A common theme here is how difficult it is to become an automaker, but then of course I often feature extremely…uh…bold designs from fledgling car designers, and not early cars from companies that are still successful today.
Which brings me to Hyundai. First introduced here in Canada in 1984 with the Pony—only a few years after that model debuted in South Korea—Hyundai has been selling cars in this country as long as I've been alive. Most automakers can only dream of the success Hyundai has had in just 30 years of business—and that's after starting virtually from scratch.
I guess the blame goes to Ford, who reached an agreement with the Hyundai Motor Company to assemble the Ford Cortina in South Korea from 1968. They built the larger Ford Taunus 20M and Grenada sedans as well, but the company had lofty goals and needed to quickly start making their own car.
To do this, they took the well-publicized step of hiring ex-Austin Morris managing director George Turnbull, who in turn hired five other industry leaders, including the chassis and suspension guru John Crosthwaite, who'd made a career of producing exceptionally well-sorted cars for Lotus, BRM, and various Indianapolis 500 race teams.
They also needed a designer, but instead of headhunting, Italdesign's Giorgetto Giugiaro—who has since been named Car Designer of the Century for his work on, well, just about all of your favourite cars. From the lesser-known Ford Maya and Alfa Romeo New York Taxi concepts to the production DeLorean DMC-12, BMW M1, Lancia Delta Integrale, and Lotus Esprit, he certainly knew what he was doing.
Thing is, Giugiaro's striking small coupe for the 1974 Turin Motor Show had been inspired by the DeLorean DMC-12, as a companion for the well-known car…had John Z. DeLorean's project lasted more than a few years.
Named Asso di Fiori, or Ace of Clubs in English, the car was an updated version of the previous year's Audi 80-based Asso di Picche—Ace of Spades—coupe. When I say "updated," well, it means they're incredibly similar.
Here's the kicker: it wasn't supposed to be a Hyundai.
According to Italdesign:
Pony Coupé comes as independent research, but on the eve of the Turin Motor Show Hyundai management takes it seriously and asks to rename it as Hyundai Pony Coupé. Press releases are, however, Italdesign already left and carry a different name: Asso di Fiori. The confusion is further fed five years later when Italdesign actually presented a prototype called Asso di Fiori and some Japanese journalists think is a joke...
(By the way: that second Ace of Clubs concept would become the Isuzu Piazza/Impulse.)
Based on the Hyundai Pony sedan thanks to his connections with Hyundai, the Pony Coupé was rebadged only after the new Hyundai executives realized the benefit of having such a well-designed concept car on their stand, even though their internal styling department was very new and (likely) not capable of following up Giugiaro's work had they decided to enter production.
In that respect, it must have been quite the challenge to create the styling themes for an all-new car company, but Giugiaro clothed the Pony as well as he knew how to. With the Pony Coupé concept, he at least envisioned Hyundai as a full-line automaker and clearly sought to push his wedgy, futuristic designs on a company that was only just getting started. The designer's main contracts then were with the Volkswagen Group and Hyundai, which is why the early Hyundai Pony looks very similar to the Volkswagen Passat of the same vintage.
It's also why once the Pony went to square headlights, the layout of its "face" was strikingly similar to that of the DeLorean DMC-12; if you add photos of the first generation Isuzu Piazza/Impulse to the mix, well…it was an Italian that ensured DeLorean styling cues would live well past that automaker's demise.
"Wait a second," you say: "The DeLorean DMC-12 came out in 1981—how could it have possibly influenced vehicles that were introduced before it?"
Keep in mind that the DeLorean project had also been started in 1974; because Giugiaro was hired as the designer right from the start, he would have been one of the few people to know exactly what the new sports car would look like—and exactly what he'd have to design next had the automaker survived past a single model.