Chris Bangle: the greatest car designer of our times?

Published: 17 February 2009

Churchill was not a good peacetime prime minister. Yet he was a hugely influential leader and our ‘greatest Briton’ according to a BBC poll.

A similar tribute – not a great practitioner but a hugely influential leader – could be said of Chris Bangle, who has just stepped down from the top BMW design job. Was he a gifted car stylist? When you have the 1-series, the X3, the E65 7-series and the latest 3-series saloon – all among the ugliest cars on the road – in your oeuvre the simple answer must either be ‘no’ or, at very least, ‘he was inconsistent’. Yet he is the 21st century’s most influential car designer.

He shook up automotive design just as Picasso and Braque (and their visually unattractive but intellectually interesting Cubism movement) rocked the art world almost 100 years earlier. Bangle changed the car design template. His work was, mostly, hated by rivals. Yet as they too tried to break from the shackles of their pasts, so they copied his innovations. From Mercedes to Mazda, from Ford to Lexus, from Honda to Hyundai, car makers have abandoned classical simple ‘organic’ shapes and gone for ‘surface entertainment’ – the more angles, planes, surface changes and edges the better. Nobody served up sheetmetal action like King Chris.

Yet this highly intelligent and deeply articulate man could equally do ‘classical’ design. Look at the current Range Rover, the Rolls-Royce Phantom and the latest Mini. Apart from being probably the three finest British cars of the past decade, they were all conceived under Bangle’s BMW Group watch. All are brilliant examples of British ‘classic with a twist’ style.Bangle justified his revolution with the BMW brand by pointing out that BMW design had become clichéd and predictable, never mind its elegance. He wanted a more youthful and more distinctive form language and one that would also appeal to the newly emerging wealthy from China, Russia and the Middle East. BMW’s sales growth vindicated his strategy; BMW became the world’s biggest producer of premium automobiles under his design watch.

Like all busy and fussy designs, Bangle’s BMWs will age quickly. We already see Bangle’s disciples moving away from the master’s influence. New BMWs look far more elegant, are far simpler in form. Note the latest 3-series coupé, an uncontroversial and pretty car. Note the unambitious new 7-series.

The revolution is over. Long live the king.

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience