Chris Bangle's reign as BMW's top designer is over. But, as he tells Nargess Shahmanesh-Banks, the aesthetic revolution has just begun

Bangle. No longer just a name, more an institution. Loved and loathed in equal parts - though possibly loved more since the legitimisation of what were once considered blasphemous design decisions at BMW. It is he who is still behind all those radical-looking BMWs on the road. Some called him "Bungle" for his efforts. Yet maybe Jaguar and Mercedes appreciate now how important it is to get some freshness into the look of a make. Having accomplished his mission, Bangle has retired to a comfortable managerial position at BMW, or so it seems. If the new BMW X5 and Z4 coupé and 3-series coupé are anything to go by, it seems that his influence is still very much felt.

The first time I met Chris Bangle, the perhaps infamous head of BMW design, was at the height of his fame. It was a couple of years back and he had been invited to talk at the Design Museum. Not knowing quite what to expect, I was dazzled by the visible admiration I saw in the eyes of the hundreds of young design students who listened attentively to his speech.

Visibly enjoying his fame, he spoke excitedly of the relation between the car and the nude, as we travelled back in time to the Greeks, and forward to BMW. At dinner I sat next to him, a little intimidated about what to say to this famous American, and apprehensive as to how I was going to collate his abstract words into a coherent article.

Two years on, again we sit together for a meal. Today Bangle himself is less abstract, less of a boy, you could say. He seems to have matured into his new role. He begins by referring to those notorious five years, when "BMW became a focus case, not a test case," he stresses, "in that it was constantly in the eye of the press and public." Being on the inside, though, wasn't half as exciting as where we stood. The changes were gradual and the team didn't quite expect the sheer magnitude of press attention that followed.

Bangle was born on 14 October, 1956, in Ravenna, Ohio. He went to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and began his career at Opel where he helped on the Junior concept car. He has been refining designs ever since, but the ultimate victory, the crucial point when the whole idea of what he and his team were doing was confirmed with the creation of the Z9. "It gave us a view in to the spirit that lies in the aesthetics of the 7-series," he says, becoming noticeably excited. "It validated it [the design decision] but through the interpretation of a coupé."

Both the 7-series and the smaller car were controversial, but the big executive saloon 7-series was more so, because of its conservative customer base. Although Bangle's intentions were evident in previous work such as the mid-1990s Fiat coupé, this was the car that melded Bangle's "flame surfacing" with very traditional BMW styling cues, such as the twin kidney radiator grille and the little kink at the rear door window .

At the same time, at the other end of the spectrum, the decision of BMW's bosses to go ahead with the most exotic Z4 - instead of a "safer" retro-restyled Z3 - confirmed that this was a company that would "step on the gas pedal," as he puts it. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Is this a Germanic trait, I ask? "They are disciplined enough to understand the historical perspective," he agrees. BMW's kind of confident discipline, he thinks says: "No matter how we may disagree, the course of history will show that this is inevitable. Therefore follow the course that that implies, even if the world around says otherwise."

What the carmaker did, says Bangle, was to catch the competition and media off-guard, and most importantly, this was completely within the company's tradition. "I certainly don't see myself as being overtly dominant in this story," he adds modestly, "and hope that whatever credit comes goes to a very hardworking team and a management that knows how to work with that kind of input."

The question on most people's minds, and one that Bangle is aware of, is what to expect from act two. Bangle thinks that BMW's way has always been to jump first, refine the second-generation and then jump again. "So if history turns out to be a predictor of the future then the phase we are entering now is the phase of refinement," he says. Bangle's replacement, Adrian van Hooydonk, and his team are working hard on a new line of BMW cars to make this perfection and harmonisation happen. "We have new models coming out that we have never done before, that have to fit exactly in this line as well as being as historically correct as if they've been around for 50 years," he says.

Perhaps the 3-series is a result of this latter-phase thinking. Many were a little disappointed that BMW's most popular car didn't go through a proper aesthetic revolution when it was reborn. Bangle explains that had he launched the car "without any brothers or sisters" the result would have shocked us all, but as it turns out we are less shockable post 1-, 5-, 6- and 7-series. "The 3-series is an icon and with all icons you have to be a little bit careful not to stray off," he adds.

Bangle believes that the car should be a socially conscious object, "if we do our jobs right," he notes. The car, after all, is one if not the most "democratic" object around and perhaps the most alive. "Just to follow your metaphor of life," he continues, "what makes the car alive is for it to be responsive, animate. Does it react, have its own opinion, does it communicate, does it move you? There has to be more of a message than 'I'm beautiful, I'm powerful, I'm sexy'. There has to be an intellectual side to it, a responsibility side."

Which is why BMW tries to ensure that its engines are as light and economical as possible, hence the new six-cylinder bi-turbo petrol engine with an all-aluminium crankcase unveiled at Geneva. "The idea that we can remain dynamic, exciting and sporting, and not be abusive to the environment is the way these messages should be moved."

As a manager, Bangle no longer gets his hands dirty with physical design, but from the expression on his face as he explains how the other day at the advanced studio he joined in a messy painting exercise, it's obvious he misses that aspect of his old job. "Next thing I know I'm up till my elbows in acrylic paint. It was hilariously fun. You have to take your clothes off in front of your team so that they can see the inner person, otherwise they don't respond to you," he adds, suddenly reverting back to his old boyish self.

Whether Bangle is to be thanked, or the management from Munich, the truth of the matter is that BMW has had an impact on other premium brands. Audi's gone a bit wild with design, über conservative Mercedes is cautiously following suit, even Lexus is approaching design in a more experimental way. "It feels very nice," he admits, adding "but we are also sober and put it in perspective. BMW isn't the kind of company with a lot of backslapping. You are expected to do your job, and in that sense there is an enormous amount of pride. But it is not something we want to exhibit."

Mission accomplished then? "To be honest you go through stages in your life as a designer where you try to adapt another company's philosophy to their products, you try to just promote your own ideas, then eventually you wind up in a relationship with your employer that happens where you willingly give up a part of yourself. Therefore it becomes hard to imagine extracting yourself," he says. "When you are in management you have established relationships and responsibilities in your team that is hard to walk away from. Fortunately we have Design Works [BMW's creative centre] in California, which is a never-ending source of new clients and creativity."

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