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Long live the Bangle Butt Add to ...

BMW design chief Chris Bangle, 52, is leaving the Bavarian auto maker to "to pursue his own design-related endeavours beyond the auto industry," and the car business will be the poorer for it.

Not everyone likes the direction Bangle has orchestrated since he joined BMW in 1992, but no one can say he's not been willing to take chances.

And it's hard to argue with the sales results. Since 1992, BMW's global sales have more than doubled from around 600,000 to last year's 1.43 million. BMW overtook rival Mercedes-Benz as the global No. 1 premium brand by unit sales in 2006 and design played a key role in that.

BMW design under Bangle has gone from "the same sausage cut into different sizes" to daring and immediately recognizable.

Sure, the so-called "Bangle Butt" on the last generation 7-Series generated plenty of criticism. The flamboyant lines ending in the raised trunk lid jarred stuffy BMW loyalists.

Yet that 7-Series, introduced in 2001, was the best-selling in BMW's history. Many auto makers followed Bangle's lead by designing in their own spoiler/rear lip on their sedans, too.

Then, demonstrating a willingness to change and grow, Bangle assigned young Canadian designer Karim Habib the job of reinventing the new 7-Series just now going on sale. The 2009 car is a more elegant saloon, in keeping with the times.

Bangle has also been roundly criticized for the "flaming" he oversaw in the side sheetmetal of the outgoing Z4 roadster. Again, not everyone liked it.

Some said it was too busy, others that is looked completely out of place. But it was daring and the look shook up the often staid and conservative world of auto design.

The point is, BMW design under Bangle has been courageous and instantly recognizable.

Bangle also mentored young designers at BMW. Take Habib. He got his job at BMW by catching Bangle's eye with sketches of a violin. Habib, who joined BMW out of Bangle's alma mater the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., is now a recognized rising star.

Bangle deserves credit for helping to put in place a very clear succession strategy. Adrian van Hooydonk, 44, head of design for BMW brand and the designer of the 2001 7-Series, will succeed Bangle immediately. Sharp observers have seen that coming for some time. The transition will be seamless.

Where the U.S.-born Bangle will go is not clear, but he'll be in demand as a designer and design consultant. Let's not forget that under him, BMW design won the prestigious Red Dot award for industrial design excellence in 2007.

He is worldly, wildly interesting, passionate and talented. He's not only worked at BMW, but at other European companies, Fiat included. It's been a long journey for Bangle, who did undergraduate study at the University of Wisconsin.

He's also a gentleman and a consummate professional. I've interviewed him many, many times, but my favourite was in June 2007 when a very tired and slightly hangover Bangle arrived for an interview I'd arranged at BMW's headquarters in Munich.

Bangle had been out until very early that morning, celebrating the Red Dot award with his design team. When he swept in for our 10:30 a.m. appointment, coffee cup in hand, his voice had a raspy, Tom Waits quality to it. He'd enjoyed the party.

We chatted a bit, then the conversation turned to the then-upcoming 1-Series.

"What do you want to do with it?" he said, pointing to a covered car in the main design review room, the room where senior executives evaluate new designs.

I was there to do a story for the Globe, but we were also shooting for the Car/Business TV show we do for CTV and BNN.

"Unveil the car," said my co-host, Michael Vaughan.

So he did. Very carefully, Bangle unwrapped the 1-Series, providing a running commentary all the way through. Click here to watch.

What a pro. I'll miss talking cars and design and art and history and even politics with him, not to mention his excellent sense of humour.

Consider this story: After all the Bangle Butt controversy, at a time when many auto makers were copying the look, I said to him one year at the Detroit auto show, "Chris, look around. You've been vindicated. This show is full of Bangle Butts!"

We howled.

I'll miss him, but BMW will miss his design leadership even more.

 

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