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November 21, 2002

Aesthetics & Automobiles


Knowing your interest in the aesthetics of everyday life, I thought of you when I read a story in the New York Times of November 21, “BMW Design Chief Sees Art on Wheels; Some Just See Ugly.” (You can read it here.) Apparently Christopher E. Bangle, BMW's chief designer, wants each BMW to be

a conversation piece known as much for design as precision engineering. Where BMW's [once] looked very much alike, he is trying to make each model different — some with bulging back ends, some with unusually reflective surfaces and sharp curves, and some, like the Mini, just plain small.

According to the story, automotive market researcher Chris Cedergren thinks BMW is smart to adopt this approach:

"It moves away from everyone else and differentiates the brand," he said. "It makes a statement. The more you can get the consumer to be one with that vehicle and really link their emotion to that vehicle, that will translate into a situation where the consumer will say, `I want it.' "

"What Chris Bangle is doing is reading that into the marketplace, and, rightly so, developing vehicles that go after individual emotions," he added.

While there has been considerable criticism of the revised styling of the 7 Series—in the interests of full disclosure, I’m not crazy about it—the article notes that Mr. Bangle’s overall strategy is proving quite successful. Sales of the new 7 Series — BMW's most expensive line of cars, starting at about $70,000 — have increased 45 percent this year.

Mr. Bangle is particularly fired up about BMW's new Z4, which he claims represents an aesthetic leap in car design, analogous to the shift in Greek sculpture that occurred when sculptors discovered the power of draping cloth on nude figures to infuse them with an illusion of motion.

BMW's Z4: Aesthetic Leap?

I've never seen this car in person, so it's a little hard to evaluate this claim, but it would be nice if Detroit’s automakers, who once seemed to have some insight into car design, took Mr. Bangle's philosophy a bit more seriously.



posted by Friedrich at November 21, 2002


Thanks for pointing this out. I do think that car designers don't get the respect and discussion, in an art sense, that they deserve, although I also wish car companies would show a lot more flair too.

That said, I guess I'm with you on the series 7, straddling the fence. Haven't seen one in the flesh. In a photo, on the web, it's certainly striking. Hmm, it's very Darth Vader's helmet, which almost seems neo-retro, or something. It also reminds me of '70s cars, when the manufacturers thought they were getting sporty -- a bit tinny. Yet I'm willing to cut it some slack until I do see it in person.

It also makes me feel anxious. BMW? I think of solidity, tradition -- it's an anti-flash marque. (Love that word!) And now it's looking flashy. Is that a good thing? My tendency is to like classics to embrace a classical esthetic, evolve slowly, and remind the rest of us what class really is. With these new designs, is BMW forsaking this role?

How do you respond to the new retro car styles -- that little Plymouth gangster car, the new Tbird? I'm all for it, at least as a look. If we can't come up with anything new that's catchy, let's enjoy what's catchy from the past. I drove one of the little Plymouths one weekend, and it was OK -- a hip little VW Bug, basically. Scoots around capably, worries you about what'd happen in a crash...

A good blogging post would be about a visit to Art Center in Pasadena, where they specialize in industrial design. I bet there's lots of talent and skill to be observed there, and lots less horseshit than at your usual Fine Arts school...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 21, 2002 06:10 PM

You can probably guess this is coming from a truck guy, but all the hoo-haw about car design has left me utterly lukewarm since around my 30th b-day. I can't find any aesthetic value in a car once I get past the convertible/hard-top question. I don't know what this says about me, but the lunch table conversation with other 40-somethings nattering on about their cars makes me look at them sideways. They remind me of women talking about their clothes or their furniture.

Maybe if I had an extra $70K to blow on a "lifestyle choice" like a 7-series, it would be different. But then, I'd probably spend it on a nice big Lincoln, an old Mach 1 to put up on blocks, and a weekend in Vegas.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on November 21, 2002 09:21 PM

Hey Scott --

Great to see you stop by.

It occurs to me that I could try to make the case that your preference for trucks (which ones?) is partly an aesthetic preference. And I could try to make the case that your fondness for Lincolns and for weekends in Vegas is partly an aesthetic preference. I don't know why I would, really. But I could try.

Hey, you're an aesthete after all! Maybe just not of the BMW-buying, fussbudget kind.

Um, er, cityboy here wants to know what a "Mach One" that you'd "put up on blocks" might be.

Anyone who hasn't visited Scott's site ( is missing a treat.


Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 22, 2002 12:16 AM

The rest of the car looks okay, but I really hate those u-shaped seat-backs. I don't know why, they just set my teeth on edge.

Posted by: Andrea Harris on November 22, 2002 02:12 PM

Z4 beautiful, 7-series selling well? I would rather agree with a phrase I found recently in the National Interest, "Beauty is dead; aesthetic error is now a commercial goal." Current aesthetic values remind me more of the post-French Revolution "petit-maîtres" than anything, a word that has negative connotations in French and Spanish (petimetre). Have you seen any Pontiacs lately?

Posted by: Vladimir Dorta on November 23, 2002 09:47 AM


No doubt I have aesthetic sensibilities about my trucks. I prefer the swoopy Ford to the blocky Dodge and the confused Chebby. Although the new half-swoopy, half-blocky Dodges are turning my head. As for the Lincoln, the aesthetic appeal is that it cossests my ever-expanding arse in grand American Iron style, while floating down the highway utterly impervious to the external world; an important point when driving across (what I imagine to be) the American Southwest desert.

The Mach One was an early 70s model Mustang, and was a poor man's Shelby GT. They even stuck a Cobra badge on some of them. Put simply, it rocked my lame ass at 15 years old, and I still want one. But not as much as I want that original Shelby GT that (theoretically) got smacked around in "Gone in 60 Seconds" and made me whimper like a whipped pup.


Posted by: Scott Chaffin on November 23, 2002 08:17 PM

i love my z4 as much as my furniture and my clothes it does not make my butt look big

Posted by: clrussell on November 6, 2003 08:29 AM

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