Chris Bangle may have had a controversial career at BMW, but he certainly didn’t plan it that way. When Bangle took over BMW Design in October 1992, he inherited a department that had been running under interim leadership for two years, Hans Braun having taken over on a temporary basis following Claus Luthe’s abrupt departure after 14 years at the helm.
Both the cars and the department itself needed to be brought into the modern era, and Bangle brought an unprecedented level of innovative thinking to the task. While putting together a highly creative team to design cars, he also worked with the production department to make new forms feasible, putting BMW at the cutting edge of not just design but production processes, as well.
Later, Bangle’s team began the design research for Project i, which was charged with determining the form of mobility for decades to come. More mundanely, Bangle also presided over the expansion of BMW’s automotive lineup to include MINI and Rolls-Royce, and he was responsible for BMW’s purchase of Chuck Pelly’s Designworks studio in California, which became BMW DesignworksUSA and has since expanded to Munich, Singapore and Shanghai. In short, Bangle made BMW Design into the award-winning powerhouse it is today, an organization with unparalled expertise and capabilities.
Innovation isn’t always well received, however, and a few of the cars designed under Bangle’s leadership generated a great deal of controversy among BMW traditionalists, some of whom demanded not just Bangle’s resignation but his death. Through it all, Bangle remained gracious and good humored, taking all the heat for unpopular designs and giving credit to his team when the work drew praise. Somewhat ironically, when Bangle resigned in February 2009 he was replaced by Adrian van Hooydonk, who’d designed the E63 6 Series and E65 7 Series for which Bangle was so widely reviled.
We met up with Bangle in Detroit, where he was presented with the EyesOnDesign Lifetime Achievement Award for Automotive Design in June 2012. While Bangle seems a a bit young—he’s 55—to be getting lifetime achievement awards, there’s no denying the impact of his work so far even though he’s reluctant to take too much of the credit.
“I didn’t do anything! I was just there,” he says. “You know how Woody Allen says you cannot view your own death objectively? You cannot view your own career reasonably, either.”
We took the opportunity to chat with Bangle about his 17-year career with BMW nonetheless, and to find out what the future holds for this already accomplished design director, who now runs his own design firm in Turin, Italy.
Bimmer: BMW had been without a design director for two years when you joined the company in 1992. What was the mood like within the department, and how was design regarded within BMW?
Chris Bangle: You have to look at the board structure in 1992. Eberhard von Kuenheim was in his last year in office [having been BMW board chairman since 1970—Ed.] before he gave the office to Bernd Pischetsrieder [chairman from mid-’93 to early ’99]. His goodbye parties were where they laid the foundation stones for the Z8. They dragged out all these vintage BMWs for von Kuenheim to drive, rotating through different managers. I happened to be with him when he was driving the 507, and that event was the trigger for this whole chain of events that led to the Z8.
In any case, you had a man who was a super-icon in the industry, and you had his chief engineer [board member for research and development] Wolfgang Reitzle, who was only 42 years old, the youngest ever, yet he’d been in that position for years already [since 1986]. Reitzle came in to office very young, and I think he’d just gone through a very interesting learning experience that you really do need a design director. Sometimes you don’t realize these things until you do have one, and then you realize what a design director is for. Reitzle had been a very powerful entity in the company in terms of design. I’m sure he asked himself, ‘Why do I need a design director when I already know what this is about?’
I think those two years where they were missing a design leader haunted design for years. They haunted us. It’s a gap in management education and team building, and projects are started without the right sense of ownership and fall through the gaps of experience.
There was a sense of need for a design director within the team. Almost everyone came up and congratulated me on this assignment. There was absolutely no resentment whatsoever. In fact, from outside BMW at the time, BMW had a very arrogant feel to it. But from the inside, I remember [my wife] Catherine and I remarked to each other that it’s a very warm, human company…and it’s always stayed that way to me. That was a great thing to discover in those days, especially having come from Fiat, which was like an extended family. The guys who worked for you also babysat for you on the weekends.
Bimmer: Was it also a pleasure to deal with a company that was more straightforward, as opposed to the more Machiavellian Italian way of doing things?
Bangle: That’s a fascinating set of assumptions you just put together.
Bimmer: Am I wrong?
Bangle: I would say that they have their own bizarre mechanisms that needed to be learned. It was different. And there’s enough Machiavelli to go around for everybody. It’s not like Fiat was a company full of intrigue. At Fiat, everything was pretty obvious, and everybody knew what was happening.
What was different was that BMW was a highly organized, highly professional department even before I got there. They have a cadre of dedicated, really skilled non-coms, the sargeants, who are there to do a really, really good job, and who worry about doing a better job tomorrow. They’ll try to do it even better, and they’ll explain to you that if we spend a little more money we can do it even better, instead of, ‘We can save money by doing it quicker, dirtier and cheaper!’ which was the mindset at Fiat.
For example, to put a bumper on a car at Fiat, it was basically two tubes welded onto the frame, and you had another two tubes with set screws on the bumper. It kind of worked if you kicked it on one side. At BMW, the parts were held on by sleeve bearings, which had these blocks of machined steel that slid one inside the other in like God’s own. Hyper-expensive.
There’s a right way and a wrong way, and an even righter way, and that’s probably the BMW way. You have to learn those things.
Bimmer: What did that enable you to do right from the start?
Bangle: It enabled me to take time to learn. There was no sense of fires to be put out. There was no need to fire half the department. No huge bleeding gaps in anything. It was a well-oiled machine, so it allowed me to let the machine get on with the job, let it do its work and let me deal with this stream of people who came through my office and told me they knew how to do the job I was supposed to do. It let me listen to them, to try and dial back what they wanted to tell me into reasonable advice.
That’s a luxury. Many managers who move into a vacancy like that are confronted by huge flood of issues that have to be dealt with right now because it’s been two years and what do we do????
That wasn’t the case at all. Everyone knew what they were doing.
Bimmer: You found a department that was a well-oiled machine, but what about the product itself? What was your immediate goal for the product?
Bangle: They really had a ‘molasses thick’ design process, and it needed a bit of air let into it. A typical design review would be von Kuenheim saying to me, ‘Herr Bangle, how long is the rear overhang?’ I would hold up two fingers and say to Herr von Kuenheim, ‘About that much too long.’ Which was not really the answer he was looking for, but… We had those kinds of conversations.
Design was a hyper-picky thing at the time. It still is. [BMW had] very few products, really long development times and management that grew up with their fingers in it. And they knew how to talk about it, too, which was very unusual.
Bimmer: What did you see as your immediate goal?
Bangle: Not to get fired!
Bimmer: Did you see the product line as being in need of revolution right from the start?
Bangle: It was a very well established house that knew what it was doing.
My approach in life is this: Equality is not treating different things the same, equality is treating different things differently. I didn’t go into BMW thinking we’ll turn it into Fiat. I didn’t go into BMW thinking we’d turn it into Chris Bangle Cars. I went into BMW thinking it’s BMW, it’s completely different, let’s find out what it is and see where it wants to go.
The whole business of revolution and everything like that only came about because we were privy to the knowledge of where the engines were going, where the mechanics were going, where all this was going—all you had to do was to put this in front of you and tie the same package around it and you’d realize that our previous approach was screwed. That’s where this whole revolutionary issue came from. When we presented it to management, we said, ‘Let’s expand this forward, guys. This is where we’re going to end up. Do you want to end up there?’ They all said no. So that opened up the doors to a whole lot of different thought, not because we were bored and said, ‘Let’s do something different.’ It was truly because the past wouldn’t work.
Bimmer: Because of all the technological changes that were happening under the skin?
Bangle: Correct. We had cars that were this much taller and the wheels were the same size. What are you going to do? We were looking at the nth number of sports cars being done that had nothing to do with the rest of the cars. Are we going to do this forever? Or are we going to say, ‘No, they’re part of the whole family.’
Bimmer: One of your biggest achievements at BMW was to elevate the public prominence of the design department and also to recognize designers who had done great work. What gave you the freedom to acknowledge individual achievement in that way?
Bangle: The press department lost their
control over me and I just hauled people up on stage!
I had done a report for Fiat’s Human Resources department on the ‘Maestro Mentality’ of the carrozzeria design culture—where you weren’t even allowed to sign your sketches—and how that was counterproductive. I wrote that it was more productive to allow your designers to be acknowledged, to receive positive feedback to their work and their contribution, which is what people want, designers almost more than anybody. I’d done a whole position paper for Fiat on it, and I had that in the back of my mind when I came to BMW.
Bimmer: It’s ironic, though, that people still credit you with drawing the cars that other people did and that you were giving them credit for.
Bangle: We live in a world that needs personalities. Not too few, not too many, just the right amount.
Bimmer: Did the possibility for individual acknowledgement allow you to bring in really great designers who knew that their work would be recognized?
Bangle: No, it allowed me to keep them. They weren’t so great when they got there. They were young. No one knew how good they were going to be. They all turned out to be great, and I certainly hope they stayed there because they felt they were appreciated.
Turn it the other way: Mercedes lost Karim [Habib]. How stupid was that? The guy’s super-talented, they woo him away from BMW…
Bimmer: And the next time I see him he looks miserable.
Bangle: Exactly. He’s just like an unknown entity there. He comes back to BMW, gets his feet back on the ground and the next thing you know he’s back on top. [Habib was just named head of BMW automobile design—Ed.]. When he went to Mercedes, he was completely ready to be dedicated to Mercedes—there was no question of his loyalty at all. They just didn’t know how to handle that quality of animal.
There’s a concept called cow sense that some horses have. There’s a competition called the Cow Sense competition, where they put a horse and a cow together and the horse has to corral the cow. But there’s a guy on top of the horse, and the guy cannot possibly direct the horse, because the horse knows what it’s doing faster than the guy can tell it what to do. It’s out-thinking the cow, and the rider just has to stay on top of it.
That’s what being design director at BMW is all about. The designers have incredible cow sense. They know how this thing is moving, and they’ve got the talent. You’ve just got to know how to not fall off.
Bimmer: The Z9 GT concept shown at Frankfurt in 1999 was BMW’s first real concept car since Paul Bracq’s Turbo in 1972. Why had it been so long, and what did it do for the department to get to work in the conceptual realm rather than strictly for production?
Bangle: The reason they didn’t do concepts before was that they had a strict policy: Anything we show, we build. We don’t like to show things we’re thinking about, we like to show things we’re making.
And then the issue was, ‘How do we tell the world we’re doing a sedan like no other sedan out there, proportionally and everything? We have to show it.’
But we couldn’t do it with an open sports car—we also had the Z8 coming out. The only car to do was a coupe. It had the great advantage of happening at a time when the nth 5 Series [coupe] project was destined to die, and it soon became obvious that the solution to that problem was to do a 6 Series coupe, and therefore we needed to redefine the thought that had stymied the company for years: how to do their biggest coupe.
And suddenly there it was. I went to the board and said, ‘Guys, you’ve got to give us some time, time to develop this car for the show and you will see. It will be the car that will fit into that problem niche.’ They saw it, they bought into it, they said fine. We were allowed to develop that car as a 6 Series, but when Adrian [van Hooydonk] penned that car he penned it as a 7 Series Coupe to express the language of the 7 Series.
What it did for the design department? We were hyped on the whole thing.
Bimmer: It seemed like the concepts liberated BMW to explore some ideas in a public sense and maybe a private sense, too, perhaps allowing the designers to contemplate what a BMW could be.
Bangle: I actually think that the research stuff we did at that time was ahead of it. It started with Deep Blue [the research project that began in 1996 to develop what became the X6]. Deep Blue became another advanced concept, then another, and then came GINA [an acronym for Geometry and Function in N Adaptations, completed in 2001 but not shown to the public until 2008], and boom boom boom. It was a set of research projects to understand the aesthetics of sustainability. It’s never been done at another car company as far as I know. Any time someone tells me they do ‘design research,’ I usually think it’s a bunch of crap. Real design research has to be done like this first, like BMW did: Start with hard questions and embrace painful answers. Beauty from the past is not research. Finding new truths that expand your mind to new aesthetics is, even if at first you don’t like what you see.
I have huge respect for management for letting us get away with that. You’ve got to have money to be able to do it. And you have to have the insights and courage to ask the hard questions. You have to look at things which are not pretty. You have to look at things which are not easy to digest, which are painful to understand, It’s painful to understand why it’s painful, and the more you dissect that, the more you see why this sugar-coated simplicity is not wholesome. Wholesomeness is not necessarily tasty on its first bite.
It’s very difficult for companies to come to grips with that. One of the designers I have the hugest respect for—Joji Nagashima, whom I’ve worked with since my Opel days [and who designed the E36/7 Z3, E39 5 Series and the E90 3 Series—Ed.]—Joji has no fear of confronting himself with something he’s never tried to draw, whereas other designers take every element they understand and just tries to rearrange it enough so that it’s different. That is not how you conduct research, that is not how you explore boundaries. You have to embrace things that you don’t understand, that you fear. And as a design director, you have to encourage that, to say ‘Let’s see where it goes. I don’t know where it’s going to go. Go in deeper, don’t go out of it!’
All the metaphors that they like to use for design management—you’re a coach, you’re a leader, it’s a race—none of them really apply. There is almost nothing in our lives that has the time scale of car design. Not only does it take seven years to design the product, but this continuum goes on for 20 years of your life. There’s no such thing as a season. You can’t say we won that season. Even if you come up with a car—it may be good, but how do you know how many sales incentives they threw in to sell it? How do you know how many people said they liked it but didn’t? How do you know how many people loved it but were afraid to say they did?
You have no idea. You just do your best. You have an idea and a plan, and it doesn’t match those other metaphors. How can it be a sports metaphor if they losing team is still your team? The guys whose model doesn’t get picked can’t be ‘losers’—you need those guys for the next one! You never know which horse is going to win tomorrow.
Bimmer: What are you most proud of from your time at BMW?
Bangle: Definitely the team culture. It’s the people culture. It’s a people issue. Cars are fun, but people are…
Bimmer: Why did you leave?
Bangle: It started one time when I asked Adrian [von Hooydonk, who replaced Bangle as head of BMW Design—Ed.] to go to Designworks to be the studio chief there for cars. I pitched it to him in a really positive way, like, ‘You should be really happy I’m offering you this!’ Instead, he said, ‘Do I want to do this? Are you happy? Do I want to wind up like you?’
That was his question. We had a nice long lunch, and we talked about all the design directors we knew and how they wound up, and they almost all wound up bad. There was hardly a one of them who exited cleanly, nicely, happily, friends with their team, not embittered.
Don’t forget, J Mays was in BMW at one time, Martin Smith, head of Ford of Europe, was in BMW. They had all been there at one time to be the successor to Luthe, and Luthe just couldn’t deal with any of these guys. He might have invited them in, but once they were there he didn’t know how to groom them. So they all became dispirited and left. There was no structure for successorship.
After this lunch, I told Catherine, ‘I don’t want this to happen. I don’t want to wind up like that. We’re out of here when I’m 50. That’s 15 years, that’s a fair run, at 50 I’ve got lots of time left for another career.’
I left it to 52, two years late, because it took that long to get the house in Turin ready, and that was it. My bosses knew that way ahead of time, and that’s why I had the discussion of the succession. It’s never easy, but at least I think at BMW it was done in a manner that was more positive than it was at a lot of other places. And I hope you agree.
Bimmer: What does the present and the future hold for Chris Bangle? Is it a life of leisure or are you working hard at something you love?
Bangle: The Germans have a wonderful word for entrepreneur, which is Selbstständiger, meaning “you yourself, continuously.” And that’s the world I’ve entered into [as head of Chris Bangle Associates, Bangle’s new design firm—Ed.]. I’ve never worked so hard, ever. My wife has probably never worked so hard. Super-long hours, but with the payoff of fantastic client relationships, building a new team, a new type of associate family around us. We’re very happy with that. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and it’s exciting.
Of course I miss things. A car design is like a pregnant woman. When your wife is pregnant, every day there’s something new, some kick, some nuance. Designing cars is just like that, the whole studio is full of constant change. That’s why design directors don’t do well at taking vacations. You’re going to miss something, and when you do, it’ll never happen again. I miss having my daily talks with these guys. If you don’t wander through a huge studio full of cars every day after doing it for 30 years, it’s tough. But I have a whole borgata [township] now in Italy under construction to wander through. I have client designers and my team to learn with, play with and share great joys with. Catherine and I are happier than we dreamed possible. Of course, thanks to many people, I’m ‘just there.’