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It has taken decades for Japanese classics to finally obtain a level of recognition and respect in the general classic car scene. In my opinion, it was high time it happened too! But that leaves the question: Who will take their place as the outsider? The Koreans perhaps? In many ways, it would actually make sense…

The Korean automobile industry can trace its beginnings back to 1955. However, it was up through the early and mid 1960’s that a handful of car manufacturers – with strong backing from the Korean government – started to gain momentum. Initially this was however purely in the form of assembly plants for parts imported to the country from overseas companies like Nissan, Mazda, Toyota and Ford. Producing cars under license were the humble beginnings. Hyundai Motor Company were late to the game as they were only established in December 1967, but they beat all the others to a critical turning point for the Korean automobile industry by producing the first Korean-developed car in 1975. Already the year after, they wrote history again by becoming the first Korean car manufacturer to export cars when they started selling this new model in South American countries like Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina and Chile. Shortly after, Egypt became their next export market, and then in 1978 Hyundai entered the European market in the Netherlands, Belgium and Greece, from where they slowly but steadily expanded.

First generation Hyundai Pony produced between 1975 – 1982.

As such, there can be no arguing that the first Hyundai Pony from 1975 has significant automotive historical significance. You might not like, and if I’m honest, I’m not even sure I like it. But considering what a major player South Korea has become in today’s global automotive industry, we can’t really deny that the car that set all of this off, must – almost by default – be historically important.

A vinyl roof to prove that Hyundai were as trendy as any other car manufacturer in the mid and late seventies.

The development of the Pony started when Hyundai wanted to move on from producing Ford Cortina’s under license. In February 1974 they hired Sir George Turnbull who was the former Managing Director of BL’s Austin Morris. He in turn head-hunted a team of British engineers who set out developing the compact 4-door Pony, using all of their knowledge obtained in the British car industry. A deal was made with Mitsubishi Motors in Japan to supply the complete drivetrain, and some Ford parts were thrown into the equation too as Hyundai were of course still assembling Cortina’s. A sprinkling of glamour was even added to the whole concept when none other than Italdesign Giugiaro was contracted to pen the design.

While clearly not being Giugiaro’s masterpiece, considering the brief he would have been given, I personally think it’s a perfectly pleasing design which is every bit as sharp, as most of the Pony’s period counterparts.

Already in October 1974 was the new Hyundai Pony presented to the public at the Turin Motor Show. About a year later, the 4-door saloon hit the showrooms offering both a 1.2-litre and a 1.4-litre Mitsubishi engine, rear-wheel drive, a 4-speed manual gearbox (an automatic gearbox became optional later on), and a variety of trim levels such as the DL, GL or the GLS. A pickup version was added to the line-up in 1976, and the year after saw an estate too. Then in 1980 a 3-door hatchback expanded the model range even further, and along the line the bigger 1.6-litre Mitsubishi engine was added too, which was even offered with the range-topping trim level called Limited.

Rows and rows of early Hyundai Pony’s waiting to take on the brave world of export.

In January 1982 the Pony received a thorough facelift both inside and out, though it was still fundamentally the same car. The Pony II continued Hyundai’s expansion into both Canada and the USA, and soldiered on until 1990 when it was finally phased out and replaced in full by the front-wheel drive Hyundai Excel which had entered production in 1985.

The addition of an estate and a 3-door hatchback made the range of Pony-cars quite broad.

So dear reader, is this the making of a true classic car, which we really ought to have accepted into our ranks a long time ago? I sense your skeptical eye-rolling! Which is – if we’re to be perfectly honest – probably at least partially justified. Anyone who knows just a little bit about Hyundai’s first venture into self-developed automobiles, will also know that the build quality was lacking to say the least. The basic concept of the Pony was perfectly sound – maybe not exciting, but then neither is a base 1975 Ford Cortina, Peugeot 304 or Toyota Corolla. Both the Ford, the Peugeot and the Toyota were however well built cars for the broad public, and they are also today great classics examples of the yesteryears daily heroes. The Hyundai Pony was not a well built car. Choice of materials were below par, and the quality of assembly was just plain awful. The Pony was cheap though, and for this reason they did indeed sell. But they also fell apart, rusted and deteriorated quicker than any owner could have possibly imagined. So yes, the concept was sound, but the execution was hugely flawed.

But there’s probably more to your eye-rolling skepticism than that. There is also an element of prejudice – exactly what kept old Japanese cars from becoming accepted classics for decades. I can’t help but ponder whether the classic car scene would have been more forthcoming to the mid-seventies Hyundai’s, if the company had in fact managed to come up with the cash – and not least the courage – to go ahead with Italdesign Giugiaro’s 1974 concept car of the Hyundai Pony Coupé? It was a striking, typically seventies, wedge-design very much along the lines of two of Giugiaro’s other acclaimed design studies: the sharp 1973 Audi-Karmann Asso di Picche and the later 1976 BMW-Karmann Asso di Quadri. All three possessed dramatic design cues with a form language clearly inspired by one of Giugiaro’s epic masterpieces, the Maserati Boomerang from 1972. Judge for yourself, and don’t tell me you wouldn’t love to have this parked in your garage…

How do you view the first generation Hyundai Pony? Are they of any historical interest? Will Korean cars ever be regarded as worthy classics? Would you own one yourself? And now that Nippon classics – often referred to as J-tin – has finally become widely accepted as fully-fledged classic cars, and thus moved up a notch in rank, will that make room for a new niche of K-tin?

 

12 Responses

  1. Claus Ebberfeld

    Very interesting question, Anders. I regard the Hyundai Pony as a historically significant car for all the reasons you point out. However I do not see it as a significant car as such – and neither as one I would like to own myself.

    Sure it has its place in the motoring history and will at one point or another probably end up in museums and maybe even be part af a Giugiaro retrosepctive exhibition somewhere.

    And rest assured I will take a very close look whenever I should encounter one of these!

    But I also do that with an early Corolla of which you could say much the same. And true that “Japanese classics are finally being recognized” as you wrote – but mind you, in the general public this still does not really apply to the bread and butter cars but mostly to something James Bond drove, that won rallies and/or was equipped with ingenious 16 valve cylinderheads.

    Of course a classic car does not need to check all those to be regarded as significant or even as charming – see the Beetle. I just can’t imagine that kind of recognition for the Pony anytime, anywhere. Not even in Korea, in fact.

    So on a personal note: I’d take an Allegro over a Pony anytime.

    Reply
  2. Michael S. Lund

    Others come from humble beginnings too and as well as I don’t want a BMW Isetta, I don’t want this “One Trick Pony” either.

    All the best for a prosperous 2018.

    Reply
  3. Anders Bilidt

    Admitted, this whole article is a bit tongue-in-cheek. I simply eyed the start of a new year, as an opportunity to challenge our basic views on what makes a classic car, and thus what will probably forever keep certain cars from ever achieving proper classic car status.

    Will I ever purchase an early Hyundai Pony myself? Well, no. I seriously doubt I will. But if we claim to have any real interest in automotive history, I still feel it would be wrong of us to immediately dismiss the Pony. And much as I’m quite unlikely to ever own one, I would honestly welcome the notion of seeing a well preserved original example show up at a classic car meet this coming summer. Let’s see if that happens… ;-)

    Reply
  4. Claus Ebberfeld

    Oh, I didn’t get the tongue-in-cheek-part!

    And I still think it is a very interesting question.

    It’s just that now I can’t stop thinking whether you’re really double bluffing, Anders – like now you’re going to corner the world market for early Hyundai Ponys. Or maybe even could be employed by Hyundai? Or some sort of double agent for the Koreans at large?

    Oh no, there are so many levels in the Hyundai Pony-story and it’s only just unfolding in all it’s complexity!

    Reply
  5. Dave Leadbetter

    The Korean Cortina, aye, used to be the unlicenced minicab of choice round our way in the 90s. Ah, memories.

    Reply
  6. Rob

    A candidate for the “Festival of the Unexceptional” for sure. I have doubts if anyone would take on a restoration of such cars, but survivors are always interesting to see.

    Reply
  7. Claus Ebberfeld

    Rob, never say never: It’s amazing how broad our tastes are in classic cars. Around a year ago I saw an ad from a fellow here in Denmark actively searching for a Polonez – a car that makes the Pony stand out in a most positive way, I think. I am also aware of an enthusiast dedicated to Dacias. I have yet to meet a Pony collector, but he (she?) could very well be out there in the shadows.

    Reply
  8. Geoff

    Yes, I think it’s time for older Hyundais! I’ve tried to find Kia Brisa parts to fit onto my Mazda 1300 and have come up against the Korean attitude to older cars… “why would we keep old cars and parts?”. So I think that we will see people more interested in older Korean cars, but keeping them on the road or finding those old pieces of trim etc will be near impossible unless it was shared with a GM/Ford counterpart etc.

    Reply
  9. Anders Bilidt

    Geoff, thx for joining the discussion – you are indeed proof that there is yet hope for the Korean classics!
    It’s an interesting thought. I’m sure there would have been several Kia owners back in the day who would have rather owned a Mazda 1300 than a Kia Brisa. Equally, I’m also sure that the majority of classic car enthusiasts would now rate the Mazda higher than the Kia. Yet, here you are attempting to change your Mazda into a Kia. I can only presume you are doing this because of the Kia’s rarity and odd-ball status?
    Geoff, I salute you…!!! :-)

    Reply

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