Rejected in the U.S., the Hyundai Pony became Canada’s dark horse

Hyundai Pony brochure

You’d never guess it, but Hyundai’s story in Canada—beginning more than three decades ago—all started with a pony car. OK, not exactly a pony car. More like a car named Pony.

The Pony, Hyundai’s first offering to Canadians, was a true-blue cheap subcompact. The 165-inch long grocery-getter launched in South Korea’s domestic market in 1975. It soon began exports to Ecuador in 1976 and later to Europe, but because it could not meet America’s stringent emission standards, the Pony wasn’t sold in the U.S.

And before you ask, “Who really cares about the Hyundai Pony?” know that a lot of people did. The car far exceeded initial sales projections when the 1984 model arrived in December 1983. Don’t feel bad if your memory of the Pony is a bit fuzzy; it was generally viewed as disposable transportation, often driven hard and then discarded. It was also only sold in Canada for a few years.

The Pony’s roots can be traced to Great Britain’s Sir George Henry Turnbull, the former managing director of British Leyland’s Austin-Morris Division. Turbull signed a three-year deal with Hyundai in 1974,but didn’t stick around for a second contract. He sailed to South Korea with two new Morris Marina models in tow—a coupe and sedan that he asked for and received after British Leyland offered him an automobile of his choosing as a parting gift. Given that he could have had himself a nice Jag or Rover, the budget-priced Marina might seem like a strange choice. But Turnbull knew exactly what he was doing.

Hyundai Pony advertisement
Hyundai

After hiring five other British engineers and designers to join his team—Kenneth Barnett, John Simpson, Edward Chapman, John Crostwaite, and Peter Slater—Hyundai Motors created the Pony, basing its design on the Marina. The new rear-wheel-drive car was powered by a Mitsubishi inline-four engine (domestic-market options ranged from 1.2 to 1.6 liters) mated to a four- or five-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission. It had independent coil springs up front and solid axle/leaf springs in the rear, as well as power-assisted brakes—disc front, drum rear. Italy’s esteemed Italdesign Giugiaro S.p.A. provided the styling.

Canada’s version was actually a second-generation Pony, and Hyundai’s North American marketing efforts immediately addressed the elephant in the room: “Introducing the amazing new Pony. It isn’t exactly new, but it is amazing,” a Canadian advertisement read, then explained what it meant. “How can you call a car that has been rolling off the production line ever since 1975 new?”

The Canadian Pony was different, though. Unlike its domestic counterparts, it had impact bumpers, sealed-beam headlights, and side marker lamps instead of blinking indicators, slightly different interior features, and modified trim. Canadian-version Pony cars were available only with the 1.4-liter inline-four engine, rated at 70 horsepower.

Early advertising suggested that prospective buyers “Take a Pony for a ride,” and touted such now-common features as “fully reclining bucket seats, a rear window defroster, and full interior carpeting from the tip of the driver’s toe to the end of the cargo space.”

The price tag on the basic Pony L was $5,795 (Canadian), although a “deluxe” Pony GL could be had for $6,395. Buyers who wanted to “go all the way and splurge” could get a Pony GLS $6,695. All prices were well below those of Hyundai’s competitors. It certainly helped that the Canadian government had designated South Korea as a “developing economy,” allowing Hyundai to avoid import taxes and quotas.

Hyundai Pony ad
Hyundai

Still, Hyundai went into the Canadian venture with its eyes wide open; the automaker’s initial sales projection was 5,000 units. The 1984 Pony galloped past that figure, however, and by the end of year, 25,123 examples found homes in Canada. The Pony was joined by the larger Stellar model in 1985, and total Hyundai sales in Canada rose to nearly 80,000, giving it a 10-percent share of the total market. By comparison, it took Honda 12 years just to reach half that number.

Hyundai’s astounding rise prompted Ford and GM to file a “dumping complaint” in 1987, alleging Hyundai was selling its cars for less than it cost to manufacture them. Although Hyundai won the case in March 1988, the damage had been done. According to an Automotive News story published in March 1994, Hyundai sales in Canada slipped to 70,000 in 1986 and 51,000 in 1987, the Pony car’s final year there.

Despite its surprising popularity in Canada in the mid-1980s, it’s rare to see a Pony in the wild these days. For one brief moment, however, it was the little horse that could.