Not your average run-of-the-mill my-parents-didn’t-send-a-check-so-I-can’t-go-to-Spring-break broke. No, I was so broke that I survived on free samples at what is now known as Costco. That type of poverty is a great motivator because I was determined not to let it stand in the way of my dreams. Dreams most red blooded American—and British—men have: Being James Bond and all that goes with it. Exotic locales, beautiful women and fast cars. It was in the most unlikely of places that I found my salvation: German Class. The International Cooperative Exchange program, to be exact. Not the CIA or MI6, but it in a pinch it would do. For the promise of learning more than “My Pencil is Big and Yellow” in a language other than English or Spanish, a nice German man would get you a paid summer internship. Admittedly not a Walther PPK and an Aston Martin, but considering that I was living on free samples, a major step up. Actually, this funny talking man that looked oddly like a German Yosemite Sam promised exotic gigs with European airlines, Mercedes and BMW. After a few surprise (read: test) early morning calls where I *think* I asked him “how much for a good night” I fooled, errrr, convinced Herr Seefeldt that I was qualified for one his prized gigs: factory work at BMW in Munich, Germany.
In my short time there, I traveled Europe on BMW’s pfennig. Aside from the fact these travels involved sleeping in cars with other broke American college students, I developed a newfound respect for BMW. It’s one thing to be a gearhead and ogle the beauty of a single car, but it is entirely another to understand how they make 25,000 copies of that same car and send them to 107 different countries all with different requirements. Something akin to taking anything from Gordon Ramsey’s kitchen and leaving the crew at McDonalds to duplicate it while maintaining all local heath and safety standards. After this I planned on being a loyal BMW follower to the end of days. As soon as a little money came my way, even my friends joined my crusade and we formed a little BMW club: Costco Foodcourt Bimmers. It was all going swimmingly and then something catastrophic happened—Chris Bangle.
Chris Bangle was a talented young American designer that the BMW Hofmeisters tapped to head car design. At first, I felt it an odd choice—as if Tom “Maverick” Cruise took the helm of the Luftwaffe. But then I became patriotic and thought, he had a hand in the BMW roadsters I had come to love, so what could go wrong? Well, the 2002 Seven Series did.
Chris Bangle had taken what was a classically beautiful line of large sedans that aged ever so gracefully and turned them into double bagger. What was once an Audrey Hepburn was now a Britney Spears in her bald phase. The world reacted harshly and cried “off with their heads.” The rear end was the big issue and a new automotive term was born: “the Bangle Butt” aka “junk in the trunk.” The collateral damage was the BMW faithful—the Costco Foodcourt Bimmer member in all of us.
We bought these cars for two reasons. First, because they were, in fact, what the advertisements claimed them to be, “the Ultimate Driving Machine.” Second, they were attractive. Less Heidi Klum attractive, more the “cute” girl you actually marry attractive. You could look at one and know exactly what it was.
Herr Bangle, essentially, took the BMW design and bitch-slapped it. He moved the brand from evolutionary to revolutionary design change. Change for the sake of change, and nothing more. These changes eventually made it to the rest of the line, albeit somewhat toned down. Even worse, other manufacturers started to copy Herr Bangle’s design by Frankenstein. Mainly Asian manufacturers with the same kind of blind following that has made TV the reality train wreck it is today. At no point through all of this change did Herr Bangle or his employer ask, “Are these cars attractive”? I often wonder if ‘goth kids’ ask that same question when looking in a mirror? Instead, Bangle’s minions spent countless hours explaining the design of these cars and why we should understand them. Even BMW’s PR people got on the damage control bandwagon and released statement after statement about how these were the best selling Seven series cars ever. With my state school education and an abacus, I was able to work out one glaring omission: Mercedes sold the sauerkraut out of their rival with their S Class. Why? Because it was attractive. And what did this do to the BMW brand?