SEOUL (Reuters) - When banker Lee Sang-mok takes his cheap and ageing subcompact car through the streets of Seoul’s financial district, heads turn, fingers point and people can be seen mouthing the words: “It’s a Pony.”
The Hyundai Pony is nostalgia on wheels for South Koreans who fondly remember the automobile that dominated sales at home in the 1970s and 80s and became its first car good enough to export.
Even though the last one rolled off the lines some 20 years ago, the Pony has all but vanished from South Korean streets as consumers cast it aside for far better models. Few thought the inexpensive car was worth keeping around.
Yet for Pony owners and others who catch a rare glimpse of one, it is a symbol of a proud time when the country overcame the devastation of the 1950-53 Korean War to produce global-standard goods and middle class families finally had enough wealth to purchase their first car.
“The Pony brings back so many memories. My neighbors even get choked up when I pull into the apartment parking lot,” said Lee, who at 27 is only three years older than his red Pony.
“I have to roll down the window because my car doesn’t have air conditioning. Drivers will pull up to me at lights, roll down their windows and start sharing stories about their Pony.”
Lee received his Pony for free from a mechanic who belongs to a civic group that encourages consumers to keep cars for more than 10 years.
He refurbished it, scoured the country for rare parts and stretched its legs on the highway where its 1,400 cc engine topped out at about 130 kph (80 mph).
“It made quite a racket.”
Hyundai Motor Co in late 1975 started producing the Pony, with a design from Italy and borrowed transmission, engine and suspension technology from Japan’s Mitsubishi Motor.
It hit the local market in 1976 and was Hyundai Motor’s first export when it sent six to Ecuador that year.
One was in service through the late 1990s as a taxi, amassing more than 1 million miles. It was brought back home by Hyundai, which put it in its museum.
“The Pony marked the beginning of the Korean auto industry,” Lee Hyun-soon, president of Hyundai Motor’s R&D Division, said at the launch in early January of its newest car, the Genesis, a luxury model it says can rival BMW or Mercedes Benz.
Lee said the Genesis, a sedan that boasts a powerful V-6 engine, advanced engineering and a stylish interior, shows how far Hyundai has come in a generation.
Along with its affiliated Kia Motors Corp, Hyundai is the world’s sixth-largest automaker.
“When we were developing the Pony, we didn’t have that much technology. Now, we have a strong capability of engineering so we can develop any car we want.”
Analysts said it is premature to talk of the Genesis slicing out a large chunk of the luxury car market.
Its biggest impact may be putting to rest a reputation born with the Pony of Hyundai producing inexpensive cars for the lower end of the market to one that reflects its current status of making reliable, high-quality vehicles, they said.
“The Genesis will play an important role in changing Hyundai’s image, which will result in higher sales of its Sonata (flagship sedan) and Santa Fe,” said Cho Soo-hong, an auto analyst at Hyundai Securities.
The Pony was exported to 60 countries. One of its greatest success stories was in Canada, where it was the top-selling imported car in 1984 despite an anemic advertising budget and almost zero brand recognition.
Many bought the Pony as a second car, seeing it as discounted version of a Japanese vehicle, Canadian media said at the time.
Due to the unexpected success, Hyundai learned it had to boost capacity if it ever wanted to be a serious exporter and improve parts such as heater fans, starters and alternators that had trouble standing up to cold Canadian winters.
The Pony began its fade just as South Korea had its coming out party for the world at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, when Pony taxis greeted visitors and parking lots were jammed with the car.
The Pony, which finished production in 1989, was replaced by the Excel, an all-around improved vehicle. At its peak, three out of every five cars sold in South Korea was a Pony, Hyundai said.
The few South Koreans who collect Ponies have trouble keeping them road-worthy due to a lack of parts.
When the makers of a Korean movie called “May 18” were looking for cars to use in the film released in 2007, they could not find any at home and had to import four from Egypt where they are still in use.
“You have to look overseas to find them,” said Choi Dong-hun, a Pony collector in southeastern city of Daegu.
“I thought about selling a Pony once but realized this is a collector’s item and I can give it to my family as inheritance.”
Additional reporting by Mee Hyoe Koo and Cheon Jong-woo; editing by Megan Goldin