Regardless of popular sentiment, from either pole, Chris Bangle has had a significant impact on BMW. His retirement in March of 2009 marked the end of a decade and a half of service designing automobiles for the Munich manufacturer.
Some believe Bangle mangled the butt of the E65 7, and flamed out by applying flame surfacing on the Z4, but what really should his time at BMW be remembered for.
Maybe looking at BMW styling before Bangle would be helpful. BMW design since the stunning CS coupes of the late 1960s had been conservative and getting more so as time progressed, with conservative being a polite way of saying dull.
While BMW’s power trains and driving dynamics were the envy of other manufacturers, its styling was not causing sleepless nights for their rivals. As Bangle’s influence increased, that changed. Styling cues that shouted ‘BMW’ started appearing on a number of Asian vehicles.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then even the Bangle butt was admired by the Koreans, as it showed up on the Hyundai Grandeur (US market Azera). Styling at BMW emerged and blossomed, playing an important role in enhancing the desirability of the brand.
While taking heat for styling cues like flame surfacing and the Bangle butt, those designs need to be put in context. When a manufacturer looks at their portfolio of product, they are more likely to take chances on design at the margins of the brand. The core products will be ‘safe’. For BMW that means the 3er, 5er and (for the US) the X5, must appeal to the broadest audience possible.
The idea is to introduce design direction in the niche products, preparing the way for their adaptation in more mainstream products (or, conversely, their quiet exit from the palate of design ideas). BMW managed to do that effectively with its niche products, while selling plenty of appealing 3s and 5s.
What Bangle has done at BMW, more than any pen to paper exercise, is to build a design staff that embraces passion and beauty which then clothes the driving dynamics of BMW. That is the legacy of Chris Bangle.