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Bendable Body Beautiful

Draping cloth over a movable mesh frame pushed BMW to rethink the relationship between design, production, and materials while giving birth to 'flame surfacing.'

There is a reason this concept car looks familiar: though created in 2001, it has influenced every BMW design since (including the 2001 X5 Coupe concept), and-through collaboration with manufacturing personnel-introduced innovations that affected how sheetmetal was shaped on every production BMW that followed. Says the chief of BMW Group Design Chris Bangle, "It started a whole chain of ideas within the company. GINA* is more than a model-a shape. It is more than about cloth. It became a philosophy that said: 'Let's do thing differently. Let's let materials "talk" in a different manner. Let's let tooling be a different issue instead of a way to give us form.'"

Bangle and company did more than look forward by looking back 100 years to a time when airplanes, and many automobiles, had exterior surfaces made up of "doped" fabric stretched over steel and wood formers. The team, which included members from the materials and manufacturing ranks at BMW, started with an aluminum spaceframe from the then-new Z8 roadster that was shipped over from the company's DesignWorks design skunk works in California. Freed of its Henrik Fisker-designed bodywork, BMW's chief of exterior design, Anders Warming, oversaw taking the GINA Light Visionary Model to full-size. According to Bangle, the project started with some very basic questions, including: "What do we have the skin of a car for? Does it have to be made out of metal? Do we have to make it always in the same manner, or is it there for different purposes than we thought?" 

Central to GINA is the idea that there is very little structure necessary to create the sculptural form between graphic elements, as between a wheel arch and fender line, for example. Stretching fabric across and around the main elements, controlling the sag and stretch, and altering these relationships via movable elements not only creates a minimalist form, it gives both the designer and the car owner the ability to alter the shape of the vehicle, and its emotional content by changing the relationship between elements. Or as Bangle puts it: "You let the material do the talking in-between."

But this concept is about more than its man-made fabric and its ability to resist water, high and low temperatures, shrinking, and swelling. Nor is it about the wire mesh skeleton beneath the surface that moves via electro-hydraulic control, or the flexible carbon fiber struts at points where movement is required. At the sensory level, Bangle sees this technology not only as a way to provide upper end customers with designs that respond to changing conditions (e.g. GINA's version of a deployable rear spoiler is a strut that pushes against the fabric as speeds increase), but as a confluence of the mechanical and emotional. "The level of humanistic content is one of the most important things about this design as it puts the human in the loop, and does things in a human way." However, the car's ability to turn on its front lights by opening fabric-covered "eyelids" is more science fiction at this point than it is practical application. Thus the concept, at a practical level, was used to challenge existing manufacturing and material concepts and pushed these disciplines to add highly defined character lines to conventionally pre-formed steel panels. In fact, BMW says GINA was directly responsible for the hood contour lines found on the Z4 that are created via a robot-guided steel pin pulled along the underside of the panel before the hood is returned to the production line. This so-called Rapid Manufacturing Process, BMW claims, allows distinctive character elements to be "embossed" onto a panel cost-effectively.

And while the same idea was applied to the interior to create a neoprene-covered cockpit that responds to the driver and passengers, the real story behind the GINA Light Visionary Model is that it not only created BMW's recent "flame surfacing" design language (and provides a context that makes it much more logical and understandable than ever before), it forged a collaboration between Design and Manufacturing focused on turning concept into production reality. The fact that now, seven years after its creation, BMW executives have seen fit to acknowledge this vehicle and enter it into the BMW Museum suggests that the GINA project has moved on. It will be interesting to see where that journey takes us.

*GINA stands for "Geometry and Function in 'N' Adaptations" where "n" stands for the mathematical term for the word "infinite."