The Good Oil: What was the first Korean car?
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Models like the Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Kia EV6 prove the Korean car industry is now at the forefront of automotive design, technology and sheer desirability.
Incredibly, it’s all happened very quickly. If you’re 67 years old, the Korean car industry didn’t even exist when you were born. Yet now it leads the world in many respects.
It all started here, with a Jeep knockoff made partly from old oil drums: the Sibal (loosely translated, the name means “beginning” in Korean).
At the end of the Korean War (1950-53), Korean brothers Choi Mu-seong, Choi Hye-seong and Choi Sun-seong formed Gukje Vehicle Manufacturing to produce the Sibal. They built their own cylinder head for the 40kW 2.2-litre engine, but other major mechanical components were recycled from American Willys Jeeps. And yes, the body was hand-formed from old oil drums.
Sounds like a one-off, but in fact around 3000 Sibals were built and proved popular as taxis in South Korea. Success was short-lived though, as the price skyrocketed and a local assembly industry started in the early 1960s. The Sibal was discontinued in 1963.
That was really where a Korean industry (rather than just a car) started: in 1962 the Korean government instigated The Automobile Industry Protection Act, barring outside companies from the Korean market unless they were in partnership with domestic makers.
That led to existing manufacturing companies turning their attention to cars for the first time, including those that eventually became Hyundai, Kia and SsangYong.
The government’s protectionist policy undeniably kickstarted the industry, although it also isolated local carmakers from healthy competition. When Korea turned its attention to export in the 1980s, its cars were well behind the global mainstream in design, performance and quality. Hyundai in particular put huge focus on lifting its game from the late-1990s, including acquisition of Kia in 1998.
So really, the rush to excellence for Korean carmakers has taken not 67 years, but more like 27 years. All the more incredible.