The FIAT 124 has had to put up with a lot of abuse – and now this too?!? But there’s no denying it: It started in 1969.
Up through the sixties and seventies, it seems that anyone who could be bothered to ask, was immediately granted permission to assemble FIAT 124’s under license. The best known is no doubt AutoVAZ, who probably just about exceeded FIATs own success with their Soviet Lada-version of the 124 saloon and estate. But the most important manufacturer… well, that might just have been Kia?
Because the Russians didn’t really learn from assembling the FIAT 124 under license, and the Lada remains their only big automotive sales success to date. Effectively, all AutoVAZ did was make the small Italian saloon more solid and then pumped out huge numbers of them. You could say that Kia took the exact opposite approach.
The initial steps for assembling the FIAT 124 in Korea got off to a poor start. Back then, the company was called Asia Motors and they were set on starting up production in the late sixties, but it wasn’t to happen until 1970. The main issue was frankly their unfortunate financial situation – and of course, the delayed production didn’t help one bit. At the end of 1969, Asia Motors was acquired by Dongkuk Steel, and with new investment, car production was finally under way.
Only they didn’t build many: less than 2,000 during their first year, and even during the final year of the licensed contract (which was already in 1973) they still only managed to assemble just short of 7,000 cars. The cooperation between FIAT and Asia Motors has been surprisingly poorly documented, but I can only presume that they were receiving CKD kits from Italy. CKD is short for Completely Knocked Down, which means complete cars were sent of component form to be assembled – not manufactured – in another country.
The Brits used to master this discipline, bit Asia Motors elected to go elsewhere for their CKD kits. Maybe they had somehow foreseen the dark future which lay ahead of the British motor industry? Luckily, FIAT were pretty adept at this exercise too and were probably a safer bet for Asia Motors’s future. The reason I’m presuming that it were CKD kits is simply based on the low production numbers. There is just now way it could have ever been financially viable to manufacture cars from scratch with so few cars subsequently sold. If this was in fact the case, then I understand much better why the Koreans struggled to make money on their car production. After the contract with FIAT came to an end, Asia Motors found themselves in financial difficulty yet again, which is when Kia Industrial stepped in during 1976 and purchased the remains of Asia Motors thus creating Kia Motors largely as we know them today.
But Asia Motors / Kia Motors at least took something away from the whole experience: How to build a car. That is; in contrast to the trucks and other commercial vehicles which they were producing at the time. The FIAT 124 wasn’t a loner either, as the Koreans had other relationships going up through the seventies with both Mazda and Peugeot. In fact, FIAT got back into it again a little later with the FIAT 132 as well. But it’s probably the Peugeot which has to be the biggest surprise as they opted for building the 604 – the biggest and most luxurious Peugeot at the time; maybe even ever.
Or maybe they were very deliberately attempting to get hold of as many and as diverse cars as possible, so as to teach the engineers and workers at the factory as much as possible. After the military dictatorship forbid Kia to manufacture cars in 1981, it was obviously the end of the Korean Mazdas, Peugeots and FIATs. But there seems to be a pattern nonetheless, as when car production was again granted to Kia in 1986, they immediately found a new partner in Ford of Europe. Approximately ten years later they had worked up enough ambitions to purchase outright the rights to build the Lotus Elan M100, and thus Kia was suddenly a sportscar manufacturer as well. The Korean version was depending on the country, marketed as either the Kia Elan or the Vigato.
As we all know, Kia have managed rather well since then. And some of that credit surely goes to FIAT. Though when it comes to their sportier models, I suppose Lotus as well.