German car design is set to lose its image of machined precision in favor of its sensitive side. Or at least it will if BMW design chief Chris Bangle gets his way.
Critics have questioned the offbeat X Coupe, introduced in January in Detroit. The controversial concept car - with its clamshell hatch and asymmetrical C-pillar - follows the Z9 concept, which also drew mixed reviews. Nevertheless, he asserts that these ideas hint at the next phase of BMW's design.
Bangle wants to move away from the precision machine-age look typified by manufacturers such as Audi AG. He prefers a more sculptured look, where shapes and forms look as if they have been created by a human being rather than a machine. This was a major element of the X Coupe. The inspiration for the exterior was drawn from the erratic flow of a flame. Bangle likes to say 'the hand of man' creates such forms.
'BMW doesn't do things like this just to be provocative,' he insists. 'We do it because we have a clear commitment to direction.'
Does that mean BMW is preparing for a move away from the successful, conservative styling of its core 3, 5 and 7 series? Or will a new BMW style be tested on niche products first? Referring to the redesigned 7 series to be introduced this year, Bangle suggests that BMW will confine its experimentation to niche products.
'Yes, the core vehicles are conservative,' Bangle admits. 'But that doesn't mean they won't change. Even a conservative design requires more than just rounding off the corners of the last design.'
Blond-haired and blue-eyed, wearing a black sweater and frameless glasses, Bangle fits the image of 'Teutonic Technik' portrayed by BMW's development center on the outer edge of Munich, Germany.
The 44-year-old American's background is an unusual mix. He has veered between extremes of European automotive design - the precise, quality-oriented Germans and the more stylish Italians. He started with Adam Opel AG and went on to spend seven years at Fiat's Centro Stile in Italy. In 1992, he returned to Germany as BMW's design director. This German-Italian flavor is reflected in the vehicles he keeps in his garage. He owns a 1950 Fiat Topolino - the tiny family car that got Italians driving - and a BMW 3.0 CSi.
In an unfortunate example of bad timing, Bangle's eight years with the Munich manufacturer have coincided with one of the most difficult periods in the company's postwar history. The company's burdensome ownership of the Rover Group caused huge financial losses and two major leadership purges. Now that BMW has sold off the Rover Group, it is profitable again.
The management upheaval caused by the Rover crisis removed another constraint upon Bangle: former board member Wolfgang Reitzle. The charismatic technocrat launched the legendary 3 series, and he dominated BMW product design in the 1980s and 1990s. In the past, Reitzle might have had little patience for Bangle's talk of 'the hand of man.'
Reitzle's successor, Burkhard Goeschel, is a different story. Before becoming board member for development last year, Goeschel worked closely with Bangle as manager of BMW's Special Model series. The two have a good rapport.
Is Bangle's emotional approach at odds with BMW's German roots? Bangle firmly disagrees. German design does not have to be geometric to be successful. Bangle cites Porsche as a good example of a consistently successful sculptural design approach.
'During the '80s, the three-box format was the dominant style,' Bangle says. 'It looked clean, precise and well-proportioned from the side and the rear. Porsche came in for a lot of criticism for not going with this style. If you look at a side view of a Porsche, it looks odd. The proportions are all wrong. But if you look at a Porsche in three dimensions - if you walk round it - it's beautiful. And that's what's important about sculptural design. It's real and three-dimensional, not just a side view. Our vehicles always followed the box mentality, but it's time to break away from that.'
THE NEXT BIG THING
Bangle says the Z9 and the X Coupe will help BMW break with the past. The X Coupe has had a lengthy gestation. In 1996, BMW asked its design team to think of new vehicles that might be the Next Big Thing in the U.S. market. The team proposed six concepts. Of those, the off-road sport coupe gained the most corporate support.
BMW will not build the X Coupe, but it will be the inspiration for niche vehicles. Next year, the redesigned Z3 sports coupe will be the first model to reflect Bangle's sculptural design. Next is the X3, BMW's future compact sport-utility. Bangle is quiet on that subject, but the X3 is likely to feature some X Coupe design themes.
Meanwhile, the Z9 concept is likely to influence the 6-series sport coupe and cabrio, which are being developed. The original 6 series was a popular sports coupe of the 1970s and 1980s, and it inspired several racing versions. It was replaced in 1990 by the 8 series, which was dropped two years ago after poor sales.
The new 6 series will share its driveline with the new 7 series. But by calling it a 6 series, BMW can be more experimental. The 6 series, like the X5 and Z3, will be a niche vehicle intended to broaden the appeal of the brand.
Bangle celebrates the experimentalism of the X Coupe and Z9, but BMW also has indulged in retro styling. Bangle's Z3 and Z8 capitalized on nostalgia. And BMW is designing a new Mini and Rolls-Royce, two brands that thrive on tradition.
But Bangle insists that retro is a phase. 'There are some vehicles out there that really demand being rediscovered,' he says. 'It's a wonderful freedom, but it is certainly not the future of car design.'
Even the Mini - which goes on sale in July in the United Kingdom - will not remain retro forever. 'Mini has to establish itself once again,' Bangle says. 'But you shouldn't interpret it only on its past.'
Bangle wants to take one of the more conservative automakers in a new direction. 'We've come through our searching period,' he says. 'People look at an idea like the X Coupe and they say, `This shows BMW doesn't know where it's going.' I look at it as the opposite. We know where we're going, and we're showing it.'
E-mail writer Elaine Catton at [email protected]