Small Beginnings

Half a century ago, South Korea’s auto industry was in its infancy. We recall its inauspicious start and chart its early progress.

1975 Hyundai Pony (c) Hyundai Motor

With global sales(1) in 2020 of 6.52 million vehicles, Hyundai Motor is the world’s third largest auto manufacturer, behind Volkswagen Group with 9.31 million and Toyota with 8.90 million sales. Hyundai, which includes the Kia marque, overtook General Motors in 2019 and continues to move ahead of the troubled US giant, suffering less of a reversal in the Covid-affected 2020 market than either it or the two market leaders.

Fifty years ago, things were somewhat different. Hyundai was building just one Ford passenger car model under licence, while Kia was confined to building Mazda light commercial vehicles. Both manufacturers shared an ambition to grow their businesses substantially, and to be no longer dependent upon licenced models from manufacturers they aspired to rival in global markets.

The Hyundai Group was founded in 1947 as an engineering and construction company. It grew into a giant industrial and commercial conglomerate, encompassing businesses as diverse as shipbuilding and department stores. The automobile subsidiary was established in 1967 and signed an agreement with Ford to build the Cortina Mk2 under licence.

Hyundai decided that it needed to develop its own designs and made a key hiring in George Turnbull, formerly Managing Director of British Leyland’s Austin-Morris and the group’s truck and bus division. Increasing differences between Turnbull and the abrasive BL Chief Executive, Donald Stokes, over the management of the group precipitated his resignation in 1973 after 32 years. He arrived at Hyundai in March 1974.

George Turnbull (c) SMMT

At Austin-Morris, Turnbull had overseen the launch of the Marina in 1971 and that was exactly the sort of car Hyundai wanted to build in the first instance: a rear-wheel-drive conventionally engineered small to medium-sized model to build alongside the Cortina. Turnbull even brought a Marina saloon to South Korea, not as a benchmark for the new car per se, but to identify and avoid its flaws. The environment Turnbull found at Hyundai was extraordinarily different. Instead of the restive and militant BL workforce, Hyundai workers were highly disciplined(2) and respectful. They would routinely salute him as he arrived for work in his chauffeur driven car.

Turnbull hired a team of five British former colleagues and acquaintances from the auto engineering industry. A deal was struck with Mitsubishi for the supply of engines, transmissions and rear axles. Italdesign was commissioned to style the new car. This was an inspired decision because the resulting execution was neat and modern, lacking the ersatz and idiosyncratic detailing that overseas customers sometimes found unappealing in contemporary cars from Asia-Pacific manufacturers, notwithstanding their finer qualities.

The factory, built on the site of a swamp, was constructed from scratch and had operating production lines in a barely believable twelve months. Likewise, development of the new car proceeded with extraordinary speed. It was unveiled at the Turin motor show in October 1974 as the Hyundai Pony, although it would not go on sale for a further fourteen months.

Despite its fastback profile, the Pony was initially a four-door saloon. It had a wheelbase of 2,340mm (92”) and overall length of 3,970mm (156¼”). It was powered by Mitsubishi inline four-cylinder engines in either 1,238cc, 54bhp (40kW) or 1,439cc, 67bhp (50kW) forms, mated to either a four-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission. Suspension, steering and brake components were derived from those used in the Cortina.

The saloon was followed with a practical pick-up derivative in May 1976 and a five-door estate in April 1977. Three and five-door hatchbacks replaced the original four-door saloon in 1981. With the Pony selling strongly in its domestic market, Exports to South America and the Middle East began in 1976, followed by Europe in 1979.

1983 Hyundai Stellar (c)

A small number of the original models made it to the UK before the Pony was given a facelift in 1982. Externally, the car received a sloping nose with large rectangular headlamps and outboard indicators in place of the twin round original items, and new, larger taillights and bumpers. The interior was also upgraded, and the model was given the designation Pony II. The Pony was by no means a sophisticated car, but it was cheap, reliable and well wrought, and established the Hyundai name in Europe and the US.

Hyundai’s second in-house designed model was the 1983 Stellar, a D-segment four-door saloon that was intended to be a direct replacement for the Cortina Mk V and even utilised the floorpan and suspension from the latter. Hyundai returned to Italdesign for the styling and Giugiaro did not disappoint, penning a handsome and crisp design that many described as either a four-door version 1981’s Maserati Biturbo or a scaled down version of Giugiaro’s 1979 Maserati Quattroporte III. Either way, it was a strikingly good-looking car, especially for the budget sector in which it was intended to sell.

The drivetrain was the familiar Mitsubishi fare, with the addition of a two-litre engine for the top of the range model. The Stellar was widely exported. In the UK, the press advertisements made mischievous reference to the Cortina replacement’s controversial styling that was alienating conservative buyers by picturing the Stellar next to a Sierra-shaped jellymould.

That the Stellar was priced similarly to the smaller Escort only added to its appeal. One UK customer demographic that fully-embraced the new Hyundai were mini-cab drivers, who found it perfectly suited to their trade and capable of, er, stellar mileages with its robust and proven mechanical package.

1984 Hyundai Stellar UK press advertisement (c) Hyundai Motor

In comparison with Hyundai, Kia had a rather faltering and interrupted start to passenger car production. Founded in 1944 as a manufacturer of steel tubing and bicycle parts, Kia began building Honda motorcycles under licence in 1957 and Mazda light commercial vehicles in 1962. One of those models, the Brisa B-1000 small pick-up, was based on the Mazda 1000, which was also built in four-door saloon form.

Kia began building the saloon version alongside the pick-up in 1974. It also assembled the Fiat 132 and Peugeot 604 in small quantities, mainly for official use. In 1981 Kia was ordered to stop building passenger vehicles by South Korea’s newly installed military dictator, Chun Doo-Hwan. Apparently, Chun thought there was too much competition amongst South Korea’s passenger car producers and wanted Kia to concentrate on commercial vehicles instead.

Kia returned to passenger car production in 1986, working in co-operation with Ford and its Japanese partner, Mazda. It assembled a version of the Mazda 121, a small five-door FWD hatchback, and sold it as the Kia Pride. A year later, it expanded its range with the Concord / Capital, a licence-built version of the Mazda 626 / Capella medium-sized saloon. Introduced in 1989, the Capital was a lower powered and trimmed 1.5 litre version of the 2.0 litre Concord.

1994 Kia Pride (c)

In 1992, Kia launched its first model based on an underbody of its own design, the Sephia / Mentor. This was a C-segment FWD four-door saloon, with a Mazda 1.5 litre transverse engine. Exports to the US and Europe began in 1994, where it competed against other budget-priced South Korean imports such as the Hyundai Accent and Daewoo Nexia(3). In 1995, Kia replaced the Capital / Concord with a new D-segment saloon and estate, the Credos / Clarus, again heavily based on Mazda underpinnings.

One rather odd diversion for the company was its purchase from Lotus of the design for the 1989 Elan M100 roadster in 1995. Developed under General Motors ownership, the Elan M100’s prospects had been undermined by the simultaneous launch of the Mazda MX-5, a RWD roadster much closer in spirit to the original 1962 Elan (and considerably cheaper) than the FWD Lotus. Kia fitted the Elan with a 1.8 litre normally aspirated engine in place of the Isuzu-sourced 1.6 turbo unit and relaunched it in 1996. A total of just 1,056 were sold over three years.

2000 Kia Mentor (c)

Unlike Hyundai, Kia lacked the financial resources of a large and well capitalised parent company. When the 1997 Asian financial crisis struck, the company was declared bankrupt and was rescued by Hyundai Motor, which took a controlling 51% stake(4). Thus recapitalised, future Kia models would be closely related to their Hyundai equivalents. One key hire for Kia in 2006 was Peter Schreyer from Audi. Schreyer was one of the design team for the original Audi TT and, as Kia’s Chief Design Officer, he brought a new, more European flavoured style to the company’s models.

Hyundai’s stake in Kia has been reduced and today stands at 33%, but it still controls its minority-owned subsidiary, and Kia in turn holds minority stakes in a number of Hyundai subsidiaries, so they are inextricably linked. Technology and platforms are shared extensively between the two companies. In 2020, total global sales were split approximately 60:40 between the Hyundai and Kia marques. The company has some way to go before it could challenge either Volkswagen or Toyota for global leadership, but its trajectory over the last half-century would make it unwise to bet against the Korean giant.

(1) Data from The Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance is excluded because no member has a controlling interest in the others.
(2) So disciplined, in fact, that they carried on working without complaint in temperatures as low as -7°C over the first winter because heating had not yet been installed in the newly built factory.
(3) A reworked Opel Kadett E.
(4) Beating a challenge from Ford, which was also interested in investing in Kia.

Author’s note: In 1974, the BBC Panorama documentary programme travelled to South Korea to interview George Turnbull about his new venture. Journalist David Dimbleby asked him at one point if he had misgivings about helping a potential competitor to put British jobs at risk. Turnbull replied flatly that, if he didn’t do so, somebody else, probably the Japanese, would. Dimbleby’s attitude was so revealing about the mindset at that time.  Little did they see what was coming.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

41 thoughts on “Small Beginnings”

    1. I would refer you to the first footnote to the piece, Bill.

  1. A very interesting article Daniel. Amazing to read about an opportunity missed due, apparently, to Donald Stokes poor management skills. How different things could have been.

  2. There´s a pattern to this narrative: Asian company decides to expand and develop, exports cars, journos jeer at the offerings, three decades later the Asian company eats the lunch of lazy Europeans and Americans. Giants like Fiat (the brand), GM (the corporation) and Ford get left behind. At one point they could argue they way they did things worked but not when the sales figures are in. Hyundai makes the Genesis range which is by anyone´s standards impressive and might make Toyota wonder how it has taken them so long to establish Lexus in comparison.

    1. Hello Richard. I couldn’t agree more. Resting on their laurels whilst others are producing stuff that most people are happy to buy.

    2. Not just resting on laurels (a Nissan Laurel?) but actively arguing for not changing, not adapting, why it can´t be done, why the shareholders come first. Well, look at shareholder value now. The way to retain and grow shareholder value is to do the best possible and not just say “no, I can´t do that, it´s too hard”. It´s quite a pity for the intelligent and resourceful designers at Ford and GM that the suits have made such a poor series of decisions down the years.

  3. Fascinating insight, Daniel, thank you. No surprise then that the Hyundai Tucson has been in the Top 3 best selling new cars in Ireland for the last 6 years, and the No. 1 seller for 3 of those years including 2021. Hyundai is certainly “The mouse that roared”.

    1. Good morning all. Yes, Hyundai and Kia really have shown some of the more established (legacy?) manufacturers how it should be done. I think they have benefited in part by the Japanese makers’ recent obsession with rather challenging looking designs, which have been offputting to more conservative customers. If I needed a practical, reliable car as a daily workhorse, the Korean marques would be hard to ignore.

    2. We assume the companies that Hyundai is out performing are able to effect change. Is it possible that really large companies are about as unmanageable as states? Perhaps they might want to consider the idea that management is less powerful than it thinks even without having the constraint of democracy to limit tough decisions (and bad ones).

  4. I was under the impression that the Kia-built 121/Pride was sold in the USA as the Ford Festiva. Certainly the Pride made it to Ireland, but sold mostly to car rental companies.
    You have to wonder what Turnbull could have done at British Leyland, given the opportunity – and the budget.

    1. Hi Mervyn. Turnbull would still have faced a restive, militant workforce, historical fiefdoms, emnities and turf wars, intransigence and resistance to change, and a hostile government. South Korea was an utterly different environment, which must have been hugely liberating for him.

    2. Hello Mervyn – Kia manufactured the US-market Ford Festiva (some years badged as a Ford Aspire) between 1987 and 1997. I haven’t seen an Aspire on the road in the States for years, but its legacy persisted in Kia’s hood emblem – a silver block capital ‘KIA’ in a black oval. The outer black oval is proportionally identical to the Ford ‘blue oval’, as both emblems had to fit on the same car depending on the market. (Starting in 2021, Kia has begun phasing out the oval logo on new US models.)

      A good case study could be done on how Hyundai/Kia effectively hired Western leadership as they grew; some of the emerging Chinese (and fading Japanese – like Mitsubishi and Suzuki) manufacturers could take note. After Turnbull, Hyundai has employed Finnbar O’Neill (who built the company’s dealer and segment-leading warranty network from nothing), John Krafcik (who had previously overseen the US joint manufacturing agreement between GM and Toyota), and added to their design team Luc Donckerwolke, from VW Group.

      My very first car was a (quite tired) Hyundai Sonata so I am sympathetic to the company – though after that Sonata I would probably not buy another one.

    3. The Ford Festiva aka Kia Pride aka Mazda 121 was the car used by the state of California in 1989 for state mandated driving instruction, alongside the contemporary Daihatsu Charade. For two weeks that summer, I would report to a makeshift road course marked with traffic cones in the parking lot of the local shopping mall before opening hours. My partner and I would take turns careening around the track trying to avoid other student drivers with even fewer skills than us. I learned that the Festiva had interior plastics seemingly lifted from a GI Joe play set and that it could be made to lift its outside rear wheel while cornering at ludicrously low speed. The Charade had far better road manners and was built of far better stuff. Nonetheless, the Ford was infinitely more fun.

  5. Ah, democracy. When the people get what they think they want- good and hard.

    It is clear how this is going. Just watch the Asian manufacturers eat the Euro manufacturers for lunch. The South Koreans brands have advanced quickly indeed, but then there is China. You have yet to experience what China can achieve. They have quite a lot of interesting developments coming along.

    The Euro legacy manufacturers are crippled by their own cultures (not solely the internal culture of the companies themselves but what their management and employees live within and bring to work with them every day), their governments (also, of the same culture), a severe lack of awareness of what is going on and a stunning mixture of chauvinism and hubris. This will have consequence.

    Each time I visit Europe it is a shock to re-encounter the evidence that people seem to not have even the faintest idea about a process which is unfolding in public in plain view. Perhaps a few are coming to a realisation, but it is waaaaay late in the piece. There are coming disruptions all over the show. Sadly, many of the great brands remaining are tottering wrecks, likely to fail in the not too distant future. Things are dire enough that it isn’t even worth shorting those guys since the counterparty risk is getting severe. That is bad.

    Hope matters reverse and things improve.

    Paraphrasing de Gaulle, hopes are like girls and roses; they last while they last.

  6. Thanks for this Daniel- the impressive rise of the South Korean car industry was and is some achievement and it would seem too many westerners are loathe to give them much credit for that.
    By the way, here is a photo of one of those Ford Cortina MK2’s built by Hyundai; the headlights look like the ones fitted to the Taunus TC of the same period, but they seem slightly larger- perhaps from the P7 Taunus but it’s hard to be 100% sure.

    1. Hi Bruno. That’s actually a Mk3 Cortina but, you’re right about the headlamps: they are not the same ones as fitted to the facelifted Mk3. They look wider and further inboard. Heres the UK Cortina for comparison:

    2. Rectangular headlights came in with the plastic grilles on the UK production, so that version does look very odd. The earlier metal grilles had either single round headlights or double headlights on GT & GXL models.

    1. Nice work, Huw, you’ve designed Hyundai’s answer to the Nissan Skyline!

    2. Looks more “Volvoish” to me I think, particularly without the “go faster” appendages…

    3. Hi Mike. Yes there’s cartainly something of the 780 about it.

  7. A great article, thank you, Daniel.

    You mentioned the Panorama documentary and I think it’s well worth watching it (google ‘Sir George Turnbull creator of the Hyundai Pony’ on YouTube).

    Hyundai have achieved a great deal, but had the determination to do so, including a workforce who worked in bad conditions for low pay to get things up and running; conditions are better now, of course. Further, as Turnbull states in the documentary, domestic (Korean) sales would subsidize those abroad, to make sure the car would be able to be sold at a low enough price.

    It is also true, as Richard hinted, that starting from scratch, with a smaller, more flexible company with new, efficient machines has significant advantages, and that older companies would have to undergo a period of painful change to compete. This is, for example, effectively what the Volkswagen Group are now currently in the process of doing – moving from being one type of company to another.

    On the other hand, there are some advantages to being an established business, such as having brand recognition, established dealer networks, etc.

    Yes, it’s fun to set up shiny new businesses and work mad hours to get them off the ground. That’s not fun in the long term, though, and things have to stabilize, eventually.

    I suspect that behind closed doors, Hyundai will be having similar conversations about how to compete in the EV market as the people at Ford, Volkswagen, GM and the rest, with the awareness that EVs won’t be able to be priced at their current premium level, for much longer.

    1. Hi Charles. Thank you and glad you enjoyed the piece. Regarding your last point, I agree that EVs are likely to enter the mainstream as regards pricing as production ramps up and the technology becomes cheaper. Will Tesla be able to retain its stellar stock market valuation in those circumstances?

    2. Hello Daniel, re Tesla, I would think they will continue to be successful.

      Firstly, they’re moving fast to offer a wider variety of cheaper vehicles.

      Secondly, companies’ success in the market will depend on:
      a) their ability to ramp-up battery production volume and;
      b) the rate at which they can produce new technology – motors as well as batteries. The new energy-dense, axial flux motors, for instance, make current advanced motors look like clockwork toys.

      I think Tesla will be working hard to stay ahead. And they have their superb charging network, of course, although that will matter less as vehicles become more efficient.

      Some have suggested that Tesla could focus less on vehicle manufacturing in future and become a technology supplier. I think they could do both – produce vehicles and licence / supply technology.

    3. Hi Charles, I don’t doubt that Tesla will continue be successful, but I wonder when its stock market valuation (theoretically based on a multiple of prospective earnings) will begin to move towards more typical auto industry price/earnings ratios? This should happen as Tesla’s ‘first mover’ advantage is eroded as competitors start to catch up. That said, Tesla has none of the legacy costs borne by traditional auto makers, so that’s probably worth a premium in its valuation.

      I’m too rusty/lazy to research it in detail, so I’ll simply pose the question and retreat!

    4. Hello Daniel, yes – it’ll depend on how far they manage to stay ahead of the game. I guess ‘reversion to the mean’ as they say in statistics, is probable.

      I think they’re a great, innovative company. Beyond that, who can say – who knows what the future holds?

      I would never have predicted dieselgate, coronavirus, Brexit and so on.

  8. What a nicely informative and well told article. The development of HMG is incredibly impressive and, as we have said before here recently, the Ioniq 5 and EV6 make VW and Ford’s recent efforts look rather previous generation. They are now leading the ‘establishment’, not just copying it and aiming for parity.

    1. Thanks S.V., I’m glad you enjoyed the piece

      Despite my admiration for Hyundai, one design blunder I cannot forgive the company for is the wheel arch ‘eyelash’ detail on the new Ioniq 5. On the left-hand side of the car, they are bad enough:

      But, on the right-hand side, they point in the opposite direction to the design on the wheels:


      (I find the dodgy wing-to-bonnet alignment on the brown Pony in the first picture in the piece much more forgivable.)

    2. Daniel, the problem with the Ioniq 5 isn’t the direction of the ‘eyelashes’, the problem is the wheels. If the spokes are going to be angled rather than radial the different wheels are required for each side of the car.

    3. Hi Mervyn, you raise an interesting point there. Many cars these days have ‘directional’ alloy wheel designs like the Ioniq 5, but I cannot think of a single mainstream manufacturer that has gone to the trouble of making different wheels for each side of the car. Happy to be corrected on this, of course!

  9. The first rusty car in motion I ‘ve ever seen as a child was a Hyundai Pony. There where rust holes almost everywhere. Top, bottom, front and rear. It kept marching forward though.
    The Stellar! Its paint faided in no time, especially a green shade that became less green, almost yellow. Kia and Sang Yong had the same “qualities”. Thus I would never buy a Korean car, I can’t get rid of these images in my mind.
    But at some recent point in time came a magic “7 years guarantee”. And then suddently everything changed. Even the japanese were forced to offer 3-5 years guarantees instead of the usual 2.
    By then it was allready Game Over.
    Veni, vidi, vici

  10. The Hyundai Stellar makes one think it could have almost made for an interesting conservative alternative by Ford as a Cortina VI instead of the more radical mk1 “jellymould” Sierra.

    And despite the mk1/mk2 Hyundai Pony’s altogether different mechanicals, its loose connection with the larger Cortina-rivalling Marina almost makes it a sort of Escort/Chevette-sized companion model and spiritual successor to the Minor.

    Kia missed an opportunity to assemble a version of the Mazda MX-5 and basically pair the mechanicals of the former (including front-engined rear-wheel-drive layout) with the Elan body (or an Elan-inspired body) to create the sportscar it should have been from the beginning instead of listening to John Miles during the development of the Elan M100.

    1. Bob, are you being serious?

      Kia acquired tooling to produce Elan which was fwd. To build a rwd car out of Elan would require much of the original tooling to be replaced with new tooling. Look, you would need new floor pressings for a start. The tooling for this is serious money indeed. Then new mechanicals would be needed, which means new tooling for those (unless you were thinking of reusing the mechanicals from the Pony- that would save some of the money you’d need to be spending up large elsewhere, but it would come at a greater cost down the road…). The front sub-frame and suspension (a key part of the Elan concept, designed entirely around the car being front wheel drive right from inception) would need to be totally revised- more new tooling. Oh, nearly forgot, the rear suspension would need to be redone- more costs for design, development and tooling up. This is a non-trivial project demanding a major design and development effort taking quite a lot of time, potentially years to do it right. Meanwhile, the actual tooling Kia purchased at the outset wouldn’t now be used, so bin it! What an excellent investment this whole mess would be!

      As was said more than once on “The Castle”, you’re dreamin’ mate.

      The trouble with the Elan was that the low end sports-car market of the time was contracting sharply. The Elan, good as it was, fell between stools. It was too expensively built (and of indifferent quality) to fit into the market slot the MX5 precisely fitted and was to own. It was way too slow (nowhere near enough power for that chassis) to fit into the junior supercar slot (which a Lotus by that time was naturally seen as being). The engine was nice, but not special (or at least it was not perceived as being very special). For the junior supercar slot the Elan was much too cheap.

      Lotus failed to understand their position in the market, who their customers really were and how to attract them. Instead they jumped straight into a down-market slot they had not been present in for quite a while, confusing their prospective clientele (confusing themselves in the process no doubt about that) and worst of all, not having sufficient capital to support their product over time. They were completely unable to develop the car or, most importantly, its market. They were not in for the long haul. It was obvious right from the start. That gave the taint of “risky business” to the whole show…

      Consider, while the supercar purchaser of the time was prepared to put up with a unreliability and risk. The purchaser of a low end mass-market sports-car can’t and won’t. The vast majority of people didn’t trust Lotus enough to take that risk. Making Elan rwd would not have made this perception any different. The end result would have been the same. Low sales volumes.

      In the end those volumes were just way too low. Elan, even when manufactured by Kia instead of Lotus, could not survive with its sub-200bhp engine. The car needed to have a lot more performance, a revised price (more expensive) and move a fair distance up-market.

      The Elan is likely the best handling unmodified road car you can get at a reasonable price. It excels on ordinary road surfaces in marginal conditions, even when tyre temperatures are low. In low friction conditions it remains brilliantly outstanding. Recall that in the supporting races at Macao GP the fwd Elan on street tyres lapped well faster than any of its rwd rivals, including the more recent mid-engine Lotus cars. Why was that exactly? Because it rained. Even on grooved tyres not one of them could get anywhere near the Elan*. That sold me on Elan right there and right then. John Miles was right.

      *I wonder if anyone knows the reason. Note that all the cars competing were on wets.

    2. At minimum Kia would have been better off building its version of the Mazda MX-5 or a taking on a different Mazda-derived sports-car project (e.g. the mid-engined proposal during the MX-5 project if not the FWD Ford Capri SE30) in place of Kia building the Elan that all pretty much used the same engine (different layouts aside). Based on how the Kia Pride became the Kia Avella with a more rounded bodystyle, a rebody would not be out of the question either for a roadster so yes it was entirely feasible.

      The Elan M100 itself was the result of Lotus Management developing the car in secret behind Oliver Winterbottom’s back and pretty much decided they wanted to go in different direction in a rather unfair test between the RWD Toyota Corolla and FWD Peugeot 205 GTI, followed by a biased visual presentation between the Winterbottom and Sevens proposals. The Matt Vale book on the Elan adds a bit of plausible deniability to the coup against Winterbottom by claiming the Steven’s design brief was for the proposal to either be front-engined RWD, FWD or mid-engined RWD though with likes of John Miles involved the result was predetermined.

      The Elan M100 was a great looking car with decent Isuzu engines that deserved much better however for all its technical advancement and reputation as one of the best FWD cars, it was basically little more than GM’s overpriced sophisticated equivalent of the Mazda-based Ford Capri SE30 with some Lotus cachet that would have been better off sold as an Isuzu (or insert suitable badge for other markets). Lotus was after all involved with tuning the Piazza/Impulse, Gemini/I-Mark/Stylus and other non-Isuzu GM models. At least Mazda and Ford were bold enough to let the market decide whether they wanted the RWD MX-5 or the FWD Capri SE30.

      The ideal for the Elan would have been to further build upon the conventional front-engined RWD layout of the M90 and with the benefit of GM’s contribution pair it with Peter Steven’s styling and the Isuzu engines.

      Will close with a quote from the late Oliver Winterbottom’s book on the matter:
      “I have seen criticism since, that it (M90/X100) was not advanced enough. So what? I believe most of the car-buying public don’t care what their car is made of, or how it delivers, but just want what it delivers. Later experience suggests that by moving into unconventional technology, a project could be made more expensive and riskier for both manufacturer and customer.

      I knew the M90/X100 was competitive on price, had excellent performance, and was a very useable package for passengers and their baggage. A lot of thought had been put into the low cost of ownership. Others thought that Lotus Cars should be a showcase for Lotus Engineering.

      I was subsequently fascinated to see that rear-wheel drive sports cars had not disappeared. Mazda’s MX-5 Miata had been a huge success, and is not unconventional or technologically advanced.

      The Lotus M90 finally happened, when the new front-wheel drive Elan (M100) was announced, in the autumn of 1989, near five years and many millions of pounds later. It was notable that it had a steel backbone chassis with prominent steel reinforced sills, outrigged from the central structure. If we had taken the computer-aided development route, the market could have enjoyed the X100 at least three years earlier.

      Factoring the selling price of my X100 to 1989, the year the M100 Elan was announced, the convertible would have sold for £14,400. The Elan M100 naturally aspirated was priced at £17,850. The X100 actually undercut the Mazda MX-5 by £550. It was also quicker to 60mph, than all but the M100 Elan Turbo.”

  11. The Hyundai Pony and then the Stellar were primo rustbuckets, the Stellar perhaps even worse than the Pony, and that’s saying something. Their chief attribute was extreme cheapness to purchase. Those cars weren’t sold in the USA. Instead Hyundai chose to enter the US market in the mid ’80s with the Excel, a FWD rustbucket and a quickly built reputation as complete rubbish — that’s why it was chosen as Julia Roberts’ car in Erin Brockovitch.

    The first Sonata was OK, sort of, and Hyundai opened a factory to make it in Bromont, Quebec Canada. That foundered after Sonata rear dampers froze solid, leading to lack of rear suspension with predictable results, and they scuttled back to South Korea.

    The first real Hyundai that didn’t commit suicide was the Scoupe of about 1992/93. Whether it had galvanized sheet metal or not, who knows, but they were cheap at $3500. One of my engineers bought one on his Visa card to maximize his travel expenses, and it certainly outlasted in years his previous Honda Accord. After that model Hyundais were OK mechanically and physically, nothing startling, but prices crept up quickly too.

    The Kia Rio of about 2000 was also a charmless joke, but only $39 a week, so people braved its general uselessness. Good thing Kia became more intertwined with Hyundai on models after that, same chassis engine with different styling.

    Between about 2004 and the 2008 crash, Hyundai’s rapacious management and need for sales, sales, sales, led to many American market CEOs being dumped if numbers weren’t met, some in as little as 6 months. So comforting selling cars as nothing more than toasters, although the Sonata in particular by then was actually pretty good with a V6.

    These days, millions of H/Ks are under recall for run main bearings on the 2.5l engines, a bad habit dating from 2010, and instances of catching fire due to dud ABS units in the Elantra size and equivalent crossovers. The Koreans are fierce competitors and will do anything for a sale, but aren’t much interested in warranty satisfaction or listening to carping customers. I tried a Genesis G70 several years ago, and bought a Mazda6 instead. I mean, let’s be real with our own money, right?

  12. Bill is of course correct that the Pony was never sold in the U.S.A. (as the article implied), though it was sold in Canada. Hyundai entered the U.S. market in 1986 with the front-wheel-drive, Mitsubishi Mirage-based Excel (which continued the Pony nameplate in other markets). These cars weren’t great but they were better than the Yugo 45 with which they competed (no other new cars sold in the States were as cheap); they weren’t exactly maintained lovingly by their typical owners.

    I carry no brief for the Koreans — except for being quite attracted to the Ioniq 5 — but I must point out that most in the U.S. do not share Bill’s jaundiced view of Hyundai. Among others, the recently-revised Veloster N (the slightly odd-looking coupe version of the i30 N we don’t get), with its eight-speed DCT, has been getting reviewer plaudits.

  13. Daniel, thanks for this. One side note, only vaguely referenced in Bill Malcolm’s comment above, was Hyundai’s initial, astonishingly successful foray into the Canadian market in 1984, with a slightly modified Pony. In the early 1980s, Canadians seemed to have developed a liking for cheap, oddball cars, including among others, Ladas, Skodas, Dacias and even the Bertone-styled Innocenti Mini. Into this waded Hyundai with its Pony, the company expecting to sell 5,000 that year. In the end, Hyundai shifted over 25,000 off dealer forecourts, and the pace of sales continued for a couple of more years, effectively closing the door to all of these other marginal brands in our market. Compared to their offerings, the Pony was just about as cheap, while looking and performing more like a “real” car (sort of). The original (and still quite handsome) Stellar, again lightly modified, entered our market a year or so later, and sold respectably well too. Both were pretty disposable, though, and like early Japanese cars here, rapidly disintegrated in our salty winter roads. I haven’t seen one on the road for years and years.

    Maybe someone in the DTW community knows why Hyundai decided to enter the Canadian market with these cars when it did. The accepted answer is that it was a good test for the US market to come, which Hyundai eventually tackled with the more sophisticated FWD Excel in 1986, but that seems too pat. If you were testing things like durability and driving habits, you’d trial the same cars you intended for the US in our market. If you were testing desirability, well, we Canadians had shown consistently that we’d buy weird vehicles Americans wouldn’t touch (other than the Yugo…), and so success north of the border would have little bearing on US acceptance. In any event, the Pony episode dug a reputational hole for Hyundai in the Canadian market that it has only recently climbed out of, and I’ve read that people are still surprised that, say, a Sonata is pretty much the same price as a comparably-equipped Camry. The Pony forever branded Hyundai as a cheap brand, at least in the Great White North.

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