Touring the Hyundai Heritage Center - A Look at the Brand's Past

Dan Heyman
by Dan Heyman

Hyundai’s production facility in Ulsan, South Korea is a colossal affair, made up of five factories, which are soon to be six, with the recent groundbreaking of a new EV production facility said to have the capacity to produce 200,000 EVs a year. The facility has the feeling of a village unto itself. Indeed, you get the impression that if you live in Ulsan – a city with a population of just over one million – you either work at the plant, or know someone who does.

In addition to all the fabrication going on, a lot of Hyundai’s history is rooted here as well; they built their first cars here – well, sort of, as we’ll see in a minute – they designed vehicles here and a lot of the brand’s identity was birthed here. So, naturally, if you want a window into the brand’s history, this is a great place to start.

Want to start a car company? Build a Ford!

Well, it probably didn’t go exactly that way but the bottom line is the first vehicle to ever come out of Ulsan was not a Hyundai, but a Ford – a 1969 Cortina, compact, to be precise. The Cortina was a mass produced vehicle in a number of world markets and Hyundai managed to secure the rights to build it in their facility under license. Since the roads their weren’t as developed as they were in many other parts of the world, the Cortina didn’t hold up that well but Hyundai says they did use it as almost a rolling testbed of what not to do when it comes to vehicle engineering.

Where it really started

Sure; building an off-brand Ford was all well and good and a way to cut its teeth, but Hyundai needed something to call their own. To do so, they went all the way to Italy and famed designer Giugiaro who came up with the Pony Coupe concept, which proceeded to debut – also in Italy – at the 1974 Turin Motor Show. Of course, the Pony would go one to gain two doors and become Hyundai’s first export (Canada received it; the US didn’t) but a lot of what can be seen on the Pony Coupe – the recessed headlights, triangular rear side window, broad body panels and flush-mount windows are harbingers of the Ioniq 5 (and, as it turns out, the DeLorean) we see today. Alas, the Pony Coupe never made production, but have a look through the gallery to see the Pony Coupe story hasn’t completely ended just yet.

Proof of concept

To show that this strange new car from this strange new (to North America, anyway) manufacturer had what it takes to withstand the test of time, the first ads were very open about the winter testing done in Kapuskasing in Canada, where manufacturers do winter testing to this day. While it never made it to the US, its Excel sedan counterpart arrived in 1985.

The way it was

While the current Ulsan plant is a masterwork of modern auto manufacturing that can churn out over 1.5 million cars a year, the situation was somewhat lower-fi even around the time the Pony – their first mass-production model – was being built. This charming diorama in the heritage centre provides a look into how it once was.

A day in the life

If you wanted to know what greeted the workers in blue from the last photo, Hyundai has appropriated some lockers and some “game worn” gear that actual Ulsan workers left to the gallery. The stories those shoes could tell…

A family affair

Right across the aisle from the lockers stands this display of art contributed by the children of Hyundai workers. It’s said that there have been contests throughout the years awarding the best Hyundai-themed art.

If you don’t know, just listen

Cassette tapes were really coming into their own and starting to dethrone the 8-track as the audio medium of choice right around the time the Pony arrived, so why not use said medium to help workers and owners alike get to know their new Hyundai?

Electrifying the future

If the Pony Concept was the design study that led – in part – to the Ioniq 5, then this electrified concept version of the second-generation of the Sonata has to be credited with laying some of the groundwork for the Ioniq’s drivetrain. After about eight months of development – which isn’t too shabby, when you think about it – Hyundai managed to deliver a fully-electrified Sonata Y2 (internal code at Hyundai for “generation 2”). It couldn’t drive that far and it wasn’t that powerful, but the fact that Hyundai took an existing platform and dropped in an EV motor literally where the typical gas engine sits was proof positive that it could be done.

Connecting with the past

If the Ioniq 5 has certain aspects of the Pony Concept, then the N74 Concept is an absolute spitting image of it. Looking like a cross between something you might see in the Cyberpunk 2077 video game world and a Group C silhouette race (especially when you consider the wheels and fender flares), the N74 is a hydrogen-fueled track car that is here to provide a microcosm of how far Hyundai has come.

“This is a car showcasing how high-tech a car Hyundai can make,” said SangYup Lee, global design head at Hyundai and Genesis. “The message is about a common thread; past and present connected.” That’s all well and good, but is the public ready for a vehicle like this? That, of course, would determine whether or not they’re going to build it – in a way. If they do, it sounds like it may be a track special of sorts – now there’s an idea.

The pride of a nation

You can sense the pride exuded by the Ulsan plant as soon as you arrive; the grounds surrounding it look more like a nature park than a factory’s front yard.

Final Thoughts

It’s interesting that Mr. Lee speak about blending the old with the new; at the end of the day, visiting the Ulsan plant really does feel like visiting the birthplace of Hyundai, matured into a top-drawer vehicle production facility that ranks among the largest and most productive in the world. Not only that, but the birthplace of a South Korean company that has grown to be one of three major economic forces in the nation along with the SK Group (think Samsung) and the Lotte group (think Loblaw’s, but bigger). Hyundai motor company has grown by leaps and bounds since the plucky Pony and to see where it all started? That’s a rare thing.

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Dan Heyman
Dan Heyman

Dan has spent his whole life surrounded by all things automotive. From volumes of car magazines and books, to boxes of Hot Wheels, he was/is never far away from something four-wheeled and fun. He studied journalism at Centennial College in Toronto and is a board member at the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada.

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