Avoidable Contact #24: The man who saved BMW.


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"...so we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A Dark Knight."

It feels more than a little trite and melodramatic to begin this column with a quote from a Batman movie, but if the auto business has any profession which lends itself to celebrity culture, it is that of the stylist. Harley Earl set the template: physically enormous and personally outrageous, he created our modern notion of the automobile as aesthetic object. And while there have been many flamboyant "superstar" designers who followed in his footsteps, from Tjaarda to Stephenson, history will surely acknowledge that a few men managed to accomplish more than merely sketching a pretty shape. Bill Mitchell brought us the 1961 Chevrolet, which set a visual template for modern sedans that persists to this day. William Lyons fathered the XJ6, perhaps the greatest sporting sedan design in history, even if he didn't actually draw it. Alex Issigonis invented the "small car" as we know it today, and Giorgetto Giugiaro rationalized it into the unmatchable first-generation Golf. Marcello Gandini created the supercar; Jack Telnack revitalized the Mustang and with it an entire generation of automotive enthusiasm.

Years from now, when the smoke of history clears, another name will be added to that list of designers who were capable of re-imagining the automobile. Born and raised in the American Midwest, Christopher Edward Bangle joined BMW with a rather singular goal in mind: to create what would be only the second major design direction in the company's history. His complete and utter success in this task has permitted BMW to become a major player on the global stage; along the way, he rewrote the design language for the entire auto industry.

Such is the man's star power that, like George W. Bush, Bill Gates, or the Almighty Himself, Bangle is regularly blamed for or credited with the accomplishments of others -- but it isn't necessary. His own successes are enough. To understand them, and to grasp why it is possible to respect or even admire the man himself without particularly loving his creations, we will have to take the advice of David E Davis and open our hymnals...

...not to page 2002, as DED Jr. originally commanded, but to the year 1962, when the BMW Neue Klasse debuted.


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The BMW Neue Klasse would spawn the 1602, and in turn, the 2002.

It seems almost impossible to conceive now, but forty-seven years ago BMW was very far from being an unstoppable market force or a purveyor of so-called "ultimate driving machines". Germany was still recovering from the nightmare of the Second World War, no more distant in time from 1962 than the First Gulf War is for us today and powerfully present in the memories and mindsets of Germans in a way that a brief overseas bitch-slapping could never be for the average American. The floundering Bayerische Motoren Werke had scrimped and saved to create a new family-sized sedan, complete with a rather extravangant one-and-a-half-liter engine. For those efforts, they were promptly rewarded with more business than they could handle, even though the "1500" model couldn't break the hundred-mile-per-hour mark, it had only four cylinders, and it could easily be hidden behind a modern Hyundai Accent. In other words, it was a BMW, but not as we know them today.

Still, the car was a success and it was eventually developed into the two-liter, two-door 2002 that captured the heart of Car and Driver's chief editor and made BMW the expensive, exotic choice of the leather-driving-glove crowd in the early Seventies. By then, BMW was on a roll and had developed a "full-sized" sedan, the most common US-market variant of which was the "Bavaria". The conception of the Bavaria is a story in itself, involving as it does the amazing Max Hoffman, but but suffice it to say that in general size, style, and (six-cylinder) power, the Bavaria set the template for BMW's products in this country. It would be several more years before the 325e brought the inline six to the US-market 3-series, but by then the general idea of BMW -- sporty, expensive, square body, round headlamps, six cylinders -- was pretty well-fixed in the American mind.


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The "Bavaria" was a full-sized BMW, equipped like a German "2500" model but with the larger "2800" six.

The Eighties and early Nineties were good times for the men from Bavaria. In the space of thirty years, BMW transformed itself from a niche company that sold fewer than ten thousand miniscule "bubblecars" and irrelevant, mostly disregarded high-end luxury cars to a solid volume player worldwide. There was just one little problem.


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The successor to the Bavaria was the E23, available in this country as the 730i, 733i, and 735i. As you can see, it was not a major stylistic change from the Bavaria.

The entire reputation of BMW, particularly in the United States, was based on the Neue Klasse sedans and the derivative "02" coupes. Among BMW enthusiasts, the 2002 was widely understand to be the "heart" of the company. For that reason, every successive BMW was required to pay visual homage to the Neue Klasse, which meant round headlamps, a relatively square profile, a big greenhouse with a kinked rear window, and a set of proportions best suited to a small car.


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More than twenty years after the first big BMW sedan debuted, the E32 735i was still required to "sample" the proportions and details of its predecessors.

This required styling relationship to a sedan which had been hastily designed for a 1961 introduction into the German family-car market was both blessing and curse. Bimmers (for the record, a "Beemer" has two wheels until you cross the pond to the United Kingdom, where they call everything from Bavaria a "Beemer") were instantly recognizable worldwide and as such possessed very powerful branding. It would be virtually impossible for a Rip van Winkle from 1962 to recognize a 1993-model Chevrolet or Ford, but he would have no trouble picking out a BMW from the crowd.

On the debit side of the equation, BMW was rapidly starting to look a little, well, stodgy. Audi had long since embraced avant-garde aerodynamic styling, a change undertaken in somewhat more reserved fashion by Bruno Sacco and his W201 "baby Benz". The Japanese had launched three luxury brands with flagship cars that simply looked far more modern than any Bavarian box ever could. When the E38 large sedan and E39 midsized sedan were introduced in Europe, the press started to grumble that, just maybe, BMW was being a little conservative in its visual approach. CAR magazine went farther, referring to the E39 as "depressing and timid". Truth be told, they had a point: the E39 was virtually identical to the outgoing E34, and the very few styling changes it did have were generally held to be unfortunately executed.


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The 1997 E38 big BMW probably represented the nadir of BMW's styling paralysis; it looked like a squished E32, with a relatively cramped interior and crass-looking headlight assemblies that became even uglier in the "baggy-eyed" mid-cycle refresh.

Faced with the prospect of perpetually redrawing the same basic car, an approach memorably described in the UK press as "selling the same sausage in three different lengths", the board members of BMW AG made what had to have been an unbelievably difficult decision: they looked to the outside for help. That assistance came in the form of a man who had recently gained notoriety for drawing a series of bizarre-looking Fiats, someone who said that design leadership consisted of taking the customer where "they don't want to go". Chris Bangle had worked at Opel prior to his Fiat engagement, but it was with the Fiat Coupe -- a raw slash of a car which would later donate much of its fundamental proportion and design thought to the infamous "X Coupe" concept -- that he caught the attention of BMW's management.


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This was not your grandfather's Fiat. As it turned out, it wouldn't be your kid's Fiat, either. His Fiat would be the New 500, which was a retro rip of your grandfather's Fiat.

The attractiveness of the Fiat Coupe could certainly be debated, but its originality and vision were plain to anyone with a bare minimum of aesthetic sense. The BMW board, in many ways a puppet whose strings were pulled by the mysterious Quandt family, gave Bangle its full public support. No matter what happened, the new design direction would be pursued to its conclusion.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Europe, another "luxury" manufacturer was returning from a frustrating, unprofitable dalliance with modernism. Jaguar had built its seminal XJ6 sedan with fairly minor alterations from 1968 to 1986, having considerable success along the way and escaping the hellhole known as British Leyland, but the successor "XJ40" had been publicly crucified for its "digital dash" and -- horrors! -- square headlights. Shortly afterwards, Ford rescued the company from a financial collapse which was more or less entirely the XJ40's fault and immediately threw in a quick "retro" restyle to bring the "X300" into visual line with the 1968 original. Sales went up, customers were happier, and plans were made for the "X350" successor to imitate the retro look. Although the X350 was a technologically daring aluminum-unibody sedan in the mold of the Audi A8, it would not be permitted to visually differ from the X300, which was itself intended to be nearly indistinguishable from the 1968 XJ6.


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Well, this looks different, doesn't it?

The first production "Bangle BMW" was the "E46" 3 Series, but anybody who had bothered to take a look at the concept cars being shown at the same time, most notably the aforementioned X Coupe, should have known that the real future design direction of BMW had yet to appear. When it did, it literally shocked the world. The "E65" 745i full-sized sedan looked like no BMW in history, which made it quite a departure from the company's previous practice of having all BMWs look like every BMW in history. (Understanding, of course, that "history" started in 1961.) The E65 could hardly be accused of being beautiful, but it struck a chord with buyers. For the first time in most peoples' living memories, a genuinely new BMW was available.

Naturally, the always-fickle Press As A Whole completely forgot their vicious panning of the previous-generation 740i in their unseemly haste to dogpile this "challenging" new Bimmer. The BMW board never blinked in their determination to back Bangle; the E60 5-Series which followed was an uncompromsing extension of the styling themes seen in the E65. "Flame surfacing" entered the automotive enthusiast vocabulary, along with the less complimentary (and utterly inaccurate) "Bangle Butt".

The man behind the aforementioned Butt held fast in the face of criticism from all quarters. Although Bangle had not styled the new generation of BMWs himself, he cheerfully served as the lightning rod for the storm of negative reaction, the board continued to back him, and sales continued to climb. The leather-driving-glove crowd was eventually won over by the sheer mechanical excellence of modern Bimmers, although the "Letters" section of Roundel continues to boil over even today with cartoonish indignation. While Mercedes-Benz writhed in quality-control turmoil and Audi plotted a future renaissance, BMW quietly assumed the title of the world's premier mass-market automotive brand.

Jaguar released the sublime and satisfying X350 in 2003, complete with perfected "homage" styling calculated to satisfy the most ardent Jaguar traditionalist... and the car fell on its face, setting off a chain reaction of events that would eventually result in the brand's sale to an Indian industrialist. Meanwhile, BMW went from strength to strength; the long-awaited arrival of the "Bangled" 3-Series (a tag which ignored the fact that the 1999 3 Series had also been "Bangled") proved to be an unqualified success. Still, there was a sense that BMW was pulling the reins tighter on its maverick design team; each new BMW appeared just slightly less daring than the one before. Who could blame them? After all, it's one thing to bet the farm, but it's quite another to bet the farm, win the bet, and leave your chips on the table to do it all again.

In a conversation I had with Mr. Bangle at the 2008 NAIAS, he noted rather caustically that his "old" E65 was still the most "challenging" car on the market, years after its release. The 2009 release of the relatively conservative new 7 Series (castigated as "timid" once again by the ever-schizophrenic UK press) does nothing to invalidate that statement. The past half-decade has also seen the fundamental principles of Bangle-era styling stolen, excuse me, "appropriated", by everyone from Audi (with their "emotional surfaces") to Toyota and Lexus (the LS460 and current Camry, in addition to looking exactly like each other, also look like generic-label versions of the E65). Even Jaguar has finally wised up and delivered a car -- the new XF -- which contains just enough "flame surfacing" to look vaguely modern.

What would a BMW without Bangle be like? It is hard to imagine that even the most doggedly mundane of stylists could have squeezed two more generations of sausages from the Neue Klasse tube, but had they done so, the highways would look very different today. We simply take it for granted that the "man from Ohio" solved a variety of automotive styling problems on our behalf. Ever notice just how tall cars are today? That's a packaging requirement, and it can be done awkwardly (the non-flame-surfaced 2008 Taurus) or invisibly (the flame-surfaced 2010 model). Ever bothered to read the Euro pedestrian impact standards? They forced blunt noses and tall bonnets on sedan makers, who were then able to look at a BMW to get a sense of how to meet those requirements. Have you noticed that the trunk on a 1999 740il is a "two-person" trunk while the new 750il has luggage room for four? That's courtesy of the "stacked" trunk profile popularized by you-know-who.

My friends in the blogosphere are stage-whispering to anyone who will listen that Bangle was "forced out" or "pushed", but anybody with a lick of sense can see that it was time for the man to walk away. What's left for him to do? He has saved BMW from a Jaguar-esque retro-fate, re-imagined the way cars are styled in the twenty-first century, and lived to see his critics either dwindle into irrelevance or voluntarily engage in shameless "copypasta" of his ideas. Why not walk into the sunset? His parting phraseology -- that he is moving "beyond automobiles" -- could be an indicator of anything, or of nothing.

Chris Bangle has taken a million morons' hatred, ignorance, and misunderstanding squarely on the chin and kept moving the art of automotive design forward, often alone, always under fire. From the crucible of fifteen years' effort and battle, he's emerged as more than just a "hero" or "celebrity" designer, more than just an opinionated controvery artist. If you ask me, he's earned a rest. And if you love BMWs in particular, or just cars in general, he's earned your thanks, as well.

            

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Jack Baruth

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