COAL: Hyundai Pony Pickup – A House Divided; Or How Split Partners Push Forward

It was midday, with me and my brother exhausted by the humid heat. It had been a morning of cleaning, painting, hammering; doing all we could to improve the dilapidated house. A huge task, the house was a husk of its former self, an unsurmountable mission reduced to making the property somehow ‘presentable’. We kept going, the brush in my hand feeling heavier with each stroke. I took a breath, and looked towards the main bedroom’s door, a yellowing poster of a red bikini girl was taped there. It was the only attractive sight in the forlorn house. And so, I would occasionally glance at her, when mom wasn’t around, trying to keep my mind from the grueling work at hand.

To ‘fix’ the rental house and make it somewhat ‘saleable’, that was the mission. Mom had rented the house, located in a lower class neighborhood, to the mistress’ family of a college professor. Mother had tired of the never-on-time rental payments, plus, her catholic upbringing had always been irked by the sinful nature of the tenant’s lives. (It’s a somewhat common occurrence in El Salvador, where a man of some means ends up having more than one family, the ‘official’ and the ‘unofficial’).

This particular ‘unofficial’ family seemed comprised of water buffalos rather than humans. In 7 years or so, broken disheveled doors, ruined and leaky ceilings, missing windows and piles of garbage were the unquestionable remnants of their passage through the house. How could people live like this? Still, in spite of what seemed an unachievable undertaking, my hands kept laboring. We had a goal in mind, a quest worth the pain…  A new car. Yes, a new car! In this case, a 1986 Hyundai Pony Pickup. The sale of the house would provide the means after 6 years of regretful (embarrassing?) ownership of a 1978 Datsun F10.

The Pony, in all its brochure glory.

Yes, after 6 years or frozen import quotas, the Salvadorian government finally allowed limited ingress of new models. In spite of the ongoing civil war, us civilians, could again enjoy the hedonistic pleasures of new car ownership, if one could find the means to afford it. Not easy to do. The blockade had left the country littered with late 70’s Japanese vehicles, much depreciated by then. By the mid 80’s, the nation was a Japanese-iron-equivalent of what Cuba became for mid-50’s American cars. Late 70’s Cressidas, Coronas, Datsuns, Mitsubishis, Mazdas, kept running by the improvised skills of local mechanics, keeping the streets of El Salvador a frozen in time snapshot (it would remain so for years to come, not until the late 90’s did the landscape start to change thanks to grey market imports).

The announcement created a great stir in my mom’s mind. The plan formed in her head, an in one sweep move, she would rid herself of the maligned F10, while also solving her moral qualms; the mistress’ house would be put to sale. And what was available for purchase? Answering the call of the Salvadorian government, and in look for new markets, appeared Hyundai, one of few brands willing to sail the uncertain political environment of the time.

Chung Yu Jung, in later prosperous times.

Uncertain political environment is the most polite way of describing the upheavals in Asia during the 20th century. Every decade seemed to be the end of times as people knew it, from the collapse of centuries’ old empires, to warlord and guerrillas city states, to military oligarchs and communists all vying for power. In this uncertain environment, in the northern part of the soon-to-be-split house of Korea, a certain Chung Yu Jung was born, future founder of Hyundai.

Tragic eras bring about incredibly unlikely outcomes, opportunities that hardly occur in sedate times frozen in commodity. In times of collapse and endless needs, improbable success stories occur in ways that appear impossible looking in hindsight. And thus, by mix of persistence, shrewd business skills, and a great deal of luck, Mr. Jung managed to align the celestial bodies on his favor, somehow, and just about anyhow.

Seoul, mid 20th century.

Born in the most abject poverty, Mr. Jung pursued a ‘selfish’ desire of success from early on, breaking from family tradition, refusing to accept the peasant life his parents insisted on. After four unsuccessful attempts to flee home (at times swindled by traffickers, at others just caught up by his father, who insisted on him sticking to his family duties). In his final attempt, Mr. Jung got lucky, reaching Seoul (back then, Keijo), getting a clerk job at a local rice store. Knowledge is power, and little knowledge, in a place with barely any, is unbridled power. Gaining the trust of the rice store’s owner, he slowly climbed socially and economically, eventually managing the shop’s accounts.

As Asia collapsed on the turmoil of WWII and Korea subsequently appearing, Mr. Jung’s shrewd skills came into play. With the house of Korea splitting soon after, few things prove more fortuitous than being at the center of a nation’s rebuilding, especially when moved by competition. With North and South Korea taking bets on upping the other, each took their path with zeal, two houses at –economical- war.

Assemblying Cortinas was Hyundai’s way of getting into motor manufacture.

A slight digress; the Tycoons of Asia never get much recognition beyond their borders, with some put down by outsiders, claiming that they just played ‘catch-up’ with the West. Beyond their home countries, their personal histories don’t become as mythical, since they lack the claim to ‘invention’ and ‘innovation’. Still, just ‘catching up’ is easier said than done; as proof, the countless third world countries still playing ‘catch up’ to this day to no avail.

With armies placed in standstill, Mr. Jung and South Korea took to business in warrior like mode, not receding an inch from the get go. Creating Hyundai in 1947 as a construction enterprise, and acquiring a garage –later the birth of Hyundai Motors- around this time, Mr. Jung had his hands full creating a company, training employees, pursuing reconstruction contracts and keeping local inspectors at bay.

(Yes, local inspectors. There are quite a few rosy bios on Mr. Jung’s life on the web and in video -if one is willing to put up with the undiscernible accent-, but that said, while no major wrong doing on his part is ever mentioned, the company lacked permits to function, and was constantly hounded.  Somehow, through persuasion –a very vague term- it is claimed, he managed to keep the company going).

The Pony, in final form, ready for the (3rd) World.

As the nation was rebuilt, in a brief couple of decades, Hyundai became the largest industrial corporation in Korea. By the early 70’s, a new quest in the expanding conglomerate, to create their own auto, and here the Pony appears. Preluding the international interconnected know-how of modern auto building, Hyundai’s board created the Pony by global means.  With British engineering, Japanese hardware and Italian styling, the Pony made its debut in the late 70’s.

Rarely ever mentioned in Italdesign’s portfolio, the Pony still managed to standout in El Salvador’s roads when it made its introduction in the late 70’s, few years before the civil war erupted. San Salvador’s roads covered with brougham affected Japanese vehicles, Italdesign’s hand was felt in the Pony’s cleanness of purpose. Few vehicles in this regard stood out, little did I know that they were the product of the same hand: VW’s Golf, Alfa Romeo’s GTV, Hyundai’s Pony. They provided a bit of style and sophistication in a sea of utilitarian pickups and trucks, besides the hollow pretensions of upscale Japanese models.

El Boulevard del Ejército, San Salvador’s welcome highway from the airport in the mid 70’s, with the average traffic of the time.

And there we were, few years later, on the verge of purchasing one of these Italdesign derived vehicles. For some unfathomable reason, Hyundai was selling only two models, the Stellar (a luxury model with bloated Italdesign lines) and the Pony pickup. Updated with square lights and grille, the Pony looked very up to date, in spite of Hyundai’s designers hands mucking it up (just about the easiest design brief ever… adding square detailing on top of Giugiaro’s origami cues). Finally, after years of wait, we would drive home from the dealer, excited by a new purchase.

The 70’s shapes of all surrounding vehicles looked old fashioned and archaic as we drove through town. The gold metallic paint glistening under the tropical sun, my brother and I, looking carefully at the ‘futuristic’ plastic molded dashboard. The interior was yet again, another departure that Hyundai stylists took on the car. Nothing outstanding, but still… years ahead from all vehicles surrounding ours. Were the locals envious? I would like to think so!

The Pony’s updated grille, easiest design brief ever.

On the web, one encounters the Pony didn’t have a stellar reputation (that British upbringing?), something that didn’t reach Salvadorians’ ears. The car, in spite of Italdesign’s up-to-date clothing, had mechanicals that were pedestrian and well proven, though unrefined and behind Western technologies and customer expectations. Still, these qualities worked well in plot holed streets and rural roads of 3rd world nations, where engines rarely got pushed to the limit. Prior to the war, the Pony was a brisk seller, and the 86s left the lots in similar manner.

A point to make, it´s true, the car was an odd choice for a family of four, a small Korean pickup, with seating for three (be imaginative). However, with dad rarely being around, it was for most of the time, enough for my mother, with little brother and me riding on the small bench seat. The longitudinally mounted 1200cc moving the vehicle in calm manner, with mother at the wheel, never stressing the engine or the car’s dynamics. And in regards of reliability, never suffering any in the 2 and half years we owned the vehicle.

Photo taken 2 years ago, this Pony still seems ready to take a few passengers on its saddle.

It was only on few occasions that father got to be passenger, and then, it was my turn to ride in the back. Looked on hindsight, the idea is somehow mad, especially from the safety oriented view of the 2020s, and while I have no wish to go back in time and place my life casually at risk, the rides on the pickup’s bed were always enjoyable. At the time, being a teen, far from being able to drive, it was the closest to feeling speed and the elements, the surroundings speeding by. On a few memorable occasions my closest friend rode in the back with me. Him being a fan of the exploits of Don Quixote (no, I’m not making this up, it’s too absurd an invention) he would pull out a large ruler and swing it sword like while the car drove by, yelling at passersby nonsense chivalry phrases. The looks of the unsuspecting pedestrians were priceless.

Dad, who was never into cars, did appreciate the pickup to some degree, for it was the only time in his life that a vehicle we owned somehow applied to his job. A soil analyst by profession, on a few outings, the Pony, much to mother’s chagrin, made it to the countryside, to ride crop field dirt roads, in search of soil samples. Home was always littered with soil samples from around the country, the toil of my dad’s work, and the bane of existence for mother. These outings were my favorites, with me and my brother riding in the back, feeling the rear drive suspension (I assume there were some Cortina leftovers there, who would have imagined it could take the pain?) bounce and bump, pushing forth, and us keeping balance, looking at the countryside landscape.

The Pony’s interior, in all its molded plastic glory. Taken from the Web, mother would have never dared come close to an automatic.

One ride stands out though.  Unable to reach home one night after work, dad asked mom to pick him up. It would be at night, 8pm or so. Dad’s office was 15 miles away from the capital, in a non-too-populated compound. At the time, the idea of riding outside the city, at night, was unsettling. The leftist guerrillas had a custom of shooting randomly at vehicles cross crossing the country, especially at night. Also, a few military outposts were in the way, which didn’t appease the mind either. My friend was visiting too –yes, Don Quixote- and somehow got into his head that he wanted to tag along. So, along we went, in the early solitary night, with mom and brother in the cabin, and us two in the back.

The drive was tense, as the city lights started to dwindle and the vehicles became increasingly sporadic. I have no idea how mother felt in the cabin (nerve-wracked I’m sure), while in the back, we exchanged our frustrations with the ongoing civil war, its unending nature, and the wish for free mobility. We passed the military outposts without event (the military had a habit to ask for hitchhikes on civilian pick-ups), and reached dad. As we headed back, with dad up front, my friend and I kept our conversation going, now on the classroom girls. Over our heads, I could see a clear starry night, the stars never looking quite as bright in the city. Eventually, slowly, we made it home.

The Pony, in Canadian mode.

Hyundai’s Pony gained our family’s trust and internationally, it became the cornerstone of its parent’s company growth. Somehow, in Canada, it became one of its biggest selling imports. This early success probably gave the company a wrong sense of security, launching in the US with the product barely changed. In spite of its early promising sales in the US market, the vehicles shortcomings put the whole enterprise at peril, quickly soiling the brand’s reputation and taking years to rectify. Still, the house of South Korea was bent on succeeding, and the company’s current offerings are proof of that. The late 90’s and early 2000’s were a mix of engineering investing, talent hiring, and aggressive assertive marketing. Mr. Jung died not long after the turn of the century, his company, an international success.

Mr. Jung, smiling at Hyundai’s success story.

In the last days of 1987, the Pony was put for sale and thus parted from our lives. Our own house was splitting, with mom tiring of the wild upheavals of El Salvador’s civil war (and really, can we blame her?), with dad not willing to move, my days in the nation would come to an end. There’s no memory in my head of the sale, too many things were changing in our lives to keep such a detail present. The idea was to move to the States, or back to Puerto Rico. Too young to understand what the move would mean for myself, I was between the grief of leaving my high school friends, and the excitement of seeing the world. On this last point, one thing in my head, kept appearing in recurring manner, wherever we moved… what would the automotive landscape be like?

More on the Pony and Hyundai:

Automotive History: Hyundai Pony – From Humble Origins