For the Love (and Lack) of Style: BMW Promotes Chris Bangle

As one of my favorite musicians sang way back in 1963, “Love is a burning thing, and it makes a fiery ring, bound by wild desire, I fell into a ring of fire.” The man was the legendary Johnny Cash, and while I’m pretty sure he wasn’t referring to a car while singing those infamous lyrics, the notion of waxing poetic about an inanimate object, like a car, isn’t absurd. Cars have long played the object of affection – from songs to movies to television shows, people never fail to be attracted to these inanimate, cold-hearted hunks of steel.

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What is it about a car that can drive an otherwise logical person to the verge of irrationality? Is it the performance? The styling? Or is it some other, inexplicable stirring that takes place deep within the soul? Automotive companies have been wise to identify and capture this feeling and they make a great effort to maximize the lustful desire that is “carwantingness syndrome.” Ahh, but love is a fickle flame – it can burn either party in an instant.

Perhaps no lover has been scorned as quickly or as badly as have the legions of BMW loyalists and enthusiasts whom, for many years, had supported nearly everything and anything that bore the Munich nameplate. However, with the recent redesign of two of BMW’s more popular line-ups, the 5- and 7-series, many enthusiasts have run away, searching for new love, as the ashes of a once burning love smolder.

For the longest time, BMW had the better portion of the automotive community wrapped around its finger – it was the prettiest girl at the prom and everyone was lined-up, waiting for their chance to dance. This has all come to change, thanks to the, ahem, bold designs of “the new BMW” and Chris Bangle’s team.

Despite the new 7-series’ swift descent from prom queen to double-bagger, BMW has been surprisingly steadfast in its support of Bangle. The automotive press was quick to rip the new 7’s appearance, and automotive enthusiasts weren’t far behind. From message boards to magazines, everyone had an opinion about the new design, and very few of them were positive. Yet BMW didn’t falter. Why? Some would blame traditional German stubbornness (“Vee make a decision and vee stick vith it!”), while others chalk it up to that whole “love is blind thing.”

BMW must give bats a run for their money on the Amsler Grid (you know, the eye chart with the big “E” on top), because from what we’ve read on the Roadfly message boards, many BMW loyalists are looking for new love. Some have flirted with other brands, some held-on to their current models, and others are trying to weather the storm. Perhaps the new 7 was the result of a lover’s quarrel – surely BMW wouldn’t set themselves up for another round of Bangle-induced bashing.

Alas, and for reasons unknown, BMW left the blinders on, launching Bangle’s redesigned 5-series in early 2003. And once again, the critics howled. Many journalists were slightly more kind, skirting the styling issues by focusing on the handling and performance improvements (which is a lot like dating someone for their personality). But the enthusiasts weren’t playing as nice. Many dubbed it the “BMW Grand Prix,” referring of course to the 5’s strong resemblance to a certain General Motors offering.

So after taking another one on the chin, thanks to Mr. Bangle, what did BMW do to combat this ever-growing popularity problem? Did they “dump that zero and get with a hero?” Well, not exactly…the official news from Munich was announced on February 3: “Bangle Strengthens Design Teams of the BMW Group.” So much for kicking him off the island.

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BMW, in a bit of an odd move, shifted Bangle to the boardroom, making him Director of BMW Group Design. And while Bangle may not have been completely removed from power, there has been a significant buffer placed between him and the sheet metal. The news was welcomed by many, but the rumblings were still there – heck, just weeks earlier, a prominent European automotive publication had all but dropped the guillotine on Bangle – predicting his demise by mid-to-late 2004.

In the grand scheme, this change is no glass slipper for BMW enthusiasts, because Adrian van Hooydonk was named as the new BMW Automobile Design Group leader. Mr. Hooydonk was largely responsible for the design of the resurrected 6-series and also played a role in the 7-series styling. Smells like more trouble in paradise, Mildred.

So what do all of these changes mean? In all likeliness, very little. We don’t expect any extreme makeovers, and BMW shouldn’t expect too many Valentine’s Day candies from lovelorn suitors. BMW recognized a 19% drop in sales for January 2004, but placed the blame on weather and excess inventory. Browsing the many message boards sheds a different light – insiders are speculating that unless BMW can pretty up its appearance (and quickly), the sales slump may continue. BMW spin-meisters play with numbers and stories to support their agendas.

Calls placed to BMW for comment were not returned, but that’s not too surprising. Mr. Bangle has been notoriously defiant of critic’s of the new stylings. He has gone on record stating, “You have to be a little different sometimes,” claiming that the new look of the BMW 5- and 7-series have “personality.” Whoops, there’s that dreaded p-word again…for a more honest perspective of that phrase, ask any single guy how many times he’s been told he has a “great personality.”

BMW enthusiasts will no doubt be talking about the great personality and the legendary BMW driving performance for years to come, carefully avoiding the issue of styling all the while. As long as the man behind the X3, Z4, 5- and 7-series designs is behind the wheel, it’ll be tough to truly love a BMW like we once did. But then again, appearances are only superficial – it’s what’s under the skin that’s important right? Yeah, that sounds good…we’ll just keep telling ourselves that, and eventually we’ll probably start to believe it. If BMW isn’t careful with future redesigns, we can only speculate that ‘ole Johnny’s lyrics will ring through again, “And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire…the ring of fire.”

Written by Roadfly Charlie

Charlie is Roadfly’s founder and publisher, and was taught to drive by his father in a 1974 Porsche 914. That made poor Charlie a Porsche fanboy for life, and after driving a 911SC at 16, he bought and campaigned a variety of 944s at racetracks up and down the East Coast, earning awards and track records in his twenties. Charlie never really got over the car bug, and after a career in real estate development he founded the Internet media firm that became Roadfly. Charlie lives in McLean, VA with his wife and two daughters, and between the demands of family and business doesn’t have much time to play with cars anymore, excluding the machinery we review.

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