The most interviewed man in car design today, BMW’s Adrian van Hooydonk, knows his work is controversial. He’s known it for a while. But he’s never expressed much concern over that, because it’s gotten the brand noticed. And if you didn’t like the face of the new 3 and 4 Series when you first laid eyes on them perhaps as far back as 2019, he’s willing to bet you probably like them now. Or, you’ll come around eventually. He’s got time.
Van Hooydonk sat down with Top Gear last week to chat about the current state of Munich’s design, a conversation I’m sure he’s had approximately 1,200 times. The magazine’s primary takeaway was that the design director believes the brand’s future work will be “cleaner,” which is ambiguous. For van Hooydonk, “cleaner” means his team “will design the grille according to the proportion of the overall vehicle, or according to the expression that we want to give it.” That sounds a little different than what “cleaner” means for the typical BMW enthusiast, which is to resurrect the E39 5 Series and never stop making it until we’re all dead.
The designer also pulled back the curtain yet again on why he’s doing what he’s doing. Considering we’ve been having this conversation for about three or four years now, I think it’s an appropriate time to ask each other and ourselves: is he right? From TG’s interview:
“Typically the way you do it is you then move the goal posts,” he said. “Which means that when you first come out with the car, people are not sure – some like it, some don’t.
“But then at the mid-life cycle, everybody agrees. And then it holds up all the way to the end of the life cycle and probably beyond as a used car,” he added. He reckons if everybody likes the design at the beginning, it might not ‘hold up’ years into the future.
In other words, BMW’s deliberately penned its cars to look controversial, some might even say bad. The idea is that halfway through the life cycle, the skeletal nasal cavities will have grown on us — and that growth creates a more lasting and profound admiration than if we all just liked the car from the start.
Is that actually how this works? I’m not a psychologist nor a market researcher. I’m sure you can tie this to fundamental theories about human attraction, but we’re talking about cars, not people, so I’m not going to do that. I can only speak to my own experience of vehicles whose exteriors I once hated and now love. Frankly, the only one that springs to mind is the new Supra, but to get there I mostly had to forget what the FT-1 concept looked like.
Of course, BMW also could’ve simply made a car that looked good on day one and still looks good, like the Lexus LC. But that’s hard work, and besides — does anyone other than auto journalists and the people who comment on their articles even talk about the LC these days? Maybe Adrian has a point.
Top Gear drew the oft-repeated comparison between the criticisms lodged at 2020s BMW and those of the Chris Bangle era, which van Hooydonk rejected to some degree:
“We have a pretty clear idea of where we’re going to go, so it’s not like we’re experimenting or throwing things out there to see what sticks. It’s a very deliberate process.” TG puts it to him that Chris Bangle’s era – a man under whom van Hooydonk worked – was at first a little controversial too, but became appreciated much later in life.
“I don’t know if it’s the same,” he said. “If we don’t keep moving now, I think we’re going to get run over. Back in the Chris Bangle era, the industry was actually fairly stable. Everybody was very comfortable. And then this change that he brought probably caught everybody by surprise, and people never really understood why.
“Now we’re living in a time where people do understand.”
BMW is weird now for entirely different reasons than it was throughout the aughts, and the context of the market has changed, too. I don’t have the authority to say automakers took fewer risks 20 years ago. But one thing’s for certain: today, nobody feels safe.
“Legacy” luxury makes are paranoid about ceding prestige to local brands in China. Hyundai is rewriting the script, for better or worse, with each new model. Everyone wants to be the same company. And all of this is happening in sync with the most overwhelming, fundamental change this industry has ever encountered. There sure are reasons for BMW to say “fuck it” and try to shock the system. But there are also some people the rodent face will never win over.