The South Korean automaker is now a global powerhouse.
Hyundai has seemingly snuck its way into the car market and transformed itself from being dismissed as a cheap brand into one of the world's largest-selling car brands. Based in Seoul, South Korea, Hyundai Motor Company was founded in 1967. It was founded by Chung Ju-yung, who also founded the Hyundai Engineering and Construction Company in 1947. Hyundai's first car was a version of Europe's Cortina produced in conjunction with Ford. Hyundai's first self-generated car was the Pony, which was exported to Canada in 1984 but not the US as it failed to pass emissions tests. Hyundai eventually made it to the US in 1986 with the Excel followed by the Sonata.
Now, under the Hyundai Motors banner, the company also owns 33 percent of Kia, has Genesis as a luxury brand, and Ioniq as an electric vehicle brand. Hyundai has come a long way from its underwhelming beginnings.
Hyundai's first car generated from scratch was headed by George Turnbull, former Managing Director of Austin Morris at British Leyland during the period that its management got rich by driving the company into the ground. Turnbull hired other British designers and based the Hyundai Pony on the Morris Marina. You might remember the Marina as one of the worst cars ever made, and the car Top Gear repeatedly dropped heavy objects on as a running joke. However, unlike the Marina, the Pony was styled by Giorgio Giugiaro of ItalDesign, and its powertrain technology came from Mitsubishi Motors.
When Hyundai came to the US, its Excel gave Hyundai the record for most cars sold in an opening year in the country for a new brand. However, that was soon tarnished by cost-cutting, which led to reliability issues that hurt the brand perception in a big way. Hyundai countered that by investing heavily in quality, design, manufacturing, and longevity. In 1992, the automaker added two years or 24,000 miles of free maintenance for all its new cars. The game-changer, though, was a 10-year or 100,000-mile powertrain warranty introduced at the turn of the century, which showed confidence in its cars and gave customers a lot of peace of mind. It also started the shift in public perception of what Hyundai was all about.
Hyundai's facility in Ulsan, South Korea, is a staggering place. It covers 3.1 square miles and produces around 1.6 million vehicles every year. It's essentially a city of 34,000 workers with a network of roads connecting five plants together. It also has a fire station, a hospital, sewage treatment plant, and docks that can house three 75,000 ton ships at the same time.
Back in 2006, Yukitoshi Funo, chairman of Toyota Motor Sales USA, said, "Our main competitors here are essentially Honda Motor Co. Ltd., Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. and Hyundai, but Hyundai is the one we are very carefully watching,"
Funo was right to be watching Hyundai. Now, the South Korean automaker has a $30 million facility in Irvine, California, while its American technical center is housed at a $117 million headquarters in Superior Township, Michigan. Hyundai also has a 30,000-square-foot testing facility and proving grounds in the Mojave Desert. Most recently, Hyundai has gone a step further by designing and producing a small truck in America. The Santa Cruz is, for now, an America-only small pickup truck based on the Tucson crossover and assembled at the Hyundai plant in Montgomery, Alabama.
Recently, Hyundai has stepped up its game, and in large part it's due to using its money to hire the right people. The most high-profile hires have been from BMW, particularly those that served in the German automaker's M division. The most high-profile hire is now Hyundai's head of Research and Development. Albert Biermann helmed BMW's M Division when it was pumping out legends like the E46 generation M3 and the E39 M5. His mission when he arrived was to create a grass-roots performance division under Hyundai's N branding. Biermann is the main reason Hyundai's N cars are becoming more and more driver and performance-focused, but he's not the only M division poach Hyundai has made. Thomas Schemera was head of BMW M and BMW Individual in the US before moving to Hyundai to run the High Performance Vehicle & Motorsport Division.
That's not all Hyundai has attracted from BMW. Pierre Leclerq has now come and gone as head of design for Kia, and Fayez Abdul Rahman was brought in as Vice President of Genesis Architecture Development. Hyundai also tapped Christopher Chapman, formerly of BMW Designworks USA, to become chief designer at the Hyundai Design Center in Irvine.
Hyundai's first foray into motorsport was in the F2 class of the World Rally Championship in 1998. As well as rallying, Hyundai is strong in touring car championships around the world. In Touring Car Racing (TCR) the automaker's factory team runs the i30 N TCR, the Veloster N TCR, and the Elantra N TCR. All of which, plus the Hyundai i20 N Rally2, can be bought to race from Hyundai. The automaker is keen to link its racing and road cars together through technology, and that has led to the continuous development of the RM concept - a mid-engine Veloster N. Speaking to Albert Biermann when we drove the RM19 at Hyundai's proving grounds, he said Hyundai is serious about reaching a stage where the RM19 can become a production model, albeit with limited production.
Hyun means "modern" or "present," and Dai means "era" or "generation." The literal translation into English of Hyundai's name would be "Hyeondae," meaning "modern times." The slanted 'H' badge is also, supposedly, a stylized silhouette of two people shaking hands and symbolizing the rust and satisfaction between company and consumer. But there's more meaning, too. By slanting forward, the H also signifies progression.
In 2013, Hyundai launched the ix35 Fuel Cell vehicle, essentially a hydrogen-powered Tucson and the first commercially mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in the world. As of now, 2021, Hyundai is one of the remaining global automakers committed to hydrogen fuel cell technology. Along with Toyota and BMW, Hyundai believes hydrogen will become an important part of transport, whether it's for passenger cars or trucks and buses for the transport industries. Its current fuel cell passenger vehicle is the Hyundai Nexo, which has a 413-mile range on a full tank of hydrogen while emitting nothing but water vapor and purified air.