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Q&A: Chris Bangle Is Ready For The Next Design Revolution

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For the first time in its history, the BMW brand surpassed the one-million sales mark. The German carmaker sold 1,023,583 units in 2004, up 10.3 percent from 2003. BMW customers like what the carmaker did under the guidance of the brand’s director of design, Chris Bangle. But his designs remain highly controversial—most rival designers are critical of the new BMW shape. Born in the U.S., Bangle started his design career 1981 with Opel then moved to Fiat before joining BMW in 1992. Bangle talked with Automotive News Europe Chief Correspondent Luca Ciferri at BMW headquarters in Munich.

The new 3-Series sedan looks like the model in which the design language begun with the 7-Series has achieved its final balance. Let’s say that with time we all mature. Perhaps we designers have matured. Or perhaps it’s the public that is now more ready to appreciate this new design language.

Is the new 3-Series the end of a BMW design cycle or the design forerunner for models to come?

It ends the revolution we began with the 7-Series and we progressively evolved on the Z4, the 5-Series, the 6-Series, the X3 and the 1-Series. We now start again from scratch in preparing for the next revolution.

Why does the world accuse you of high treason against BMW design?

Quite frankly, I don’t know and I don’t care. I’ve been designing cars for more than 20 years and have seen the industry from inside numerous automakers. The top management of no other carmaker in the world is as deeply involved as at BMW.

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What is your point?

That I didn’t sit down one night all by myself and single-handedly change the direction of BMW design. That was the result of a precise corporate strategy in which the entire design team participated.

Describe the strategy.

Until 1992, when I arrived in Munich, BMW designs advanced in stages. The flagship 7-Series would be overhauled, and then its design would be developed and adapted to the 5- and 3-Series. This is why BMW decided on the change in direction. Every model would have its own aesthetic language within two extremes, the extremes taking the form of two concept cars, the Z9 in September 1999, and the Xcoupe, which debuted two years later.

Why did it take nine years to get the first results?

Unfortunately, these are the time frames of design. When I arrived at BMW in October 1992, work on the 7-Series that debuted in 1994 had already been completed; the Z3 was all but finalized; and the then-new 5-Series was past the design stage so I only was able to work on some of the superficial geometries. The first truly new design created entirely under my direction was the past 3-Series, released in 1998, when we began using different design languages for all the different models. But the real turnaround came with the 7-Series.

Why the 7-Series?

It’s the model that BMW used to celebrate the first 100 years of the car and the passage into the third millennium. More importantly, it’s larger outside, much more comfortable inside, and incorporates the state of the art in automobile technology. Therefore we wanted a special design that would better “dress” the technology it contained.

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 We wanted a special design that would better “dress” the technology it contained.

That’s a convincing explanation, but the car is anything but attractive.

I’m sorry you don’t like it, but our customers do, very much so. The mission that marketing gave us was very precise: the new 7-Series must not only appeal to the 60-year-old who’s driven around by his chauffeur but it must also win over the successful 45-year-old who wants a large car that’s also dynamic and sporty to drive. It also needed to have dynamic lines. This is why the 7-Series represents the point of departure in BMW design. It changed the formal language and, by changing it in the right way, won over an even larger and younger clientele.

But BMW introduced a heavily restyled 7-Series at this year’s Geneva auto show.

It is normal in BMW’s model life cycle to restyle a model four years after its introduction. Over the years BMW design evolved and it was time to “realign” the 7-Series’ original design to the rest of the range, nothing more.

Enough about BMW. What is worth mentioning from other carmakers?

Almost nothing. I have seen a lot of pleasant interpretations of the theme of doors, but next to no real formal or architectural innovation. It seems to me that almost no one has had the courage to take a radically new direction the way BMW has.

Almost no one?

I would also include Renault under the guidance of Patrick Le Quement. In many respects Peter Horbury, while at Volvo, also managed to evolve the image of the brand in a coherent way by adding a sporty edge. But if you ask me, that’s pretty much it.

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