The Hyundai Origin Myth Revealed: There’s A Ford In Your Pony

Most people in the US would tell you the Excel was the first Hyundai model. They’d be wrong. Most people in Canada would say that it is in fact the rear wheel drive Pony. They’d also be wrong. The Pony that came to Canada was actually the second generation of the Pony. Before that Hyundai built European Ford licensed cars. Hyundai got its automobile start in 1967 by building the Ford Cortina and Taunus under license. These Ford licensed cars were actually built right up until 1976.

A few years later Hyundai decided to develop their own car. The first step was to recruit George Turnbull who had recently left British Leyland. Turnbull immediately hired a few good men (Kenneth Barnett, John Simpson, Edward Chapman, John Crosthwaite and Peter Slater) from Britain. Turnbull also bought with him a pair of Morris Marinas to examine. The result was not a direct copy of the Marina but the unibody structure was very similar while the suspension was very similar to the Ford Cortina: MacPherson strut front suspension and a leaf sprung live rear axle.

In fact the rear axle is identical to the MkII Cortina which I exploited when I was building a Lotus Seven clone and found a low mileage Pony axle in the scrapyard. Mitsubishi overhead cam four cylinder engines of 1.2L or 1.4L and transmissions where used to complete the drivetrain. The styling was done by Giorgetto Giugiaro of Italdesign in Italy. An interesting side bar is the Hyundai Pony Coupé concept car (below) of 1974 also by Italdesign which was meant to raise the profile of Hyundai and their upcoming Pony on which it was based.

The Pony (below) was revealed to the world at the October 1974 Turin Motor Show. Starting in 1975 the Pony was sold only in the home market but then also overseas in 1976. The year 1978 was when the Pony was introduced to various European markets and by 1981 had found its way to the UK. By this time the Pony was offered in a variety of body styles from three and five door hatchbacks, pickup and station wagon.

The MkII Pony came about for 1982 and it was a mostly a styling update that brought it into the 80s with integrated impact bumpers, square headlamps, and a plastic grill. Body styles where reduced to just a five door hatchback with a two door pickup in available in some markets.

In 1984 Hyundai brought the Pony to Canada where it was a hit in the low priced segment populated previously by East European cars. There were a few changes for the Canadian market like beefier bumpers and the use of sealed beam headlights instead of the flush lights. Sadly only the four door body style was offered. While mechanically crude in many ways with manual choke, points ignition and live axle it became Canada’s bestselling car that year.

A cut rate price Chevrolet Chevette is probably an accurate comparison. Canada never did get the 1.2L engine but started off with the 70hp 1.4L engine paired with four speed manual or a five speed manual in higher trim levels and optional three speed automatic. All Ponys had front disc and rear drum brakes.

In 1985 a 74hp 1.6L engine from the larger Stellar became available and with the bigger capacity engine A/C was offered for the first time. This 1.6L engine had seen duty in Mitsubishi Colts and its Mopar branded siblings of the 70s. I had a Hyundai Stellar with the 1.6L and five speed combination and while no performance dynamo it was quite an agreeable combination.

Trim lines included L, GL and GLS. The L being base with GL offering five speed transmission, uprated trim, tinted windows, clock, rear wiper/washer. GLS added even better trim including cloth seats and a AM/FM/tape stereo. Power steering available as an extra as well as A/C (with the 1.6L). Dealer add-ons included rear window louvers, air dams, spoilers, and fog lamps. Canadian sales went right through 1987 with it even being sold side by side with the front wheel drive Excel for a time. The early cars can be identified by the “HD” logo on the grill with later ones (after mid 1985) with the Hyundai lettering on the driver’s side of the grill.

The Pony was never sold in the US due to its inability of meeting emission standards. The US market Excel was initially going to be called the Hyundai Pony Excel but the Pony name was dropped before the first US sales. In Europe the Excel replaced the Pony and even continued with the Pony name. South Korea was the last market to offer the classic Pony and sales finally ended in 1990.

Sadly it is rare to see a Pony on the street these days. This local one has a very whimsical Mario Kart theme.

Out East rust killed them off very quickly. Simple neglect and lack of value killed them off in the West. Mechanically they seemed to be more robust than the Excel that followed. I’m more likely to see one in the scrapyard than on the road and even those spottings are slowing down.