In June 2008 BMW introduced its new concept car, the GINA Light Visionary Model.
It was a sports car that extended themes first seen on the 2001 X-Coupé and the production BMW Z-4. Designed by Chris Bangle and his team in 2001, the car had been kept secret for over six years.
BMW introduced the car in this way:
“BMW Group Design is not just interested in answering the question of how the car of the future will look but primarily wishes to explore the creative freedom it has to offer. Both of these aspects are affected by the requirements that future cars are expected to meet. All ideas that the GINA Light Visionary Model presents are therefore derived from the needs and demands of customers concerning the aesthetic and functional characteristics of their car and their desire to express individuality and lifestyle.”
The GINA was an actual running concept, built on a Z8 chassis (still in production in 2001) with a 4.9 litre V8 engine and six-speed automatic transmission (blasphemy to BMW roadster purists).
But like the X-Coupé before it, no one was interested in the technical specifications. It was the aggressive body with the shark-like face of the GINA that drew everyone’s attention.
The overall shape was classic roadster – a long hood and short deck with an open top. The side elevation revealed many of the flame surfacing design cues found on the X-Coupé and Z-4.
The face had a vicious mako-shark look that would have drawn the envy of Bill Mitchell, with its almond-shaped eyes and a toothy grille that was just barely kidney-shaped enough to qualify as a BMW.
The star of the GINA show was, of course, its skin. It was composed of Lycra covered in polyurethane. The stretchy, rubbery fabric was resilient, durable and water resistant and translucent, as noted above.
The Lycra skin was stretched over an aluminum frame that, in certain places could be moved by electric and electro-hydraulic controls. This allowed the fenders to flare at the wheels, the rear to raise and lower, and the ‘eyes’ of the headlamps to open and close.
BMW explained: “It was necessary to move beyond all previous conceptions of car body configuration, design and materials. Therefore, the GINA Light Visionary Model has dispensed with the usual body elements found on production vehicles such as front apron, bonnet, side panels, doors, wheel arches, roof, trunk lid and rear deck. Instead, a new structure with a minimum amount of components has taken their place. A special, highly durable and extremely expansion-resistant fabric material stretches across a metal structure. This new material offers designers a significantly higher level of freedom of design and functionality.”
The fabric covering had, incredibly, just four panels – the hood/doors, the side panels and the trunk. The fabric wrinkled like a shirtsleeve when the doors swung open. It acted like eyelids at the headlights, and parted in the middle of the hood for engine access.
The interior was very spartan. One entered through the scissor doors with their folding sleeve-like fabric and settled into the seat. Immediately the headrest and steering wheel moved into the appropriate places. The instrumentation was minimal, as was the sculptural center console. The shifter was also minimal, as the transmission is automatic.
The reaction to the debut of the GINA was very positive, perhaps because the flame surfacing aesthetic had been absorbed by the press, the public and at least some of the BMW faithful. Also, the sheer audacity of a fabric-covered sports car made for lots of press coverage and more than a bit of envy from rival design studios. It was clearly a research car – but what studio (besides BMW) would pay for such a thing?
The name itself generated some attention, too. BMW explained that GINA was an acronym for “Geometry and Functions In N Adaptions” – a contrived name, to say the least. Others, noting the topless nature of the car, its seductive fabric sliding over a twisting frame, its vixen-like eyes and its hood that parted in the middle to reveal its intimate areas, drew other conclusions about the meaning of GINA.
Readers can draw their own conclusions, but one must admit the GINA is definitely the stuff of a JG Ballard novel. Others might look at the car and take refuge in the works of Dr. Freud. There definitely is a bit of artistic commentary in there about the seductiveness of machines, along with whatever functional and aesthetic advancements might be presented.
The legacy of GINA is a mixed one. Clearly, it was successful in terms of garnering lots of attention and starting a discussion about soft coverings in cars of the future. But a decade on, there isn’t any real movement to implement a fabric body on a car.
BMW suggested in their press releases that the GINA project allowed an unusual opportunity to review their design and production/fabrication processes at every level, though presumably concentrating on bodywork, and material fit and finish.
However, there have been similar concepts, like the recent Toyoda Gosei Flesby 2, a frog-like car with exterior padding and lights beneath a stretchy fabric skin, which, though not sexy (its focus is on safety) like the GINA, asks a lot of the same questions.
BMW Designworks also used the experience with GINA to design a shoe for PUMA , the X-Cat, using an improved version of the Lycra/polyurethane material. In this instance, the Lycra was made more durable and of course breathable with laser cut holes in a tessellating pattern across the top of the shoe. The shoe is tightened or loosened by a disc on the upper.
But perhaps the greatest legacy of GINA is precisely what Chris Bangle states in the video below – flexibility and context over dogma. Can we design cars that adapt and flex, expand and contract on demand, or on conditions both external and internal? Could there be an intrinsic, responsive structure; a sentient, living machine?
And, if there were, would we call it a car?
And here's that video (sorry about the quality)...
Footnote: Here’s a link to our piece on the Dream Cars exhibit in Atlanta