Korea’s automobile industry has impressive reserves of get-up-and-go. Hyundai/Kia has completely remade itself in the past decade, surely prompting some of us to think, How did they get here so fast? True, its modern lineup has crystallized exceptionally quickly, but just like Japanese automakers in the US, Hyundai took a long time to get to this point, its journey fraught with poor-quality product. But the Pony, the first Hyundai, while sadly not sold in the United States, actually was a rather good car for the money.
The 1975–1990 Hyundai Pony, though neither a fully original design nor sold in the United States, nevertheless was a decent little car that kickstarted the Korean marque’s upward journey. The Pony helps explain Hyundai’s increasing worldwide dominance today.
An advertisement from the Netherlands. Photo from John Lloyd on Flickr.
Hyundai. Like Sunday. Even the freshmen might remember that Super Bowl, when Hyundai was just beginning to assert itself as a mainstream car brand. Before then, Hyundai had always been the cheap option, but now it was playing with the big guys. And we were expected to trust that its product would be up to par.
Mercifully, it was (and keeps getting better), because Hyundai has built its present reputation from scratch. While all the other names—Toyota, Chevy, VW—have had their ups and downs but can always turn back to a touchstone from the storied past, Hyundai has only improved its product since the first licensed Ford Cortina copies started rolling out of Ulsan in 1967. Yes, I’m not going to make any claims that the Pony was a good car. Rather, it shows how far Hyundai has come.
Even the relatively new Japanese companies had original designs up and running by the early 1960s, so what gives with Hyundai? In fact, South Korea (which I will refer to as simply “Korea”) at the same time was still a mostly poor, agrarian nation working over some fairly undesirable land for crops, similar to today’s North Korea but without the Communist fantasies. Through government policy, however, Korea became one of the world’s largest goods exporters in a few short decades.
This long paper (which I make no claims to having read in its entirety) goes into great detail about how the Korean government kickstarted auto production. A host of policies in the 1960s allowed for great amounts of imports to create a sort of industrial revolution, which worked. Then, in the 1970s, once the manufacturing infrastructure was beginning to spill over the sides of the cup, the government opened up the export channels and Korea’s economy skyrocketed. While rather authoritarian and potentially destructive to ancestral lifestyles, it is an inarguable fact that Korea, like Hyundai, has risen from essentially nothing, economically, since around 1970.
For carmakers specifically, the government incentivized producing automobiles by allowing companies to purchase complete knock-down (CKD) kits from established foreign builders such as Ford, GM, and Mazda. Basically, CKD, a perennially popular strategy, entails that the larger company send a full complement of parts to the newer, smaller one, often in a developing nation, whence the new company assembles a close copy of the original. Industrias Kaiser Argentina and Iran Khodro both started this way. Over time, the native brands were required to build greater percentages of components within Korea, which led eventually to the development of new designs like the Pony, the first real Korean car.
A Pony coupe next to a fine example of the even-more-likely-to-be-an-automotive-punchline Scoupe. Photo from Rutger van der Maar on Flickr.
Foreign influence was everywhere in Korean industry in the 1960s and ‘70s, so it makes sense that Hyundai, on the state’s coin, hired Giorgetto Giugiaro from Italy to design the new car and George Turnbull of Britain to manage the development team. Giugiaro may be autodom’s most prolific high-profile designer, the mastermind behind everything from the first-generation Fiat Panda to the Subaru SVX. His 1970s designs, aspirational yet restrained, feature straight lines and clean angles, balanced by gently, consistently curving surfaces. In other words, he was the best choice conceivable. He had just designed the hit VW Golf (Rabbit in the US) that came out a year before the Pony, and whose design language still inspires Volkswagen designers six generations later.
The other star player, Turnbull, is not quite as widely known, but he led the engineering team toward wise part choices. Those familiar with the British show Top Gear may grimace when I say that he was the most influential person in the development of the Morris Marina, one of the many cars tasked with rescuing British Leyland from imminent disaster. While a poor product, it was effective. Like the Pony, perhaps.
Because Hyundai had been building Fords for the better part of a decade, the Pony had some running gear from the Cortina. Engines and drivetrains came from Mitsubishi. These decisions, driven by Turnbull with the Marina as a template, were a logical step forward from building copies of foreign parts in-house under a CKD scheme. One antiquated aspect of the Pony was its rear-wheel drive, at a time when compact cars were turning to more efficient and safer front-wheel drive en masse.
Meanwhile, the design was something to be proud of. It was attractive but unassuming thanks to Giugiaro’s input. Indeed, with an inexperienced Korean team alone, the Pony might not have had the impact it did, at least not outside the home market, so the foreigners were probably essential. In anticipation of worldwide success, Hyundai and Giugiaro showed an exciting Pony coupe concept car at the 1974 Turin auto show, a perennial showcase for the hottest new car designs.
The world took notice, even though Hyundai only sold the Pony internationally once it had already made a splash in Korea. As Hyundai began to export the car, countries in the Middle East and Latin America bought it with particular enthusiasm. Just as the Korean government had hoped when it laid out its industrial policies, these exports helped Hyundai expand its Ulsan plant into the largest in the world. Hyundai even brought the second generation Pony, with revised design inside and out but the same mechanicals and basic sheetmetal, to Canada in 1984.
The interior of a higher-end model, likely in better-than-new condition. Photo from Brendan McAleer on driving.ca.
United States car fans often forget about Canada. It seems like the car landscape there would be similar to that of the US, and indeed, it mostly is, but different sets of standards (including a 15-year instead of 25-year import rule—the lucky twerps) and buyer expectations there give Canada a different—some would say better—array of choices. In particular, a Canadian, more often than an American, will buy a cheap car if its price is right. The infamous Lada, never sold in the United States (because of the Cold War), actually found willing buyers there.
Hyundai actually planned to bring the Pony to the United States as well, but, although emissions standards foiled that plan, Canada proved an excellent choice. The Pony blew away initial sales targets fourfold. Even its bare simplicity (manual choke!) and questionable build quality, especially its propensity to rust aggressively, could not prevent Canadians from scooping up the little tin can, even after the more modern and more indigenously Korean Excel hit the market.
That second generation of Pony warmed Hyundai up for its entry into the United States market with the Excel. Neither car was perfect; in fact, the Excel was considerably worse than the Pony in the consumer’s eye. Initially, yes, people loved its cheap cheer, but then the quality control issues and recalls landed with a series of thuds, soiling little Hyundai’s image soon after it had arrived. However, Hyundai recovered with strategy and a willingness to lose money for a bit in anticipation of a greater payoff: the Excel issues spawned Hyundai’s renowned 10 year/100,000 mile warranty plan. No other automaker (besides closely affiliated Kia) offers anything close, and Hyundai pays dearly to offer that service to its customers. It used to be an apology to angry Excel buyers, but now the warranty policy is a major selling point for a new Hyundai.
A Pony in a Dutch press photo showing off its best ‘80s getup. Photo from Michiel V on Flickr.
So, a thoroughly unremarkable car started Hyundai’s ascent to worldwide market penetration. I’m not sure I’d want to drive or own one, but does that make me like it less? I think not. Even the name: “Pony” was cute, and written in a cute font on the rear end of the car, but subsequent Hyundais had aspirational or hoity-toity names that proved unsubstantiated.
I hope you continue to enjoy The Glove Box, even when faced with dross like this. You know, the Stutz was too exciting, really providing two articles’ worth of scintillation, but next time, I promise, I’ll have something at least a little more interesting than this little Hyundai.
(Cover photo: A Pony next to a much newer Veloster. Photo from Brendan McAleer on driving.ca.)