The departure of Chris Bangle as BMW’s head of design is an event we’ve been anticipating for some time — not because of any lack of ability on the remarkable American-born designer’s part, but because the great task he set himself has been achieved.
When Bangle arrived from Fiat in the early ‘90s (having been responsible for the Fiat Coupe, a car that had greatly divided critical opinion) there was an expectation that he would immediately radicalise the look of BMW’s cars, which for a generation had been described as “sleek but safe”.
In fact, Bangle took time to get his teeth into the job, first using his rare powers of leadership to assemble a team of young disciples (Bangle briefly trained for the priesthood in his youth), then winning the confidence of the management with his celebrated powers of persuasion, and producing an ever more radical crop of concept cars — in which elements of the BMW model generation that he and his team would subsequently design could clearly be seen.
Starting with a radical 7-series (eye-popping or awkward, depending on your point of view), Bangle went through the complete range of existing BMWs and launched models like the 1-series, X3 and X6 as he went. His new look caused immense controversy among buyers, especially vocal Americans, and also among rival designers, yet Bangle was always generously backed by BMW management and sales never seemed to suffer.
However BMW’s most recent projects, notably the CS concept launched in Tokyo 18 months ago, were fronted by Dutch-born Adrian van Hooydonk, who acquired the tough-to-maintain reputation of sticking with most of Bangle’s avantgarde design style, while making them a little ‘warmer’ to suit the conservative instincts of buyers.
Van Hooydonk assumes Bangle’s position in the company. All parties deny a rift between BMW and Bangle who we’re told will “stay close” to the affairs of the Munich-based company. But a glittering career as a lecturer and fine artist surely beckons for the 52-year-old American, who has been in great demand in the US and Europe in both capacities.