Few designers have split public opinion quite like Chris Bangle.
Even today, some argue his approach to design produced the most unpalatable BMWs in the company’s history. Others insist his brilliant pencil strokes finally lured BMW out of the styling rut it was stuck in while inspiring scores of rivals to take new design approaches of their own.
But even though he left BMW in 2009, it's a mark of his impact that he is still very much a presence in automotive design, and he has just won the The American Prize for Design for 2021, with many colleagues and competitors lauding him in the process. They include Mercedes design chief Gorden Wagener, who says “Chris is a true visionary and a lateral thinker. He was always ahead of his time and created cars and products that were the same. He is an inspiration for every young designer and so he was for me.”
Each year, The American Prize for Design is awarded jointly by The Chicago Athenaeum: Museum of Architecture and Design and The European Centre for Architecture Art Design and Urban Studies to designers who have made a commitment to forward the principles of design excellence.
Bangle has steered largely clear of the automotive industry since leaving BMW in February of 2009, but the industry never left him. Join us as we look back at some of the cars he either drew himself or presided over, such as the 2004 BMW M5 E60 (pictured):
Opel Junior (1983)
Born in Ohio, Bangle began his career in automotive design in 1981 at GM's Opel headquarters in Germany. He styled the interior of the Junior, a concept car introduced at the 1983 Frankfurt Motor Show. The inventive dashboard layout put the various gauges and switches in individual pods.
Opel Junior (1983)
In hindsight, some of the Junior’s exterior styling cues (including the headlights and the silhouette) accurately previewed the second generation Corsa, which made its debut in 1992. Bangle’s contributions were limited to the interior, however, and not retained on the production model.
Bangle’s Fiat days (1985)
Bangle left Opel for Fiat in 1985. In an interview with Form Trends, he reminisced the Turin-based firm hired him to work on a replacement for the Panda. The original, Italdesign-penned model introduced in 1980 wasn’t replaced until 2003, however. His design consequently never saw the light that awaits at the end of a production line.
Fiat Coupé (1990)
The Coupé was Bangle’s most notable project at Fiat. He began sketching in 1990, ultimately creating a striking-looking two-door model on a platform shared with the homely Tipo. His unique approach to design already permeated the sheet metal. Chosen over a Pininfarina submission, the Coupé was a cross between retro styling cues like the round tail lights and more contemporary elements such as the diagonal lines above the wheels.
Bangle’s BMW days (1992)
Bangle no longer worked for Fiat when the Coupé made its debut in 1993. BMW appointed him as its head of design in October of 1992. The move raised more than a few eyebrows because it marked the first time BMW put an American in charge of its design department. At the time, the company’s line-up consisted of the 3, 5 (pictured), 7 and 8 Series, all of which wore a relatively conservative family resemblance.
BMW Z3 (1995)
While Joji Nagashima styled the Z3, it was the first BMW designed under Bangle’s leadership. The two men briefly worked together at Opel in the early 1980s. Fittingly, the Z3 also became one of the first BMWs built in the firm’s Spartanburg, South Carolina, factory.
It featured the traditional long hood, short deck proportions of BMW’s previous roadsters but it looked appreciably less wild than the Z1, its direct predecessor. The horizontal vents behind the front wheels paid a discreet homage to the 507.
BMW Z9 Gran Turismo concept (1999)
BMW gave Bangle a clean sheet of paper for the Z9 Gran Turismo concept. Presented at the 1999 Frankfurt motor show, the carbon fiber-bodied coupe prepared the firm’s design language for the new millennium with a sculpted look that incorporated convex and concave surfaces in equal amounts. It gave the industry its first look at the so-called flame surfacing that later characterized most of Bangle’s designs. The Z9 previewed the reborn 6 Series that appeared in 2003.
BMW X5 (1999)
Bangle worked closely with Chris Chapman on the original X5. It was a tall order – no pun intended. They needed to apply the design ethos of one of the world’s most respected carmakers to a completely new type of car that, by its very nature, fit into the line-up like a square peg in a round hole.
BMW’s design renaissance began with the X5, largely out of necessity. It wasn’t as slab-sided as other models like the then-current 3 and 5 Series. This was partially done to reduce the model’s visual mass. Up front, the lights fell in line with the ones found on the E46-generation 3 Series.
Mini Hatch (2000)
Designing a Mini for the new millennium was easier said than done. The original car had evolved considerably since 1959, becoming more high-toned and trendier, but its basic shape had never changed. Bangle’s team - which included Frank Stephenson, who also worked on the X5 - successfully conveyed the icon’s essence in an all-new package.
The experience Bangle gained while re-inventing the Mini helped him in future projects outside of the automotive realm. “Hennessy came to me to do a new VSOP cognac bottle, an iconic form that hadn’t been touched in a long time. You’d better not screw up! It reminded me of designing the Mini,” he told Car & Driver.
BMW 7 Series (2001)
From the 1980s to the early 2000s, BMW saloons followed the “one sausage, three lengths” approach to car design. Determined to change that once and for all, Bangle took the fourth-generation 7 Series in a completely new direction. The design channeled the Z9 Gran Turismo concept introduced two years earlier, especially out back. Never at a loss for words, the media quickly coined the term “Bangle butt.”
“We aren’t copying anyone else’s design language, not even our own, and I think that makes some people uncomfortable,” Bangle pointed out in an interview with author David Kiley.
BMW X-Coupe Concept (2001)
Based on the X5, the 2001 X-Coupe concept left an indelible mark on BMW’s design history in two major ways. First, it represented an early attempt to surf the SUV wave with a sportier model that qualified for the “coupe” label. Second, many of its design elements seeped down to production models in the following years, including the flame surfacing theme.
BMW CS1 Concept (2002)
The CS1 Concept introduced at the 2002 Geneva motor show helped explain why BMW needed to overhaul its design department. The firm was preparing to expand its line-up by entering new segments and returning to segments it had abandoned in the past. If having three cars that looked the same was bad, having seven or more identical models was a lot worse. The first-ever 1 Series was one of the additions, and the CS1 previewed what it would look like.
BMW Z4 (2002)
The first Z4 was the best example yet of flame surfacing. Its proportions were almost identical to the Z3 (and, indeed, every BMW roadster before it) but the finer parts of the design were entirely new.
In profile, a continuous line stretched from the hood, above the headlights, through the front wheel and down the side of the car, where it reached its lowest point below the dash before zig-zagging back up. It continued through the rear wheel until it reached the back bumper. When viewed under the right light, the diagonal crease between the front wheels and the doors was cleverly shaped like a Z.
BMW 5 Series (2003)
The 5 Series underwent a drastic transformation under Bangle’s watch. While the E39-generation was a model of understated design, its replacement took on a much more expressive form with wide kidney grilles and headlights that stretched into the fenders. Its tall trunk lid was subtler than the 7’s.
The E60-generation 5 Series left no one indifferent; people loved it or hated it. But for the first time in BMW’s history, and to Bangle’s credit, the 5 and the 7 Series looked markedly different.
BMW 6 Series (2003)
While the Z9 concept influenced the E65-generation 7 Series, the born-again 6 Series of 2003 was its most direct descendant in terms of styling. Bangle-led designers re-worked the proportions to accommodate the 6’s shorter footprint and left the gullwing doors in the design studio.
BMW X3 (2003)
As BMW forayed deeper into SUV territory, Bangle insisted the company couldn’t return to the Russian doll styling it happily rested upon in the 1990s. The original X3 shared numerous parts with the then-upcoming fifth-generation 3 Series but the two models shared not a single styling cue save for the kidney grilles up front. It wasn’t merely a scaled-down X5, either. The combination of a sporty yet handsome design and BMW’s spectacularly lucid predictions about the SUV segment’s growth helped make the X3 a resounding success.
Rolls-Royce Phantom (2003)
BMW’s acquisition of Rolls-Royce in 1998 gave Bangle another division to oversee. The British brand had lost its factory and its V8 engine during its messy split from sister company Bentley, and it had to adopt a new design identity that wouldn’t upset its notoriously fastidious target audience. Working under Bangle, Marek Djordjevic proved the quest for elegance and timelessness didn’t need to lock Rolls-Royce into a bygone design language.
BMW 1 Series (2004)
The 1 Series took BMW into a new segment of the market and, to no one’s surprise, it looked a lot like the CS1 concept. Designers led by Bangle toned down the front and rear ends but retained the sculpted sides and the arched rocker panels. The 1 Series’ basic design spawned two hatchback models plus a coupe and a convertible, showing the elasticity of Bangle’s pencil stroke.
BMW 3 Series (2004)
As BMW’s bread-and-butter model, the 3 Series got a less radical re-design than its bigger siblings. Simply put, there was little wiggle room to try something too new and risk screwing up. The company’s survival depended on the 3’s continued success. Still, Bangle and his team ensured it had a look of its own rather than morphing into a smaller rendition of the 5 or 7 Series.
BMW X6 (2008)
The X6 gave Bangle’s team a new challenge. More than yet another SUV, it represented a pioneering dive into a segment no one had previously explored due to a lack of boldness or a surplus of common sense, depending on your perspective. Bangle normally went to great lengths to differentiate BMW models from one another, but the first X6 and the second-generation X5 were close to identical when viewed from the front.
BMW GINA concept (2008)
Officially dubbed GINA Light Visionary Model, this roadster was a 22nd century-esque concept car made with a shape-shifting cloth skin. The flexible body allowed the headlights to open and close like eyes, the rear spoiler to raise when needed and the rocker panels to adopt a more muscular appearance. It also hinted at the turn BMW’s design language could have taken had Bangle remained at the helm of the company’s design department.
Bangle’s post-BMW days
Bangle unexpectedly resigned from BMW, and stepped out of the automotive industry altogether, in February of 2009. BMW appointed Adrian van Hooydonk, a Dutch designer who worked side by side with Bangle on several projects, to fill the newly-empty position.
“His contributions to the company’s success have been decisive,” BMW wrote in a statement, “and together with his teams he has mapped out a clear and aesthetic route to the future.”
Bangle later moved to Italy and founded a design firm named Chris Bangle Associates, which also employs his son Derek. Rumors swirling around the internet in 2010 claimed he would return to Fiat, but they turned out to be false. He instead joined Samsung in 2012 as the company’s master designer. Most recently, he has been working with Chinese company, and the first fruits of that were seen at the 2017 Los Angeles motor show in the shape of the Redspace prototype electric citycar (pictured).