For most concept cars, it takes months from the first seed of an idea to become a gleaming model on a show stand. BMW's X Coupe took a little longer.
In the 1990s, BMW knew it wanted to build more models - but what? In 1995, BMW asked two teams of designers to visualize the next U.S. automotive phenomenon to follow the sport-utility craze. One team was based in Munich, Germany, and one at Designworks, BMW's subsidiary in Los Angeles. They called the project Deep Blue. The project was overseen by Chris Bangle and Burkhard Goeschel, who was then head of Special Vehicles. But neither of them were team members. Deep Blue was top secret. To this day, few BMW people in Munich know a great deal about it.
The Munich team included marketing experts and product planners. But market research and focus groups would not decide the fate of this project. Instead, BMW relied on Designworks, which had worked on a range of products for the American market, including a Nokia mobile phone, ski goggles, computers and heavy trucks. Customers include Nokia Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Adidas. Designworks helped Adidas design a sport shoe endorsed by basketball superstar Kobe Bryant.
With its untraditional approach to design, Designworks played a key role in BMW's model expansion strategy. In April 1996, its team was given 10 minutes to present its findings to the board.
At that time, former Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder and former development chief Wolfgang Reitzle dominated BMW's board. For the next four years, Deep Blue made slow progress under the direction of two designers, Chris Chapman and Anders Warming. They focused on one particular concept, an off-road sports car called the X Coupe.
Early last year, work on the X Coupe began again in earnest. This spurt of activity was no accident. At that time, Goeschel - one of the project's chief defenders - was named board member for product development. Although Bangle and Goeschel played the role of mentors, their influence on the final concept was indirect and hands-off.
In a secret, off-site location near Munich, Chapman and Warming formed a team of six designers. They toiled in a studio cluttered with sketches and clay models. Computer-aided design did not play a major role in this project. The concept changed as it moved from sketches to clay models. For example, the X Coupe did not start out as an asymmetrical car. The clamshell hatch that caused such a stir in Detroit was a 'form-follows-function' solution to accommodate the vehicle's four-passenger layout. A traditional coupe would not allow easy entry for three passengers in the rear seat. The clamshell offered better access to the rear seat. It also fit the designers' desire for a vehicle that generated a certain tension.
Construction of the final concept car started in May 2000 and took six months to complete. It is a running vehicle that has been put through its paces on BMW's test track near Munich. It has even ventured off road (a little) in the California desert for a video sequence.
Whether an off-road coupe embodies the future consumer trend that Deep Blue sought has not been determined. Chris Bangle hastens to point out that it was only one of six ideas. The message from Munich is 'Watch this space.'