The Pony Express Rides AgainFirst Made in 1975, the Surviving Vehicles Draw a Lot of Attention on any Highway
By Park Soo-mee
In 1983, Koreans were overwhelmed with national pride when Hyundai announced the successful entrance of its Pony sedan to the Canadian market. Other types of local goods were already being exported by then, like GoldStar's televisions and textiles made by firms like Kolon. But the first North American sales of the Pony － Korea's first domestically made car － were quite significant, boosting the country's image and economic independence.
The Pony debuted in the local market in 1976, after being exhibited and praised at Italy's Turin Motor Show two years earlier. Hyundai's first model was designed by the Italian car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, who went on to become the brains behind later cars like the Volkswagen Golf and the Hyundai Stellar and Presto.
By the early1980s, considered the heyday of the Pony, about half of the cars plying local roads bore the distinctive equine icons. Hyundai sold a little more than 10,000 of the first-edition models in 1976, when they carried a sticker price of 2,273,270 won ($1,800). That same year, Hyundai exported its first cars, with five Ponys going to Ecuador, in South America. Less than 10 years later, the carmaker was selling approximately 300,000 Ponys per year.
Not surprisingly, Koreans get more than a little nostalgic these days when they see one of the few surviving Ponys still in operation. In fact, a couple of recent films based in the '70s, "Friends" and "Bungee Jumping of Our Own," featured the same yellow Pony taxi in their trailers.
One Pony owner, Hwang Pan-kwon, a former mechanic, can bear testimony to the emotional attachment Koreans have to the old cars. Mr. Hwang, 41, bought a 1977 three-door Pony hatchback from a customer six years ago for 500,000 won, and says that he drives it regularly now. In fact, he keeps a sign in the back of the car that explains the car's history so that when he takes the car out on the highway for long trips, he can easily tape the sign to the rear end; he puts it there to discourage other drivers from asking him questions while he's driving.
"You need to be immune to distractions to drive a Pony in Seoul," Mr. Hwang says while driving down the Olympic Highway at 80 kilometers an hour. Just as he described, one car after another slows down as it passes Mr. Hwang's yellow car to get a glimpse of the familiar galloping figure on the hatchback. One wide-eyed taxi driver rolls down his window and shouts to Mr. Hwang, "Hey, how old is that car?"
"The Pony is a perfect fit for Koreans," Mr. Hwang says, referring to the car's style and ergonomics. But it may have been a better fit back when it was made 20 years ago; its seats and interior are too small for newer, bigger Koreans. Also, it offers scant head and leg room.
Hyundai started making pickups with the Pony name in 1987, and some are still around today. Though the sedan clearly wins the prize for most nostalgia-evoking, the little truck may be rarer to see out on the roads. One Pony pickup owner, Lee Yang-kyu, says the best thing about his truck is its durability. Since buying the pickup new 14 years ago, Mr. Lee has yet to take it in for a major overhaul, and it still runs like a champ. "It's surprisingly more reliable than my Sonata 3," he says, referring to his other, newer and roomier Hyundai.
Mr. Hwang, the sedan owner, cites low running and maintenance costs as the main advantage of his Pony. He says it costs him a little less than 50,000 won to fill up his tank. Mr. Hwang says he gets about 15 kilometers per liter of gas, or 35 miles per gallon. Although he's taken the Pony on plenty of long drives, he's never had a major breakdown. "What else can you expect from a car?" he asks.
He is openly critical of Koreans who buy new cars every few years. "Local car dealers create a lot of temptation to trade in your car after it's only a couple of years old," Mr. Hwang says. Though most Korean cars have expected life spans of about 450,000 kilometers, most people sell theirs after only 150,000 kilometers, he says.
To keep cars on the roads longer, a local civic group has created an auto-longevity campaign called "Let's Keep Our Cars for 10 Years," and Mr. Hwang is a devoted member. The frugality program encourages Koreans to hang onto their cars for as long as they run well.
"Koreans live and die for style," he says with a bitter edge to his voice. "Some people may disagree, but I think that the top priority you should have when you own a car is to keep it a long time."
by Park Soo-mee