Jeon Byung Kwon can vividly remember when he became fascinated with the automobile.
Jeon was in the sixth grade, about 1978, and his family lived in the Korean countryside. He was 13, and he had never seen a car.
Then he spotted one on a country road. "It was so exciting and shocking," he recalls.
Today, Jeon (rhymes with sun) is the manager of the advanced exterior design team in the design center at GM Daewoo Auto & Technology Co. in Incheon, Korea.
Jeon was part of the team that designed the S3X, an SUV shown at the Paris auto show last year. The S3X will go into production and be sold first in Korea in early 2006. Around midyear, the vehicle will go on sale in Europe as a Chevrolet.
Jeon's team of six also created the T2X concept, a Chevrolet Equinox-like vehicle unveiled at the Seoul motor show in April. The T2X shows the direction Chevrolet is heading with its planned medium-sized SUV for Europe and Korea.
While the auto design Web site Cardesignnews.com called the T2X "one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises of the (Seoul) show," reaction on AutoWeek's Web forum was mixed. Said one writer: "It will never sell." AutoWeek is a sister publication of Automotive News.
Both vehicles reflect the increasing role GM Daewoo plays in General Motors' ability to design and produce vehicles globally. The design center has developed a number of vehicles that sport an international flair and are sold in more than 150 markets.
In Korea, Jeon says, designers create for a global market.
"A Korean maker has a limited domestic market, so we have to rely on exports," he says. "So we are accustomed to designing a common design that can appeal to consumers in various countries. Since GM acquired our company, this has been one of our values and strengths, and you can expect more from us along these lines."
That emphasis came into play when designing the S3X, Jeon says.
"We had to develop a globally competitive motif and styling," he says. "We had to understand consumers in the U.S. and Europe. And Korea was a must."
That takes long and systematic research, Jeon says. Besides researching the target model and competitors' models, "we have to anticipate design trend changes three or four years in the future, and customers' lifestyle changes and life-cycle changes," he says. "It's a continuous process of research and reflection, research and reflection."
As SUVs, the S3X and T2X both required strong characteristics, Jeon says.
"Think of a jaguar - the animal, not the car," he reflects. "It has a very slim and compact body, but the shoulders are very powerful, muscular and strong.
Similarly, "A sprinter is very slim, but the muscles are very well defined, and there is no fat. There is no extra substance at all. The S3X is like the 100-meter sprinter Ben Johnson," Jeon says.
The T2X concept vehicle exaggerates this design. "You can see in a side profile it has sort of a coupe-style cabin. It has strong masculine wheel arches," he says.
"A designer wouldn't say it this way, but for a nondesigner, maybe this exaggeration is easier to understand: If we compare the T2X with a person, maybe we can say Rambo."
It isn't surprising that Jeon, now 40, reached age 13 without seeing a car, although that would be unlikely in South Korea today. At the time Jeon was growing up, Korea's auto industry had barely been conceived.
In 1978, despite a population of 37 million, South Korea had only 185,000 cars. That's one for every 200 people. Today, the country has nearly 11 million cars, or one for every 4.5 people. Including exports, Korea manufactures more than 3 million vehicles a year. GM Daewoo produced about 900,000 vehicles last year; about 88 percent of those were exported.
Fixation on cars
Jeon studied industrial design at Kookmin University in Seoul, graduating in 1991. He took courses such as interior and environmental design. Since they had little to do with automotive design, Jeon designed cars on his own. Because of his auto fixation, he sometimes got bad grades in courses that were focused elsewhere.
GM Daewoo's T2X medium-sized SUV concept got mixed reviews at this year's Seoul auto show.
"As long as GM Daewoo design exists, I'll be a designer," he says.
Jeon, a soft-spoken man who speaks in a calm voice for an interpreter for this interview, obtains inspiration from many sources.
One is traveling. He spent a year and a half working on joint projects at Italdesign in Turin, Italy, as a Daewoo Motor employee. On weekends he drove all over Europe.
He also gains inspiration from hiking in Korea's rugged and rocky mountains, and from buildings and fashions. He likes to go to the expensive shopping districts of Seoul, such as Apgujeong-Dong, to see the latest Korean styles.
"When I see young people's fashions and even hairstyles, I get a sense of new design trends," he says.
"When I'm doing creative work, if I'm stuck in some area, sometimes I try to do new things - for example, getting a new hairstyle - for a bit of a change. I've had long hair, and sometimes I dye my hair," he says.
Jeon says he also benefits from the global design milieu of GM Daewoo, where people have both short- and long-term assignments at other design centers. A designer from Opel worked in Korea for about three years, and another from Holden Ltd., GM's Australian unit, works there now.
Travel remains one of his most important influences. When working on the S3X, Jeon says, "I got the first concept from America's Grand Canyon," which he had visited several years earlier.