) was nothing like what it became for the E60/61. He was clearly also a hard-nosed businessman. I like to think he deliberately made a whole generation of BMW's completely unpalatable to the human eye unless they were specified with expensive bodykits and alloy wheels.
He was a greedy, marketing-savvy aesthete; that's my kind of bounty-hunter.
And of course only now are people beginning to copy those Bangle tricks – the complicated, seemingly nonsensical shapes. The flame-surfacing, the abstraction – but most of all the sense that evolutionary styling changes over time might always leave a brand unable to progress.
This is why Chris Bangle was right and we were wrong: because his brand revolution now resonates outside the car-world, and that is unusual. Normally the car industry copies ideas from other, more radical corners of the industrial map, but in the paradigm shifts being undertaken by so many famous brands you see the Bangle effect.
The current BMW range looks superb, bar the frumpy Seven, but it does so because of the clever merging of a classic BMW-ness and some residual Bangle irregularity that catches the eye when you least expect it. And makes you grin. Perversely, BMW couldn't have found such comfort with its current styling if it hadn't let that Bangle-man loose with the crown jewels until 2009.
He was right, and we were wrong.
Illustration: Sam Wooley, Photos: BMW