During my recent trip to Korea, there was one thing I wanted to see, but didn’t have the opportunity.
It was the Hyundai Pony. I was told of at least one example still existing, in Hyundai’s famed Namyang R&D facility, but sadly the facility was closed for renovations during our visit.
The Pony is more than just a retro Hyundai, it was South Korea’s first fully domestically produced car. Before the Pony, the country’s booming industry simply assembled knock-down kits of US models.
Hyundai assembled Fords like the Cortina, while Saehan (the predecessor to Daewoo and GM Korea) assembled versions of the Isuzu Gemini for their local market.
In 1976 though, Hyundai developed its own model. It was the Pony.
Although hardly powerful, the Pony's Mitsubishi-sourced engine lead to great cooperation between the brands.
The Pony was 90 per cent domestically produced, sourcing the remaining parts from Ford and Mitsubishi.
Starting Hyundai’s legacy of grabbing the brightest minds from overseas and blending them with Korean ingenuity, the Pony’s bodywork was designed by world-renowned Italian coachbuilder Giorgetto Giugiaro, while the mechanicals were worked on by ex-British Leyland engineers.
It was initially exported to Ecuador, but weirdly the second-generation car, released in 1983, was a runaway success in Canada.
Canadian car journalists have analysed this phenomenon, saying it was a combination of the low cost (a new 1983 pony cost just under $6000 Canadian) and surprisingly good looks that resulted in the Pony selling five times as much as expected in the first year.
A combination of decent looks and unbeatable price made the updated Pony a runaway success in Canada.
The first two generations of the Pony were rear-wheel drive and powered by variations of the Mitsubishi 4G32 four-cylinder engine, starting the close relationship between Mitsubishi and Hyundai that continues to this day.
The more popular 1.4-litre variants produced roughly 52kW/126Nm, or ‘not much’.
While the Pony became notorious for falling apart in western markets (catching fire, having terrible paint, rusting away in winter, doors falling off) it lasted just as long as some European alternatives at a fraction of the price, helping Hyundai begin its slow ascent to mainstream export manufacturer.
Like many of these early economical small sedans, the Pony was also offered in ute, hatch and wagon bodystyles.
What happened to the Pony? Apart from some cute diecast models we spotted in Hyndai’s Goyang Motorstudio shop, we didn’t see a single car on the streets.
Like Japan, South Korea exports most of its second hand cars, so those that didn’t rust out and return to nature would have been recycled for parts or exported to other markets. Despite our enquiries, Hyundai didn't even know where we could find one outside of its collection.
The Pony name continued in some markets for the front-wheel drive Excel, but in Korea the Pony name was referenced again with the release of the Equus limousine in 1999 (Equus meaning ‘horse’ in Latin).
The 'Pony' name was referenced in Korea by the much larger and luxurious Hyundai Equus (known as the 'Centennial' in export markets, now the Genesis G90).
It was co-produced with Mitsubishi and known more widely as the Japanese domestic version, the Mitsubishi Proudia.
Watch a Korean domestic TV commercial for the Pony:
Is the Pony worth preserving, or is it just another forgettable car obscurity?