Chasing Simple, Pure Design In South Korea With A Four-Door BMW
Story byLaura FerriccioliPhotography byMarco Annunziata
Apro Lee has tattoos on his face, he wears black leather Guccis with embroidered tiger heads, and he drives a 1989 4-door BMW E30 320i, which is the reason we met. The car was parked in front of a hip coffee bar in Seoul when I saw it for the first time. It was impossible not to notice it, and not only because my eyes are used to spotting classic cars like the otherwise unassuming early-generation 3-Series.
Though many may write it off as an automatic sedan with some BMW-typical BBSes on it, it’s not particularly common to find something like this in this country, where there are plenty of brand new BMWs and hardly any older than a decade. Older cars in South Korea are just generally much rarer than they are in continental Europe and the United States, so I was curious to talk to the owner of this E30 to find out why he sought this one out in particular.
For Apro, the answer is one word: design. The whole existence of this 37-year-old Korean tattoo artist is devoted to aesthetics, as you might have guessed at this point. His main inspiration is the famous German Bauhaus movement with its principles rooted in the pureness of lines and harmony. Such values, including solidity, are also reflected in his personality, as this young classic car lover is whimsical and creative but also cares deeply about discipline and tradition. What really impressed me about him was his calm and softly spoken voice, together with a really remarkable courtesy in his mannerisms.
“I like old car’s shapes more than today’s because they are simple and powerful in a very straightforward way, with no frills or unnecessary fussy details,” he says with a smile. This focused, more minimal approach is why the E30 sedan shape drawn by BMW designer Claus Luthe is a fine example of purity in car design, in Apro’s opinion.
And it’s a story which goes way back for him: “I’ve been in love for many years with the Hyundai Grandeur, which I used to see in the streets and especially in gangster movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s,” he tells me. The simple Korean four-door sedan, that, due to its squared three-box shape earned the nicknamed “Gak-Grandeur” (“Angle-Grandeur”) started his passion for this type of edged design, as he defines it. “The Grandeur was my dream car when I was in the military service, which started just after a few years of high school, and went on until I was 24 years old. A period when not many young people owned a car in those days in South Korea, especially luxury ones like that.”
He goes on to add that “It’s kind of sad that past models are disappearing over time, letting people forget about their history and the memories they might have associated with them. However, I believe that everything is cyclic, so old styles will become popular again one day. I also hope that a proper classic car restoration center will soon open in my country.” He’s not only into straight lines and four doors though, and some of Apro’s favorite designs are the Ferrari 250 GTO and the Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale, cars with nary a ray on them. His future garage will likely contain a vintage Jeep quite soon, while a classic Ferrari would be his next ambition for the further-off future. For now, the BMW is plenty. Older guys seem to be the most enthusiastic about the E30—which is actually Apro’s first car—as it evokes nostalgic memories of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s for so many people who grew up either around these cars or reading about them.
Though it’s generally not often you find anything that old in South Korea, like most places it just depends on what it is you’re after. “Some classic cars are not really difficult to find here, but many others are impossible or they cost so much. The BMW E30s, for example, are four to six times more expensive in South Korea than in Europe,” Apro goes on. “Then you have to pass the government vehicle inspection every two years, and they are quite strict with the oldies.”
Apro purchased the E30 not long ago in 2017 after ten years of traveling across the world. “I saw many older BMW cars when I was in Australia and New Zealand, and that really ignited my desire for them,” he remembers. As of now, he has just changed the stock units out for BBS wheels and added in a black leather interior in this one. “I’m trying to keep the car mostly original, but I might change the seat covers again if they wear out.” And they might, as he drives it often. His favorite road for the 1990cc M20 straight-six is from the Bongwonsa Temple (봉원사) near his shop, to Gimpo, a town about an hour’s drive from Seoul. What Apro would love most now is to drive his E30 in the streets of ancient Rome, turning back the clock to more than 2000 years ago with a little time capsule from the ‘80s.