25 August 2008

Some automotive history

1970s Hyundai Pony (Wikipedia photo, from Malta in 2006)

Today, I made a post over at Christy's Art Blog, where I am a co-admin, talking about my upcoming Seoul trip, as well as the presence of a Korean bell right in the US, a 1976 gift of South Korea's fascist military dictatorship. I also stated that another enduring legacy of that otherwise nightmarish era is the presence of good automotive infrastructure and industry in South Korea, much like the Nazi rule left Germany with a network of Autobahns and a world-renowned auto industry.

I went back to the trusty Wikipedia and ended up with a few links dealing with how the South Korean automotive industry, and specifically a relative latecomer named Hyundai Motor Company, got its start.

The story goes back to British Leyland, and its Managing Director George Turnbull. As he left the company in 1972, he took two Morris Marinas with him - and he was hired by Hyundai, which was already building the Ford Cortina but wanted a car of its own design, partly to populate the new expressways that Hyundai's construction arm had just built. The new car used the basic underpinnings of the Marina, some parts from the Cortina, and a Mitsubishi rear-drive powertrain, topped off with an Italdesign body. Called the Pony, it entered production in 1975, and was exported to Ecuador shortly thereafter. It was eventually sold in parts of Europe as well, and a redesign in 1982 brought it to the UK and Canada too. It was a runaway success; about half the cars in South Korea around 1980 were Ponys, including the vast majority of taxicabs.

My father owned a '79 Pony - the only Hyundai ever owned by my immediate family. He had bought it, when only 100,000 cars were around in South Korea (as opposed to over 10 million today), driving was considered a professional skill (legally, it still is), and virtually all drivers were middle-aged men; by the time he sold it to some American GIs in 1988, the car was more of an embarrassment, in a sea of more modern cars (such as Hyundai's own Excel, by that time a best seller in the US). Most Ponys were scrapped prematurely due to this embarrassment factor, though the few surviving examples have proven very durable. (Reuters says one example clocked a million miles in Ecuador as a taxicab - before Hyundai bought it back.)

I have fond memories of the car, as primitive as it was; I especially remember the manual choke system and the loud highway cruise due to a lack of overdrive gear. My mother learned to drive on this car, as well, though she constantly complained about the 4-speed manual transmission, which was too much for her; while a 3-speed Borg-Warner automatic was an option, it was very rare, and those middle-aged male drivers looked down on automatic-only drivers anyway. (By contrast, now it's the stickshift that is extinct on South Korean market passenger cars.)

Some consider the Pony to be the best Hyundai ever built - I'd agree that it was the most important one. The pickup truck variant can still be occasionally seen; I spotted one during my Busan visit in 2005, as well as a couple in London. I'll be out of luck if I ever want to spot the sedan, coupe, or wagon variants during my upcoming trip, however, unless I decide to hit a car museum, as I plan on doing.

Hyundai went on to accumulate more technologies of its own, crank out even more in-house models, and rise to dominance in South Korea (and now, newfound respect in the US). Rival companies did not replicate Hyundai's feat of designing in-house models, until the 1990s (such as the 1993 Kia Sephia).

If I ever have the money, the skills, and the space to maintain a small antique car collection of my own, I'd definitely include a first-generation Pony in my collection, alongside the likes of Citroen 2CV and DS, an early Datsun roadster, and an early Mini. (Honestly, I don't have much interest in cars that are too common, like the Ford Mustang or the VW Beetle.) But the Pony is not a US-legal car (the bumpers are too small, and it doesn't meet US emissions standards), so getting one into my garage will be a challenge.

Wikipedia: Hyundai Pony
Wikipedia: South Korean auto industry history
Some info from a Morris Marina fanpage
A Reuters article from January 30, 2008
1974 South Korean commercial