CC History: Driving in South Korea in the Mid-1980’s – A Much Different World Than Today

In the recent COAL article on my time with Japanese Royalty, I mentioned that I had purchased a 1978 Toyota Crown while in Japan and in 1985 shipped it to Korea for a one year military tour.  One reader had a question in the comments section regarding what it was like driving in Korea at that time – now almost thirty-five years ago.  Though I can rarely remember now what I had for lunch yesterday, thankfully anything automotive is still lodged firmly between the ears.  Here are my recollections of the “car scene” and driving in Korea during a much different time.

From an automotive perspective, South Korea has gone from the Jurassic Age to the Twenty First Century in what seems like only four decades.  While it tends to be forgotten today, prior to 1987, South Korea was effectively ruled by a military dictatorship – a full democratic government not emerging until 1988.  So during my time there in the mid-80’s, the country was very “controlled”, to include the automotive sector.  The government was trying hardest to support and prop-up local domestic car manufacturers, so import restrictions on foreign brands were very tight.  It was essentially a closed market – there were no Japanese models, no US brands, and only a handful of European makes that were driven by the very wealthy or those having a government connection.

What there were plenty of were Hyundais – mostly the Gen 1 Pony; South Korea’s first domestically engineered, mass-produced model (though with a lot of help from Austin, Mitsubishi, and Italdesign).  Ninety percent of the cars on the roads that I saw were these first generation Ponies, with most of them being taxi cabs.  Personal car ownership for even the middle class was still a decade off for most South Koreans.  They were pretty crude – I remember looking down the side of one of these Ponies and seeing more waves in the sheet metal than at Oahu’s North Shore…


Hyundai/Ford Cortina

Hyundai/Ford Granada

What were some of the other cars?  Surprisingly European Ford Mk IV Cortinas and Mk II Granadas.  Hyundai had signed a co-production agreement with Ford and they sent these models in knocked down kit form to be assembled in Korea.  As Dave Saunders points out in his excellent article, this partnership went back to 1967.  Hyundai sold the Cortina until 1982 and the Granada to 1985.

Mazda Familia/323

Mazda Luce/929

KIA was then separate from Hyundai and was perhaps the second most frequently seen brand.  The company didn’t have any domestically designed models – all of its cars were older model Mazdas.  Mazda evidently licensed or sold its old tooling to KIA for manufacturing in-country.  I remember in 1986 going for a walk one day and stumbling across a KIA dealer.  The dealership was new as the military government had only that year permitted KIA to again begin building cars – being restricted to only trucks the five years prior.  There were KIA versions of the compact Mazda 323 and the larger 929.  But what I remember most is that of the four cars on the showroom floor, all had multiple drip pans underneath them – and the pans weren’t empty.  As with the Pony, it was a reminder that Korean automotive production and assembly still had a way to go…

One of the other Korean brands I’d see frequently was Keowah/Dong-A, later called SsangYong.  Keowah had a co-production agreement with Jeep, and specialized in 4WD vehicles.  Its Korando (CJ 5/6/7/8) model was fairly popular – and I can understand why.  The base I was stationed at was in a rural section of southern Korea – most of the main, large streets were paved, however a majority of the secondary roads were gravel, with lots of dips, potholes, and ruts.  While it seemed to puzzle car reviewers in the U.S., I always understood why early Korean cars were noted for their very soft suspensions.

Daewoo Maepsy (Opel Kadett)

Export version Crown

There were a couple other brands but most were few and far between.  Daewoo had reorganized in 1983 and was slowly getting back into the car business selling several GM European models; mostly versions of the Opel Kadett and Rekord.  Surprisingly, I did see one other Crown – an MS 80 almost exactly like mine.  It belonged to a wealthy businessman in the town near the base – it differed slightly style-wise and was left-hand drive.  I assumed he imported it from Taiwan or Singapore.



Fast forward to today and I am utterly amazed and impressed at the speed and scale with which Korean manufacturers have caught, and even surpassed their former partners and competitors.  From building Ford products in knocked down kits, I now look at the Genesis G90 and think it would make the perfect Town Car, and the G70 a RWD Continental Lincoln wished it had.

Kudos to the Koreans – it makes you wonder what things will look like in another thirty-five years…