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Chris Bangle, the design head at BMW Group since 1992 and one of the most controversial and well-known designers in the auto industry, resigned on Feb. 3. Bangle, 52, the first American to be named head of design at a foreign automaker, will be succeeded by Adrian van Hooydonk, 45, a native of Holland, who has led design on BMW brand vehicles for the last few years.
As head of design for the whole group, Bangle, and now van Hooydonk, oversees design for BMW, as well as the German automaker's Mini and Rolls Royce brands.
Bangle achieved infamy in 2001 when he introduced the BMW 7 Series at the Frankfurt Motor Show to catcalls over its high, squared-off trunk lid that came to be known as the "Bangle butt". The car featured a system called iDrive that used a new console-mounted knob to control most of the electronic functions of the car—which also met with disapproval. Later, he drew sharp criticism from many quarters over the exaggerated "flame" surfacing of the Z4 roadster.
But to characterize Bangle's career as merely controversial is unfair. "It's difficult to find a designer in the auto business who thoroughly dominated discussion in a given decade and Chris Bangle did it in two decades," says analyst Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics of Birmingham, Mich., who has worked with several automakers on design and product planning.
When BMW hired Bangle, the company was embarking on a mission to shake up the way it designed automobiles. "We were making sausages at different lengths and management at that time and especially Chairman Eberhard von Kuenheim and technical director Wolfgang Reitzle felt we needed to break away and chart a new course for the company and the brand," Bangle said in my book Driven: Inside BMW, the Most Admired Car Company in the World.
His impact couldn't be missed. BMW has ranked among the Top 20 in BusinessWeek's Most Innovative Companies poll since its inception in 2006. Only Toyota (TM) has consistently ranked as high. But while Toyota has scored largely for its efficiency in logistics and manufacturing, BMW has earned its status for product innovation and design.
When Bangle began his career, BMW had a single brand with five models. As the Munich-based company closed out 2008, it had three brands and 11 products within the BMW lineup alone, with an additional model coming out later this year. BMW sold 1.43 million vehicles in 2008.
Christopher Bangle, born in Ohio and raised in Wausau, Wis., attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and went on to work in Europe for General Motors' Opel division and Italian automaker Fiat before hiring on at BMW. Once there, he oversaw designs that would alter the trajectory of the BMW brand and the company itself, including the 2001 and 2009 7 Series, three generations of 3 Series and 5 Series, BMW's foray into SUVs, including the X5, X3, and X6, as well as the 1 Series, and the comeback of the 6 Series. He also oversaw the design of BMW's recent redo of the Mini Cooper, as well as the Mini Clubman. And he led the design of the Rolls Royce Phantom and subsequent designs after BMW acquired the British brand in 1998.
Automotive journalists have been harsh on several of Bangle's designs when they were introduced. But in almost every case, such as the 2001 7 Series and Z4, criticism dissipated after a year or two as it became clear that rivals like Mercedes, Toyota, and Toyota's Lexus division were adopting Bangle's design cues in their products. "Take a look at the Mercedes S Class, Lexus LS, and Toyota Camry, and tell me you don't see design aspects from Bangle in some of the surfacing, back-end styling, and even proportions," says independent marketing consultant Dennis Keene, who works with companies on design and product strategy.
"We aren't copying anyone else's design language, not even our own, and I think that makes some people uncomfortable," said Bangle in a 2008 interview with BusinessWeek.
Because BMWs are cherished by their owners, anyone who is head of design is going to receive intense scrutiny. "I hated the 7 Series and the Z4 when it came out," says Anthony Boone, a BMW enthusiast from Carlsbad, Calif., who was one of thousands who signed an online petition in 2002 seeking to get the designer fired.
Bangle pushed BMW to stretch beyond the design parameters of its existing models. He instigated the acquisition of Designworks, an influential studio in Newbury Park, Calif., that had been doing some contract work for BMW in the early 1990s. Bangle's idea was that by having a design studio that did work in a variety of industries and categories, BMW's own design studio would come out ahead. Moreover, its assignments would give the company's designers a steady outlet of work beyond automobiles that would keep the talent fresh and energized.
The studio has proven to be a productive source of design for vehicles and motorcycles, as well as sorting out the interface between consumers and electronics. It also has been a useful recruiting tool and training ground, and continues to do work for Nokia (NOK), Deere & Co. (DE), Intel (INTL), and scores of other companies.
Bangle, say industry sources close to him and BMW, has been making overtures for months about quitting. Since he signed on 17 years ago, he has worked for five BMW chairmen, an unusual tenure for design chiefs. He has been working on renovation of a home in Tuscany, Italy, and has discussed going into the wine-making business.
That's not to say he hasn't been busy on the design front. His most recent high-profile design is the Gina, an experimental car that seeks to replace an automobile's metal or fiberglass skin with a cloth sheath that can change the shape and aerodynamics of the car. The idea—something that Bangle has talked about as far back as design school in the early 1980s—is to make a car that's as safe as current cars, with a flexible shape.
In van Hooydonk, BMW has an able successor who is as respected in the design community as Bangle, though perhaps without as many critics. Van Hooydonk, 45, earned a degree in automotive design at the Art Center Europe in Vevey, Switzerland, in 1992. He joined Designworks soon after that, and was recruited to work in Munich on BMW designs for a few years before returning to California to be president of the design firm. In 2004, he moved back to Munich to lead design on BMW brand vehicles. Among the vehicles on which the Dutch-born designer had the greatest influence are the 2001 and 2009 7-Series, Z4, 6 Series, the X Coupe and Z9 concept vehicles, 1 Series, X5, and 3 Series.
Van Hooydonk's influence on so many important models is what put him on a fast-track to succeed Bangle and, in some minds, to surpass his boss in influence in the last five years. Even so, he has a hard act to follow.
Click here to take a look at some of Bangle's BMW designs.
Kiley is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Detroit bureau.