BMW's influence in car design, by Stephen Bayley

Published: 23 January 2012

To appreciate the resonance of the last decade’s revolution in BMW design, it’s necessary to understand the company’s huge historic debt to a modernist ideas factory that became the world’s most influential art school.

'Art and technology : a new unity' was the Bauhaus slogan and before the Second World War, BMW already had a department of Kunstlerische Gestaltung (Artistic Development), the first of its kind. The Nazis closed the radical Bauhaus in 1933, but in the fifties its spirit was revived in Ulm’s Hochschule fur Gestaltung. Everything we understand by German Design was confirmed by Ulm: clarity, discipline, logic, fuss-free surfaces and the (sometimes forbidding) semantics of technical authority.

The modern BMW look is established - with Hofmeister knick

The 1961 Neue Klasse BMW 1500 was the Bauhaus-on-wheels and established a BMW design language that was to last for 40 years: a prominent sculpted beltline, airy glass-house, fine proportions, restrained detail, fastidious graphics and that famous reverse bend in the C-pillar.  Known as the (Wilhelm) Hofmeister-knick, after the design director who retired in 1977, this motif was so strong that it survived the revolution that began when Chris Bangle joined BMW from Fiat in 1992.

Bangle had telegraphed the world his artistic intentions with the 1993 Fiat Coupe, a strange-looking car with an awkward stance, a sullen aspect and surfaces animated by arbitrary slashes. But his first public BMW proposal was more elegant: the 1999 Z9 concept was a large, handsome machine which tested most of the design ideas that became productionised in the E63 6-series.

The Chris Bangle era at BMW design

While Bangle was developing his own very clear – not to say aggressive - personal design agenda, new production technology arrived to aid its expression.  Just as Harley Earl was able to create fifties bizarrerie for General Motors when US Steel began supplying strip steel in wider measures, so the introduction of new pressing equipment was a stimulus to Bangle. By the turn of the millennium, you could press body panels comprising compound curves in a single action. For BMW, the result of this process innovation was the design revolution that comprised the E65 7-series, launched at Frankfurt in 2001.

The Bauhaus-inspired BMW design language begun by Paul Bracq and developed by Wilhelm Hofmeister resisted frivolous change. The message to customers was:  our solution is correct and only evolutionary development is possible. That was now binned. It was easy to be critical of the new 7-series. And people were. It was lardy and slab-sided; lumpen, not lithe.  Then there was the controversial rear where some complicated sculpture created an unsettling effect: it looked as though someone had thrown a heavy metal blanket over a smaller car that was struggling underneath the weight. Bangle took the heat for this challenging car (even if his assistant, today's BMW design director Adrian van Hooydonk, had shared authorship).

Revelling in the BMW design controversy

But the controversy only fuelled Bangle’s conviction. Dan Neil of The Los Angeles Times named the new 7-series one of the '50 Worst Cars of All Time' (in a list that included the Renault Dauphine, Triumph Stag and AMC Gremlin), but Bangle argued that BMW’s established design language was exhausted.  There was only so far you could go with gentlemanly refinement and, artistically, BMW was hitting the bump-stops. An aesthetic revolution was required. Customers were, in succession, confused, dismayed, hostile and, eventually, appreciative. That the 7-series no longer looks shocking is proof of the rightness of Bangle’s argument.

Then came E60, stranger still. Aesthetic imbalance replaced conservative fine proportions. Lutheran quietude was replaced by baroque flourishes. Rationality was replaced by wilful expressiveness and, overall, there was a general sense of aesthetic instability. Industry rivals were smug or grudging, but all took careful note. It was a turning-point in the history of car design: manufacturers now began to assault consumer expectations rather than merely gratify them.

At Renault, Patrick le Quement also confronted customer expectations, but with much less success. Meanwhile, BMW drew a new baseline for design: nowadays all cars are more sculpturally complex and visually satisfying. It’s what Ford’s Martin Smith calls 'surface entertainment'.  Because of Bangle, you have to have it.

Bangle's high point: the 2003 5-Series (E60)

The E60 5-series was a BMW which did not look like a machine-tool. It looked organic. Confounding the customer was a strange formula for success, but the 2003 5-series confirmed a change not just in BMW’s design direction, but in all the assumptions of car design. Nowadays every mid-size car has something of the 5-series about it. Bangle said: 'It is the most avant-garde car BMW has ever done. When that thing is in front of me, I just want to follow it.' The world did.

So we return to the role of art in car design. Bangle was influenced by the 1988 New York Museum of Modern Art Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition which popularised Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, building designers of perverse complexity whose morphological ideas often exceed the tolerance of the public and the potential of technology. And in 1951 this same museum had declared cars to be 'rolling sculpture'. That’s what Bangle created: difficult, but not boring.  He left BMW in 2009 and now makes wine in Tuscany.

Win six BMW's for 12 months

By Stephen Bayley

Design critic, guru, cultural watchdog, occasional annoyer of Ron Dennis