A concept car usually provides a foretaste of a future series model. But the BMW GINA Light Visionary Model of 2008 went further than that: it showcased what is possible when you push back the boundaries of automotive design.
- Jan Wilms
“Zzzzzip!” Chris Bangle, design director of the BMW Group from 1992 to 2009, prefaced his explanation with a zipping motion: “It took us less than two hours to design the entire exterior.” He was referring to the genesis in 2008 of the most extraordinary BMW roadster of all time: the two-seater BMW GINA Light Visionary Model. This concept car is currently on display at the BMW Museum in Munich, where it still looks as futuristic as a spaceship from another galaxy. For rather than offer a foretaste of a new generation of sports cars, the designers at BMW eight years ago set themselves the ultimate challenge to explore the outermost reaches of automotive design.
Early thinking for the BMW GINA Light questioned why it was necessary to make a car’s exterior from preformed steel or plastic sheeting.
Early thinking for the BMW GINA Light questioned why it was necessary to make a car’s exterior from preformed steel or plastic sheeting – as had been the case for around 100 years. What if this outermost layer – a car’s most visible feature – were to be comprehensively redesigned? It was a paradigm shift that would spark some serious reflection on the car of the future.
The acronym GINA is derived from the German for “Geometry and Functions in ‘N’ Adaptations”. Specifically, Chris Bangle and his team were looking for fundamentally new solutions. Their benchmarks were car buyers of the future, about whom little more was known than that they would be highly sophisticated and individual. With its flexible design and elements cropping up in current and future BMW models, the GINA Light Visionary Model exemplifies the BMW brand philosophy: interdisciplinary thinking, a non-conformist approach, pleasure in research and on the road.
Liquid silver on the outside conceals a spaceframe underneath
At first sight the GINA looks like a sculpture that has been dipped in liquid silver. The proportions were borrowed from the latest-generation BMW Z4, but just about everything else was revolutionary, in particular the exterior made from an innovative synthetic fabric – a highly resilient, extremely flexible and virtually seamless outer skin that stretches right around the vehicle. The natural properties of this synthetic skin enabled the designers to play with razor-sharp edges and alternating concave and convex surfaces. This resulted in a fundamentally new interpretation of elements that were normally assembled separately, such as the front apron, bonnet, sidewalls, doors, wheel arches, roof, boot lid and tail end – not to mention the moulding of the front end and sides into a single closed unit.
The outer skin of the GINA Light concealed an electrically and electrohydraulically controlled movable metal frame. This lent the vehicle the appearance of a living organism: the skin stretches elastically like the wings of a bat over the out- and upswinging doors. The bonnet parts in the middle like a stage curtain, at the centre of which is mounted the V8 engine. The slits for the front headlights open up like a pair of peeping eyes to reveal the BMW twin headlamps concealed beneath. In addition, the technology permits an automatic and seamlessly variable width of lateral sill contours for improved aerodynamics. And at the car’s rear end the tail lamps wink mysteriously beneath the translucent yet opaque skin.
Balance between man and machine
The design was unprecedented and struck a balance between technological perfection and organic warmth. In so doing, it appealed directly to the emotions. “Our aim was to reach a higher emotional plane – to return car design to the human dimension,” Bangle said. It was a bold concept, which succeeded simply because designers and production engineers pooled their efforts through dialogue. One example of this is the ultra-light carbon-fibre-reinforced BMW aluminium spaceframe, which gives the GINA Light Visionary Model its solid base. This robust skeletal frame not only guarantees all the basic functions of a car, it also offers the typical BMW sports car driving experience combined with outstanding safety.
The additional functions of the outer skin – protection from wind, rain, snow, heat, cold and loose chippings – could be achieved using a lighter, more flexible material. This is where the car designers in Munich turned for help to BMW Group Designworks in the United States. Inspired by a material used in contemporary architecture, the California design studio proposed the use of an industrially manufactured hybrid fabric that was both water-repellent and resistant to heat and cold. In addition, the approach enabled designers to reproduce precisely the kind of fold lines that are created when opening the door.
The GINA Light Visionary Model gives the driver a direct taste of this freer, less complex, more purist driver-vehicle relationship. The headrests, invisible prior to entry, rise automatically from beneath the seat covers when the driver climbs aboard. And when seated, the typical driver-oriented BMW cockpit moves into position. “Flexibility and change in thought and deed,” is how Chris Bangle once described the GINA core philosophy. It remains as valid now as it was then.