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…
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.
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…
They learned quick and their cars now are as good as any other Aisian brand and better than some, A friend has a 2019 Kia Sportage and its a well finished car and well equipped.
Your article brings back memories of my first Kia, a 1989 Ford Festiva. Very fond memories of that car, a very well built and reliable automobile except for the horrible Yokohama tires that were absolutely terrible on wet roads. Memories of that car had a lot to do with Maggie and I going firmly back into the Kia fold in the past decade. And the cars have not disappointed.
My father worked in South Korea in the massive Hyundai shipyard in Pusan in the 80s. Their ships were well crafted and able to compete on the international market, unlike their early cars. He was loaned a company car, a Hyundai Pony, for his travels around the city and what a lamentable car it was. Didn’t help that it was a warmed over Morris Marina, a much despised car back in the UK, and was so badly built that bits fell off it on a daily basis. I don’t remember the seats have much padding in them either, so long journeys were a painful event. Back then, local drivers thought nothing of getting tanked up on rice wine, so horrific and fatal car accidents were a daily occurrence; pedestrians taking the brunt of them.
I was in Montreal a few times in the mid to late ‘80s; those Hyundai Ponys were EVERYWHERE. I think they starting selling them in Canada after the front was facelifted with aero rectangular lights in a grille that jutted forward; the generic 80s grille; never saw the pre-facelift version with the round headlights there. Sales far exceeded expectations. They also had a larger rear drive sedan called the Stellar, which was what preceded the first Sonata. Neither of those was ever sold in the US; they started here in 1986 with the Excel.
I was at Oahu’s north shore once, Waimea Bay to be exact. Those are some big waves!
According to Hyundai Canada, they sold an average of 100 Ponys ever day between 1984 and 1987. For a country of 26 million people in 1987, that’s a pretty impressive number. By 1990-91, they may have been disappearing at a similar rate. 🙂
It sold on its rock bottom price for a new car. Plus the freshened Giugiaro styling made them appear more modern than the Chevette. The Pony, Stellar, Chevette and Acadian were among the last new cars in the Canadian market assured to rust prematurely. As Mazda appeared to carry the torch.
There were several really cheap antediluvian cars sold in Canada in the early ’80s including the Fiat 124-based Lada, a Dacia based on an old Renault 12, and a pre-VW era rear engine Skoda. Compared to those, the Pony seemed at least reasonably modern, sort of like a Japanese car from the late ’70s. I recall thinking the proportions looked a bit off – the roof was too low and the hood and front fenders too long and level; I didn’t realize the basic design dated from 1975. Also, while the sedan looked like a hatchback, it wasn’t. The Excel (called the Pony Excel in Canada if i recall correctly) arrived in 1985, a year earlier than in the US.
You still didn’t get some of the “greatest hits” of the East. You didn’t get Trabants, you didn’t get Fiat 126ps, you didn’t get Syrenas, you didn’t get Zaporozhets, you didn’t get Okas, you didn’t get Zastava 750s/850s…
Apparently you did get Oltcits, though.
Lada, Skoda and Dacia each had a small dealer network in Canada at the time, mostly in the largest urban centres. And you’d always see their small display ads in the major papers. Each maker had a small, devoted following. The Lada Niva was probably the most popular, and logical vehicle for our market, of all of these fringe brands.
Though the vast majority of people would never consider these cars, many of us appreciated the choices available. Even if they were considered junk. Major auto reviewers would test them occasionally, and it made one appreciate the more mainstream car buying options we had. AMC/Renault was often considered the automaker that bridged the chasm between these choices and the major imports and Big Three. 🙂
Aero headlamps? No, the Pony in Canada had rectangular sealed beams. A little weird, because the home-market composite headlamps (European-type H4s) would’ve been fine under Canadian regs, but perhaps Hyundai imagined selling the Pony in the States as well.
When I was there, the wife bought one of those Korean Cortinas with a V6. Quite a nice driving car and pretty quick for the time. These Hyundai/Fords were also widely used as by the KNP as Highway Patrol cars on the Seoul-Busan expressway. Our MP Highway Patrol vehicles at the time were generally Dodge trucks.
One place where you did see a lot of American cars was around the various military bases. During a recent business trip to Shanghai, I stopped off in Seoul to spend a weekend in Seoul with my son who is now stationed there. As a former MP, I was amazed to see that even the MP patrol cars are now Korean purchase.
Photo didn’t attach 1st time. One more try before I give up.
I had a High school job at Kmart as a stock boy. Part of my duties involved gathering up shopping carts from the parking lot…Prime car spotting opportunity for a teenage car nut! You would be surprised by the variety of cars we would get at the ole’ Kmart. Living in Florida in the 80’s we would be visited a lot of Canadian and even a few Mexican tourists. Anything that was not USDM was fascinating to me. I eyeballed many a Hyundai Pony and Stellar with great curiosity.
I saw a Hyundai Pony with Quebec plates in California in the mid-90s, definitely a rare sight.
Wow, this article brings back memories. In Kuwait, my father had a 1981 Mazda 929 exactly like the picture: beige with tan roof, brown velour on the inside. It was different from the usual Impala’s, Cressida’s and Gallant’s every other parent drove, and triggered my love of cars. Rich Kuwaiti’s drove the Mercedes S-Class and the 929 aspired to look like it. Today we both have a Mercedes, so I guess we’ve “made it” too.
According to what I found on the internet, car ownership very much wasn’t a middle-class thing, and was not even affordable to many upper-class people – there were just 7 cars per 1000 Koreans in 1983.
For comparison, the number is 449 cars per 1000 Koreans right now.
This brings back memories of my only trip to Korea, in 1982 (or ’83?), on business. Seoul was one giant construction site, as it was being massively rebuilt in anticipation of hosting the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympic Games.
I rode on numerous Pony taxis, and saw some of the others in your post. There were constant detours which sometimes involved bumping over very rough gravel sections.
I stayed in gorgeous brand new glittering hotel. I decided to take a walk one evening, and within a block or two I was in a traditional old neighborhood with lots of little shops and food stalls, including one specializing in dogs! It was a nice contrast to the rather sterile hotel, and I savored it (not the dog, though).
I got a grand tour of the Korean National Broadcasting facilities, including the sets where the traditional “soaps” were shot. And I visited a huge industrial fair, but my memories of the details are a bit hazy now.
A most memorable trip.
While the Koreans have come a long way in the US from the Ford Festiva (my boss called his – purchased new – the Korean crap wagon) and the Hyundai Excel, a joke that was exceeded only by the hilarity of the Yugo that it competed with, they still have their moments.
Perhaps overshadowed by the Ford DPS6 debacle, Hyundai Motor Group settled in October this year a class action for the better part of billion dollars involving 4.17 million cars in the United States over engine melt-downs affecting popular models such as the Sonata, Santa Fe, Tucson, Sportage, Sorento and Optima.
I know two people affected, a friend’s Sonata melted down and their experience with the dealer was simply awful. My wife has a coworker that had another Sonata blow up on the way to work, and again his experience was simply awful. They don’t drive HMG cars any longer, one switched to Ford, go figure. At least he got the Fusion with the 6A!
My closest encounter with HMG so far is that I’m one of the 12 people in the United States that has actually ever driven a Kia Borrego SUV. Introduced just in time for for the Great Recession, it existed for only the 2009 model year. We rented one to visit Disneyland Christmas 2010.
It was perfectly competent, the first vehicle I’d been in with a USB that allowed my wife to pipe in Christmas music from her iTunes. It behaved a lot like my 2002 Dodge Durango back home, except being V-6 powered, the gas mileage actually seemed reasonable on what was our frequent holiday commute on 1-15 between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
As I’m apt to do, I read the owner’s manual from our rental. I kid you not, there was a statement that you SHOULD NOT pull more than one switch from the master power window switch at a time, or risk electrical failure of the power windows.
That is built to a price point, and not a standard.
The local KIA dealer still markets aggressively to the sub-prime crowd, during November the promotion involved Mr. Gobbles asking for a year end deal on a new KIA and his credit pardoned. As it turns out, his credit was pardoned, but I’m not sure about the actual fate of Mr. Gobbles. He isn’t in the December “What the ELF?” promotion, and I’m worried.
I’m just not there yet with HMG, as you can probably surmise.
Our rental Borrego was a pumpkin (which I rather liked – it had character!) as they all seemed to be…..
When I lived in Florida in the mid 80s I was passed on I-95 by a sedan that had a nameplate on the trunklid: Steller. I didn’t see what brand the car was, just the name and Canadian license plate. The styling was a bit…off, so I thought maybe it was a Japanese or Eastern European car I had never heard of. I never saw another one, not even a picture.
StellAR-Yet another castoff sows ear, this time in the form of a final-gen Cortina platform and a Mitsubishi engine.
No self-respecting major automaker would publish a brochure photo of one of their cars close cropped to show it sitting on a celestial body with the Earth in the background, while heavy weed foliage from the photoshoot back parking lot is still visible through the interior windows. Genuinely amateurish.
Probably very reflective of the car and manufacturer at that point.
I spent a day in a rented 1985-86 Hyundai Pony automatic in the UK, it was dour and dire and a sharp contrast to my friend’s VW Rabbit, our 1st gen Honda Accord and the Metro City X we drove the rest of the trip.
Hyundai has improved massively since the 80s based on the reputation of the Elantra and some brief encounters with 2014 Kias.
I’ve only been to Korea once, in the early 2000’s when the industry was at full speed and a wide variety of cars was to be seen. My company was doing business with Samsung, and our hosts provided Samsung cars (with drivers) for all our travel, essentially a rebranded and I presume locally built Nissan Maxima/Cefiro. We saw very few Samsung cars that didn’t seem to be company cars; what I especially remember was the popularity of Hyundai Santa Fe’s.
The original ItalDesign Pony still looks good. The wheels appear identical to what’s on the Mark IV Cortina.
The pony has a lot of morris Marina dna contained within, I think one of the Marina’s design team was lured to South Korea to assist with it, while the larger stellar is a Ford Cortina mk3/4 under the skin, to the extent that suspension and brake parts can interchange.
my personal favs are all cars that ssangyong built on the w124 platform licensed from mercedes. the “chairman” and the “musso” are both fascinating.
I remember a friend of my Mom’s had a Pony. She was impressed with its reliability, which I found strange knowing its ancestry and being a Marina owner. Then I remembered that her previous car was a Fiat 124 Spyder, and it all made sense.
I arrived in South Korea in 1995 and with one brief sojourn to Japan, I spent nine years there. In 1994, Koreans were just getting private cars. They often waited over a year for them. The driving was absolute mayhem. The death toll was shocking and the driving ability also. The bus drivers would drive as fast as they could and had no idea how to properly use air brakes. Passengers were tossed around and hanging on for dear life was necessary to avoid falling over. The drivers often smoked, too. On four lane roads, every time they passed a car, they’d honk the horn, saying, “Look at me, I have a car. It was gritty and a bit rough, but a lot of fun since I was young and had a pocket full of money.
More than once, I saw cars stopped at intersections with the drivers dead drunk and passed out.
I just find it so bizarre that of all the traffic hazards a developing country (at the time) could face, the bus drivers were the most dangerous. Usually it’s the other way around where if you can’t trust local traffic, you usually trust the bus drivers to be the safest way to get anywhere.
Now I get why my Korean grandparents told me to be careful when taking the school bus in America.
I went to Korea in 2009 to see family and I found the local driving to be about the same as the US in terms of traffic manners… among car drivers. Pizza and jja-jang-myeon delivery scooters? That’s a whole other story. I think those guys’ life expectancies are measured in months rather than years.
Fin you’re haven any interest on the history of the Korean car industry, you must watch the documentaries from the time, about the involvement of George Turnbull, former key executive of British Leyland, on the birth of the Pony. That is why the Marina and the pony are related (must be the most important contribution of the Marina to cardom, after all).
This one is better