One of my earliest BMW related memories reach back to the early 2000s. I was a teenager back then and I knew nothing of cars, zero. It was on a sunny spring day that my uncle took me for a ride in his new 2000 530i E39 5 series. I still remember that car; black exterior with angel eyes, and a black leather interior.
Everything felt premium and of high quality, exactly as it should. The car felt amazing on the highway and smooth over the bumpy country roads. It was swallowing the road and the M54B30 R6 petrol engine had an amazing sound to it. This was the golden era of BMW and I could feel it, even as a teenager I knew this was something different. It’s no wonder that the E39 5 series still remains one of the best premium sedans to this day.
A few years have passed and the E39 5 series soon got replaced by the entirely different E60 5 series. The first time I saw it in the flesh I immediately thought “wow, this looks nothing like my uncle’s 5 series”. It was a completely different car, the lines were new and not BMW like to say the least.
The E60 stood out from the moment it rolled onto the road and it stood out for many years to come. The same goes for the renewed 7 series, the E65. It was nothing like the timeless E38 7 series before, the change was even more drastic. At the time, I had no idea who was responsible for these creations. I know I liked it because it was so different than everything else on the road.
It was later on that I learned these creations were made under the directorship of Chris Bangle. Bangle joined BMW as its chief of design in 1992 and stayed in that position until 2009. It was under his control, that BMW took major design changes that initially got massively criticized. Funny enough, even though his design narrative caused controversy amongst automotive designers, the sales numbers told a different story.
People loved the new designs and BMW overtook Mercedes-Benz in sales of premium vehicles. Whatever BMW was doing, was definitely working well for them.
To understand why Chris Bangle made these drastic changes I needed to understand Bangle’s mindset and creative process. The first thing I listened to was his 2002 TED talk “Great cars are great art”.
During the talk, he explains he manages his team of designers like a family. His design process is passionate and emotional, and only a passionate and emotional design process can produce results that will spark passion and emotion in the buyer. BMW buyers seek emotion and passion. And he always followed that narrative of creating something different that pushes certain boundaries.
He believed certain boundaries have to be in place, but pushing them should also be allowed in the creative process. His most controversial work was the E65 7 series. In a 2006 interview with Design & Emotion, he defended his work on the E65 claiming that passion breeds passion. In his opinion, the response was good, you want people to get passionate about the product.
He even claimed he would not want to see it go any other way. It was designed with passion and it caused a passionate reaction when it was presented to the public. Time magazine included it in their “50 Worst Cars of All Time” list due to its bad iDrive controls and rear end styling (known as the “Bangle Butt”).
Other headlines called the E65 “Another Bangle Mangle” and “The Bangle Bungle”. The general media consensus was that BMW was digging its own grave. To add on to the passionate response, many online petitions were made by BMW enthusiasts asking BMW to fire Chris Bangle.
Luckily, Chris had the support of BMW’s board members and continued his vision on transforming BMW for the future. The fact that the E65 7 series was the best selling 7 series ever helped as well. People and the media soon turned around on their opinion about Bangle, especially with the arrival of the highly successful E90 3 series. BMW trusted Bangle’s vision and in retrospect, they were right to do it. One could even say, he was way ahead of his time.
BMW was in dire need of a change and this is exactly what Chris Bangle delivered. To prove this point, many other main competitors like Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and Lexus soon began to rethink their lineup.
They followed BMW’s footsteps but took a bit more cautious path to the whole radical redesign phase. “It feels very nice”, was what Chris Bangle told the UK newspaper The Independent. This was when his work started getting the appreciation it deserved.
There are plenty of stories roaming around the internet about his work. But the one standing out the most must be the one about the selection process for the final look of the E63 6 series. Keep in mind this is not verified, but it has been told that he was standing in a room with several final proposals for the design of the E63. After some time he randomly chose the design for the E63 series that later went into production. The response for the new E63 was about the same as it was for the E65 7 series. Today, however, I think the E63 looks truly unique, especially the M6.
If you ask me, Chris Bangle is nothing short of a genius. As a marketer, I also observe another angle of his work. The E60 5 series was the first car that looked truly horrible with 16″ wheels and the “non-M” body style. It was the first car that really came to life when equipped with proper 19″ wheels and the M package.
And this was a genius marketing move, offering a basic E60 but up-selling buyers all the add-ons that really made the car special. I really can’t think of any other cars where a simple wheel change had such an impact on its look. The same goes for the E90 or the E92 coupe, both of which were made under Bangle’s wing.
To finish off this exploration of Chris Bangle’s work at BMW, think he was the only chief of design whose work transcended into other industries. To have a man exploring design and expressing creativity at a level where he was at is simply inspiring.
This is why the concept of re-innovating and breaking the constraints of the past became popular in other areas of design as well. BMW gave him the freedom to transform their crown jewels, the 3, 5, and 7 series. His out of the box thinking can be applied to everything in life.
Staying trapped and connected to the past can be the thing holding us back. This is why his designs withstood the test of time, with the E92 M3 being the best example in my opinion. Love or hate Chris Bangle, he was the thing BMW needed at the time.