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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?