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From a Slow Start to the Fast Lane: The History of Hyundai

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On: Tue, Aug 19, 2014 at 3:28PM | By: Teddy Field

From a Slow Start to the Fast Lane: The History of Hyundai

Not too long ago, Hyundai vehicles were overlooked by most new car buyers. They were well-built and loaded with features, but they lacked any sort of style. The 2008 introduction of the Hyundai Genesis luxury sedan changed all that, and brought some much needed attention to the South Korean car brand. Fast forward a few years, and Hyundai now commands a sizable chunk of the U.S. and international car markets. Stylish models like the Hyundai Elantra, Hyundai Sonata, and Hyundai Equus now pack customers into the showrooms. Proving that value doesn't have to be boring.

Hyundai Motors was started in 1967, but they didn't start selling cars in the U.S. until 1986. Like most successful enterprises in South Korea, the Hyundai car company is part of a much larger corporate conglomerate, commonly referred to as a 'chaebol'. The company owns its own steel plant, the largest shipbuilding company in the world (Hyundai Heavy), and that other famous Korean car brand: Kia. It was all started by a man named Chung Ju-Yung, who was actually born in North Korea, long before the North/South tensions began.

In 1933, the 18-year-old Ju-Yung worked his way down to Seoul in search of a better life. He was eventually able to open his own rice store, but the Japanese occupation forced him to close down just a year later. Once World War II had ended, Mr. Ju-Yung went into business repairing trucks for the U.S. Army. This provided him with enough money to go into the construction business, which he named Hyundai (translates to 'modern') Construction. By the 1960s, Ju-Yung's company started to receive lucrative government contracts to build roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects. With millions already in the bank, he started Hyundai Motors in 1967, and put his brother in charge of the company. As Japanese automakers started to move away from the low-price segment in the U.S. market, Ju-Yung instructed his brother to open Hyundai America.

The company's first U.S. Model was the infamous Hyundai Excel, which debuted in 1986. It featured European styling by Giorgetto Giugiaro, a wheezy Mitsubishi 4-pot, and a really low price. Thanks to a well-run (and well-funded) ad campaign, they sold their first 100,000 cars in just seven months. A year later, they sold a quarter-million.

Hyundai continued to dominate the low-priced field for many years, with models value-minded cars like the Hyundai Accent and Hyundai Sonata. By the 2000s, they started investing heavily in design and technology. The resulting Genesis luxury sedan helped them to get noticed by the mainstream market. Then the 2010 Hyundai Sonata, with its “Fluidic Sculpture” design language, caused sales to explode. Today, Hyundai cars are known for packing loads of high-end features like direct-injection and heated seats, into cars that cost thousands less than the competition. Mr. Ju-Yung died in 2001 at the age of 85, but he left behind an automotive empire that will likely dominate the market for years to come.

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