BMW’s Aussie design prodigy

The new X3 SUV is one of BMW’s most important cars of 2018. It was designed by Australian Calvin Luk, who revealed its design secrets to Tony Sarno.

Let’s just acknowledge the importance of the BMW X3 right here and now. For BMW, one of the giants of luxury motoring, this mid-range SUV is an upgraded response to a trend that has changed the face of motoring.

In an era when even luxury car buyers are moving to SUVs, the X3 and the bigger X5 are among the BMWs they’re increasingly turning to. It’s happening at the expense of the celebrated sedans that previously defined the German automaker. So it’s no wonder that BMW has spent billions to develop the 2018 model of the X3, now on sale in Australia.

This is why we love that it was designed by an Australian, Calvin Luk. Of all the Aussie high performers on the global stage, Calvin is probably the one you don’t know about. But as one of BMW’s key designers, he’s also one of the most influential automotive stylists in the world.

Calvin also just finished designing the Z4 Roadster Concept, a preview of the upcoming Z4 production car. While the Z4 is not a mainstream model like the X3, it’s a halo car for BMW — the Bimmer everyone dreams of owning.

As a result, Calvin’s design vision inevitably flows on to more mainstream carmakers who copy what premium brands like BMW do, ultimately influencing the styling of many cars you see on the road.

Just as impressive as Calvin’s importance in the world of motoring is the way he achieved it. If his rise to prominence was a Hollywood script, you wouldn’t believe it. His story is an awesome example of talent, passion and having the confidence to back yourself all the way.

Humble beginnings

Back in 2000, Calvin was a student at North Sydney Boys High School, where he was developing his passion for music (he played in a jazz band), art (his HSC work was exhibited at the NSW Art Gallery) and, of course, sketching cars.

His parents owned a BMW 3 Series, so he already had an affinity for BMW when he went to the Sydney Motor Show that year with a bunch of mates.

He initially wanted to see how many of his friends could fit into the hatchback of the new BMW-owned Mini, but when the representative at the Mini stand spoke with a German accent, Calvin decided to ask him whether he could pass on a letter to BMW. The surprising response was “sure”, so Calvin rushed home to write his letter, asking the then head of BMW design Chris Bangle how he could get a job designing BMWs (and throwing in several of his sketches).

Much to Calvin’s shock, he later received a response from the BMW design department, which suggested he do a degree at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, the world’s premier car design school, followed by an internship at BMW.

Calvin followed the advice, and the prestigious school now remembers Calvin as one of its more talented graduates. The head of the Transportation Design Department at ArtCenter, Stewart Reed, recalls Calvin’s final class presentation as being particularly outstanding.

After finishing his degree, Calvin got his job at BMW in Munich and found that the company runs a competitive system for its car designers: it asks them to individually pitch their vision for each new model.

“There’s a general brainstorming session about the character of the car that we should aim for, and we get an idea of all the features and technology that BMW would love to bring into this car to really meet customer expectations,” says Calvin.

The designers then battle it out to have their design picked. For the 1 Series facelift and the exterior of the all-new X1, Calvin’s designs won out. He also came out on top with his pitch for the new X3, and hasn’t looked back. When Calvin came back to Australia recently to help launch the car, we seized on the opportunity to talk to him about his designs and experiences at BMW.

Secrets of the X3

In a nutshell, Calvin’s unique ability is to take an existing car model and make it more assertive, muscular and elegant.

A telltale characteristic of his designs is that the car looks bolder and bigger than it is. From a small distance, his X1 looks surprisingly like the bigger X3, for instance.

Using a suite of design ruses, such as making the kidney grilles bigger and the lines more flowing and muscular, he succeeded in making the X1 look less entry level and more like one of its bigger, more expensive siblings. In short, a real BMW.

He’s a master of manipulating dimensions, surfaces and reflections. This approach is most evident in his X3, the SUV equivalent of the 3 Series. At a glance, it looks more like the larger, more muscular, faster-selling X5 than the previous X3 model it replaces.

Ironically, given he’s talking to a fitness magazine, Calvin uses gym analogies to describe his X3 design.

“Certainly, the new BMW X3 has been to the gym. It’s more muscular, powerful and imposing — it has more ‘X-ness’. Simultaneously it gains elegance and sovereignty,” he explains.

He gave the X3 its new look by stretching and widening key dimensions of the previous model, adding bigger wheels and resculpting its surfaces.

What’s really extraordinary is that you see many of the design principles behind the new X3 in some of his earliest sketches. It’s like Calvin has had his vision of what cars should look like from the very beginning.

“With the X3 I tried to make a very imposing character, so to me it’s like a rugby player with a puffed up chest, but wearing a suit. The suit is the more elegant and tailored element that blends with this muscular physique,” he says.

“So when we move to the side of the body, especially on the shoulder sculpture, when it’s reflecting the darker sky, you’ll notice a very nice refinement in the surface.”

Source of inspiration

Calvin loves the arts and, in Munich, the city’s fascinating architecture. But his inspiration mainly comes from music, because music is about emotions, and so are cars, he says.

Is it classical music that inspires him? No, actually. Much of his musical inspiration comes from the American band, Evanescence, whose operatic symphonic/electronic rock sound seems to encompass just about every emotion music can bring.

“One of the things I find with that band is that its music has this very extreme contrast,” Calvin says.

“It’s on one hand extremely epic and dramatic, with these very loud, energetic outbursts, which contrast with very sensitive quieter moments filled with great passion, detail, and are highly emotional.”

When Calvin met the band’s lead singer Amy Lee, last year, he told her how much she has inspired him and his car designs.

“I gave her a painting. It had images of her and some of the most emotional moments of her performances, her music and her singing, and of her quieter moments at the piano, in focus.

“Also in the painting was the X1, because the band’s music is highly influential across all of the projects that I do; I can always find the right balance of emotions in their music that can translate into the car, whether it’s the X1 and its combination of sportiness, intense activity and toughness, or the X3, where its sports toughness is mixed with elegance and a bit more authority and power.

“Or the Z4 Concept, which is just like attacking the street.”

Attacking the street? There’s no better indication of how Calvin thinks when designing a car than this description of what the Z4 Concept is meant to do.

He hasn’t created a nice-looking transport to get from A to B, but a shark to roam the streets.

When the new Z4 goes into production and it appears in your rear vision mirror, it should make you feel like you’re being stalked by a great white.

Are its shark lines a reference to Australia? “Well, I think BMW’s always had that sort of shark — we call it the shark nose character,” he says.

“Even the Z3 in the past had almost a gill-like side vent on the side of the vehicle, which is part of the BMW heritage.”

Downunder for the X3 launch recently, Calvin got to train at Fitness First Barangaroo, adding gym workouts to his regular swimming routine. His personal trainer told us Calvin picked up movements incredibly quickly, as if he were a complete fitness natural.

His life is now in Munich, though, where he enjoys his weekends going for drives in the surrounding mountains.

And playing music: “the drums, sitting at the piano improvising or working stuff out.”

The next time you look behind you on the road and a BMW X3 or Z4 is closing in and giving you its assertive, or even menacing stare, it’s actually a former North Sydney Boys High student, now one of the world’s top car designers, saying hello!