BMW design chief Chris Bangle ‘to quit industry’

Published: 03 February 2009

BMW design boss Chris Bangle is to leave the car industry, it was announced today. In a statement, BMW said Bangle was quitting ‘to pursue his own design-related endeavors beyond the auto industry.’

Bangle, 52, was the architect of the often controversial flame surfacing look that transformed BMW design from the Russian doll mentality of the 1990s to the edgy – some would say radical and divisive – styling of today.

The cars Bangle spannered

The outgoing design chief has overseen the launch of the current 1-, 3-, 5- and 7-series saloons and hatchbacks, as well as the raft of niche models that have seen BMW’s model range explode in recent years: the Z3, Z4, Z8, X3, X5, X6 and 6-series were all conceived on his watch.

Some of these designs split opinion, equally attracting derision and attraction among the loyal BMW fanbase. But don’t forget that BMW’s car division has enjoyed solid business growth until the recent global slowdown – and don’t forget Bangle also had input into the current Mini and Rolls-Royce ranges. He led the launch of BMW’s Designworks USA office, too.

Bangle’s long and often controversial career started after a course at the University of Wisconsin and Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. His first job was at Opel, then in 1985 he jointed Fiat where he rose to become director of Fiat Centro Stile in 1992. Cue benchmark cars like the Fiat Coupe. But the lure of being head of BMW Group Design Development in October 1992 proved too much – and the rest is history…

His evangelical personality (he’d often mesmerise journalists and, doubtless, other board members in his complex presentations) was arguably as strong as his actual design skills. To hear him present his Project Gina concept was to hear a master at work, explaining far-flung design theories that change the whole way we think about car design. If you can level a criticism at Bangle, it is perhaps that he tried too much too quickly in what remains a conservative industry.

BMW: the new design boss

Adrian van Hooydonk, the 44-year-old current head of automobile design for the BMW brand, will take up Bangle’s responsibilities and oversee the design activity of BMW, Mini, Rolls-Royce and the new green-vehicle Project i. Don’t expect huge change overnight; Dutchman van Hooydonk is a Bangle acolyte who’s worked alongside the controversial American for 17 years.

Want a clue for what to expect? Van Hooydonk has been responsible for notable BMW concept cars including the Z9, Concept CS and M1 Hommage – while his production car credits include the latest 7-series saloon, Z4 and (later this spring) the wacky PAS version of next year’s 5-series.

Development chief Klaus Draeger said: ‘Christopher Bangle has had a lasting impact on the identity of BMW Group’s brands. His contribution to the company’s success has been decisive.’

Reaction to Chris Bangle’s departure

‘He was the most influential car designer of the past decade. if you look at the design language of all their rivals – including Mercedes-Benz – you will see they are now using the “surface entertainment” that Bangle introduced. However, I do think that many of his designs will go down as unattractive cars. For me the 5-series sedan and Touring were his best efforts; the X3 and 1-series his worst.’
Gavin Green, CAR executive editor

‘Christopher Bangle has had a lasting impact on the identity of BMW Group’s brands. His contribution to the company’s success has been decisive, and together with his teams he has mapped out a clear and aesthetic route into the future.’
Dr Klaus Draeger, BMW board member for development

‘I’m still hungover from drinking two bottles of champagne when I heard the news! Seriously, the problem with Chris was the disconnect between his words and his cars. His explanations were always so credible and made the cars sound so desirable, but in my view, the actual designs of the 1-, 3- and 5-series failed to live up to their billing. And iDrive was a great concept but the execution didn’t work, horribly so at first. His best car was the 2006 Mille Miglia concept, but sadly it hasn’t filtered through to production.’    
Georg Kacher, CAR European editor

‘I am honoured and extremely excited to take on this new responsibility. BMW, Mini and Rolls-Royce produce the best cars and motorcycles in their segment, and I am really looking forward to being able to contribute to the future development of these brands. I have no doubt that there are challenges ahead, but BMW’s depth in engineering and the passion of its talented design team are as strong as ever. Together I am sure we will be able to create some very sophisticated and extremely attractive concepts.’
Adrian van Hooydonk, new BMW design boss and crayon creative

‘Back in 2001, I was pretty shocked by the Bangle revolution. The previous 7-series was so straight and simple, the new one looked a mess. But over time, the Bangle looks mellowed and I began to understand what he was doing. Radical things are never met with approval, but BMW wouldn’t be where it is today without this man. The Z4 is his masterpiece, especially the coupe.’
Ben Barry, CAR road test editor (and BMW nut)

‘Adrian van Hooydonk is truly a top professional in our business. I am sure that the many strong design strategies he has helped us create for the BMW Group will continue to develop and evolve.’
Chris Bangle, former head of BMW group design

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By Tim Pollard

Group digital editorial director, motoring news magnet