Is Chris Bangle the man who can stop BMW becoming a victim of its own success? Senior executives in the company's landmark four cylinder building in Munich perhaps wouldn't quite put it that way, but this is clearly his task. BMW - successful, focussed, the automotive zeitgeist of the sleek, moneyed and thrusting 80s and 90s - is at a crossroads. And 45 year old, Ohio-born Bangle is responsible for defining which way it turns into the 21st century.

When Wolfgang Reitzle plucked Bangle from Fiat in October 1992 to become only fourth BMW design chief since World War II, the move shocked the industry. None of Bangle's Fiat designs had even hit the road and he'd never given an interview. Although a graduate of California's respected Art Centre College of Design, where his contemporaries included Ford design boss J Mays, he was a virtual unknown.

X Coupe unveiled in Detroit

Almost a decade later, Bangle is still shocking the auto industry. His Z9 and X Coupe concept cars raised eyebrows at the Frankfurt and Detroit Shows, and his bold new 7-series sedan represents the most profound step-change in BMW design since the 1960s.

Bangle's first production BMW - the current E46 3-series - merely evolved familiar design themes. But Bangle understands BMW has enjoyed the greatest period of growth and prosperity in its history building cars that successfully refined and re-interpreted a fairly singular design language. He also knows it's a language fast running out of adjectives; that at some point in the near future buyers may tire of yet another variation on a familiar theme, no matter how skilfully executed.

Bangle now talks of a new BMW design language that is freer, more expressive, but anchored by consistencies in proportion, surfacing and detail that tell you not only that it's a BMW, but also what kind of BMW, and what particular model it is. This thinking underpins a bold plan to broaden BMW's model range with products such as the X3 SUV, the 6-series coupe and convertible and the all-new 1-series range, which will plug the gap between Mini and the 3-series.

The bottom line, says Bangle, is that BMW simply can't afford to do "cookie-cutter" cars anymore. "That was a very valid strategy for a company with a very narrow product palette."


BMW simply can't afford to do "cookie-cutter" cars anymore.

This makes the new E65 7-series one of the most important new cars BMW has ever launched. The E65's design is radically different from the tautly tailored BMW wedge that reached its apotheosis with the current 3-series. It's a more massive, formal car with simple, clean surfacing. Elements of the E65's design were previewed on the Z9 concept vehicle shown at the 1999 Frankfurt Show, a car panned by most of the automotive media.

The new E65 7-series one of the most important cars BMW has ever launched

"The Z9 didn't cause a problem with the E65 because the car was pretty much done," says Bangle. "If anything, it just focussed our attention on communication and the role it plays. And it also gave us a benchmark to measure change by - if somebody changes their opinion on the Z9, that'll tell you what they're going to do about the 7."

Bangle's 7-series is undoubtedly going to polarise opinion. But ironically, while most carmakers would say buyers of large, luxury sedans are their most conservative customers, the reality is the 7-series was the only car BMW could begin its design revolution with. With production volume less than one-tenth that of the 3-series, it's not core to BMW's profitability, and its market position sets an expectation that its advanced iDrive technology will trickle down to lower priced models, just like ABS and airbags did.

"I think buyers in this segment are extremely aware of what is advanced," says Bangle. "Just when we got to this point in this dogma where people say all cars are the same technically, along comes a car like this new 7-series that proves you can teach old dogma new tricks."

Twenty years in Europe have left their mark - Bangle's speech still rings with a mid-western twang, but his pronunciation of Z9 veers between the English "zed9" to the American "zee9" in the same sentence, and when he's lost for a word, it's the German version that comes to mind first. "The longer you live in a foreign country the less vocabulary you have in any language," he grins after grappling with his German PR man to come up with "rehabilitation" to describe the positive change in attitude to the Z9 when it was shown as a convertible at last year's Paris Show.

Z9 unveiled in Frankfurt

"By that time," he says, "people had come to grips with the fact that BMW was leading change. And instead of resisting it, they're getting with the flow. Just wait until you see what happens with the X Coupe."

The massive, asymmetrically styled, four wheel drive, diesel powered X Coupe concept was pilloried by the world's automotive press after its debut at this year's Detroit Show. But Bangle says he recently presented the X Coupe to a group of people who loved it. "These were people who had never really heard of this car before, and don't really follow car magazines," he says. The inference here is clear, and Bangle doesn't hesitate to spell it out: "We've learned to separate a little in our own minds real world people from journalist world people."

Whatever you think of the X Coupe, take note of its flamboyant design themes. "We obviously don't do these show cars for nothing," says Bangle bluntly. Elements of the X Coupe's design language - which Bangle describes as "informal" compared with the Z9 and the new 7-series - will define products such as the next generation Z3, and the forthcoming 4-series range, which is basically the next generation of 3-series coupes and convertibles.

Chris Bangle belongs to a generation of American designers who have gone to work for carmakers around the globe, creating vehicles with a flair and flamboyance not seen since the rocket-ship tailfins of Detroit in the 1950s. "That generation of designers made the cars that my generation grew up wanting to do," he says. "But that generation was romantic about the future. My generation is romantic about cars."

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BMW Corporate Profile

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