Musings on the Motoring World

#10yearchallenge shows how Chris Bangle changed BMW

Another year, another internet ‘challenge’ fad, and instead of convincing the short end of the Darwinian ladder to eat new varieties of detergent concentrate we are now bombarded by people eager to show off to Facebook’s algori….errr…peers, on how ten trips around the sun had changed them with the #10yearchallenge.

This being the internet, there were no shortage of spoofs and even astute automotive journalist cum racer and serial owner of exotics extraordinaire Chris Harris chimed in on Instagram for a bit of a laugh, posting a picture of a 2009 BMW 7 Series and the newly facelifted G11 7 Series with a grille that is best described as lungs rather than kidneys.

Not being a chump to tag the fad, Harris was definitely having a swing at the #10yearchallenge. While there is much to dislike about BMW’s recent obsession with directing the steroids into its front-breathing vents, 2019 also marks a whole decade since former BMW head of design, Chris Bangle decided his work at BMW was done and bade the company farewell.

While the faithful breathed a sigh of relief that the scourge of BMW’s design conservatism had left the building, the few early Bangle-advocates soon found themselves growing in number as the general opinion of his controversial models steadily warmed. BMW’s succession of well-designed but ultimately forgettable designs also had a hand in changing people’s opinion. From the unadventurous third-generation F15 X5 to the most egregious form of the pug-nosed 2012 F20 1 Series, it was clear that the American-born designer’s departure had left a massive void that his successor, and loyal acolyte, Adrian van Hooydonk, hasn’t been able to fill.

“All great works are trophies of victorious struggle” and it isn’t an uncommon occurrence for critics of its time to deride many of today’s iconic works. Even the Eiffel Tower was once described as a “hole-riddled suppository”, though such demeaning criticisms pale in comparison to the amount of ire that was directed BMW’s way, as several online-petitions calling for the sacking of their head of design were started in a time when online activism was far from the de rigueur method of public discourse it is today.

Despite the deluge of criticisms from both observers and industry players alike, it is undeniable that Bangle’s revolutionary designs had reshaped the automotive scene. The 2001 E65 7 Series’ widely despised raised boot lid – unceremoniously known as the “Bangle butt” – was later copied by others, including its arch-rival, the 2006 W221 S-Class. Whereas the complex shapes of the first-generation Z4 and E60 5 Series quickly inspired a legion of followers from all corners of the industry, bringing an end to the slab-sided three-sided sedan shape archetype. It goes without saying that despite the perception of BMW traditionalists being in full revolt, all three of the aforementioned examples sold exceptionally well.

As much as he was the mastermind at large, Bangle’s artistic vision wasn’t merely the result of a healthy dose of hallucinogenic cocktails and executive strong-arming alone. Credit where it is due, Bangle got the canvas he desired thanks to BMW’s adoption of new metal pressing equipment, which allowed the company to create more intricate design possibilities.

This isn’t to say that he is a one-trick wonder with – as one industrial designer described – a machete either, Bangle’s work with the first BMW-era Rolls-Royce Phantom and the MINI also demonstrated the breadth of his ability as he was quite capable of conserving the sanctity of institutionalised icons while thoroughly modernising them.

Whether BMW owes much of its early-2000s success to Bangle’s distinct designs, its introduction of daring new features like the criticised iDrive, or spurred on by the brand’s existing accolades and growing reputation from its conservative and lauded creations like the E46 3 Series and the E39 5 Series, would be a debate that will remain fiercely divided amongst enthusiast circles.

Regardless of whether you are a staunch supporter or diehard detractor, even if Bangle was to stage a miraculous second coming to the Munich-based manufacturer tomorrow he wouldn’t be able to reinstate a second renaissance. As mused here before with the new 8 Series, the company who once demolished norms with their SUV-coupes has since tracked a more conservative approach, for better or for worse. It isn’t just BMW though, Bangle himself recently lamented that the spirit of risk-taking seems to have ebbed away from the automotive industry since his departure.

While the norms have obviously changed, automotive design itself has entered a seemingly unending phase of evolution as it waits for the next luminary to step up to the task of reshaping expectations and daring fellow designers to push boundaries once again.

It might take another decade before we see another bold designer and a like-minded manufacturer willing to take such a gamble, but it would be worth it, if only for sparking another fad.

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