As someone who wanted to get into transportation design myself, I was thrilled when I recently had the opportunity to speak with renowned automotive designer Youngwon Davis Lee. He was responsible for one of the most stunning concept cars of all time, the Visison Mercedes Maybach 6. Mr Lee previously worked as a senior designer with brands such as Mercedes Benz, Hyundai and most recently EV startup Rivian.

In our brief chat, we got candid about his tenure in these automotive heavyweights and the next chapter ADRO, a California firm that specializes in high-end carbon fiber body kits for high-performance vehicles, where Mr. Lee is currently head of design.


I started by asking about his foray into the world of transportation design. Well, like many big names in business today, Mr Lee told me that his interest in cars was sparked when he was a boy. He often used to sculpt model cars out of sand and also realized early on that he was quite good at art. The car is similar to Ferrari Testarossa was a model he admired as a child. This eventually led him to a degree in Industrial Design from Hongik University in South Korea, and the rest as we know it is history.

The Stint at Mercedes and Rivian

Sketch and rendering of the 2016 Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 by Davis Lee

Over the past ten years or so, Mr. Lee has worked on some truly noteworthy cars such as Mercedes CLS, (my favorite), the Mercedes-Benz S class and newer models such as Rivian R1S SUV / R1T pickup truck and Hyundai Ioniq 5. Now, the experience and insight you can gain from working at a traditional automaker like Mercedes is very different from what you would encounter at a startup like Rivian.

According to Mr. Lee, the environment is completely opposite to each other. In Mercedes, for example, everything is much more restrained and structured, and everything is mostly driven by the past. As an example, he told me about the process of developing what looks like a model Mercedes Benz E class entails.

You can work on a project for six months to a year, but if you’re second, it goes to what’s called a design funeral, where your design is sent to the grave yard. During this time, you become very attached, but if you come second, your design will not see the light of day – Davis Lee

That can’t change much considering how strong the brand is and the loyal customer base it has. He told me about how difficult it can be to work for a big brand like Mercedes. While there, he noted that there were 30 to 40 designers in the entire design team.

For a new model like the E Class, for example, three teams, one in China, one in the United States and the third in Germany, will work on the design and then the scale model. Only one of the three will be selected as a result.

In contrast, in a startup like Rivian, because it’s a brand new company, you have a lot more freedom to express yourself because you’re essentially starting from scratch and don’t necessarily have a legacy to fall back on.

The story of the stunning Maybach 6 concept

The 2016 Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 became one of the most stunning concept cars of all time. Designed for the exclusive Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance that year. That was in early 2016, when he was still with Mercedes and working at the marque’s California studio, then Chief Design Officer of Mercedes-Benz Group AG, Gordon Wagner came from Germany.

It was a pretty crazy project because it took just eight months to go from sketch to demo car. With the Vision Maybach 6 concept, we wanted to delve into what Mercedes had from the past. The result is a design unlike any other production car

Mr. Davis wanted to brag something and so he sketched a side view of the car that drew inspiration from the past. The 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Autobahn-Kurier in particular greatly influenced the final design. Now they wanted to print the sketch on the biggest wall they could find, and the team eventually found a six-meter-long wall where they printed the sketch.

2016 Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 Concept Sketch Comparison Mercedes-Maybach 6 Side View by Davis Lee

Mr. Wagner (now VP of Design at Mercedes-Benz) saw it and wanted it to be the way it is, hence the name Maybach-6, and so within about 8 months Mr. Lee and his team got to work on creating a masterpiece. With a long hood and a profile that slopes aggressively towards the rear, the Maybach 6 concept is the perfect embodiment of the German marque’s past and future.

The future of electric vehicle design

Next, it’s time to talk about the future of EV Design and what to expect next. If we go back about two decades the first electric cars of the 1990s, anything that didn’t run on gas had to look drastically different to stand out, but that clearly backfired to the extent that those designs weren’t necessarily very desirable. The car is similar to General Motors EV1 or And people’s opinion about electric cars was that they were just milk and nothing more.

It wasn’t until Tesla came along that people really started paying attention. It’s clear that Elon Musk has decided to follow the “go big or go home” strategy and has provided his electric car with extreme performance. But other than that, he decided to go with a traditional design rather than something weird or fancy, and it worked. The first Tesla model that debuted in 2012 looks like a much more conservative sedan for an EV.

Front 3/4 shot of the 2020 MINI Vision Urbanaut concept

In theory, without the need for an engine, you could literally put a box on the wheels and stop, but obviously that would be terrible for aerodynamics, which is a critical aspect of any car, let alone an electric car. Of course, with an electric car you have a greater degree of freedom where you can increase the wheelbase and go crazy with the overall aesthetic, but we’ve noticed that the market prefers the familiar factor. Such machines Ford F-150 Lightning, Mini Cooper Electric or Mercedes EQB, excellent to prove this point.

I honestly think EVs are trying too hard. There’s a certain form factor that people were used to 100 years ago, and there’s a reason why cars evolved that way. But unfortunately people think they can invent the bicycle because electric cars don’t have a motor, but the truth is you still have to get four people together and you can’t really change things or you end up with a very weird design

You really can’t throw away 100 years of automotive design right? Besides, people love cars for a reason, and many consider it an art form. So while this transitional stage represents a great opportunity to do something fundamentally different, the car still fundamentally needs to seat four passengers in relative comfort.

Pushing the envelope of Korean automotive design

I also touched on the automotive design landscape in South Korea and how it has evolved over the past two decades. Although Korean cars are well-known as quite reliable and well-designed cars, their designs have not been that exciting, to the point that even some of them with what was called Pacific Rim Cars was once mocked on Top Gear.

But recently, about five years ago, Korean brands started creating something new because they realize they can’t just follow a trend, and in recent years I’ve seen a sharp shift from being a follower to being a leader

About a decade ago, when it came to design, most Korean manufacturers were more followers than trendsetters. But they soon realized the importance of good design and fast forward to today and we are seeing a dramatic change as Korean automakers have some of the most striking and exciting designs in the business. Think of machines like Genesis G90, or Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Kia Stinger GT and even Hyundai N Vision 74 Concept these are brilliant cars.

These were models like YS Sonata, which adopted the fluidic design language, which came out about a decade ago, ushered in a new era in Korean automotive design. Mr.Lee adds that he likes attracting well-known designers Peter Schreier has helped brands like KIA and Hyundai achieve massive success when it comes to automotive design.

ADRO will eventually release an EV

Front shot 3/4 Toyota GR86 with ADRO Widebody Kit

ADRO stands for Aerodynamic Development Race Optimization. Founded in 2020, the California-based firm currently sells carbon fiber body kits for several makes and models, some of which include the BMW M3 and M4, as well as many models from Kia/Hyundai and Genesis. With the Model 3 and Model Y kits, ADRO’s custom carbon body kits take Tesla mods to another level.

It’s a long process and we want to get the foundation right. We started with aftermarket carbon fiber kits and then moved on to introducing plastic moldings into the bumpers. Once we’re stable with each step, we want to get into stamping before eventually jumping to an electric car.

But ADRO’s main goal is to eventually sell electric cars. The reason they started in the aftermarket industry is because Mr. Lee, working at a startup like Rivian, realized that there is so much that goes into assembling a car, which includes everything from a stable supply chain to full-scale production facility.

Their current business of selling body kits gives ADRO the opportunity to perfect various manufacturing processes at an early stage. They brought in a former F1 aerodynamicist from Williams F1 Racing. At the moment, the main markets for ADRO are the US and South Korea, but they plan to expand their reach to serve European markets as well.

The start of transport design in 2022

In my experience, only two or three out of say 20 students go on to work for a major OEM, and even within the company itself, there is a lot of competition.

In the end, I wanted Mr. Lee to think about what it takes to get into transportation design in the current environment. According to Mr. Lee, this is an incredibly complex field. First, you need to get an education from a good design university. Building a portfolio early is also crucial to having something to show before applying to a well-known design school. So the realm of imagination is not easy, but it is definitely very rewarding.