It was February, 1986 when South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Company first entered the American car market with the Hyundai Excel.
Sold under the slogan “Cars that Make Sense”, the base model Excel was priced at a thrifty $4,995 and was available in either a subcompact four-door hatchback or a four-door sedan.
The low-price strategy, along with some cleverly done advertising, helped the company sell 168,882 units in the first year. The impressive numbers by the rookie entrant broke the record for any other company’s first year automobile sales in the American market.
[quote_center]The print advertising was self-deprecating, almost to the point of being desperate. But it was fun, and it was effective. Hyundai sold more cars its first year in the U.S. than any other brand before it.[/quote_center]
Though you’d never know by looking at it, the Excel was designed by Italian car legend Giorgetto Giugiaro –famed designer for an impressive line of carmakers such as DeLorean, Lotus, Maserati, Lexus and more.
The Eventual Cost of Being Cheap
While the inaugural year went better than the company could have ever hoped, it wasn’t long before Hyundai’s cost-cutting manufacturing methods began to show.
On came a slew of consumer complaints about a lack of power, overheating, insufficient braking, switches breaking off, and other quality and reliability issues. (I myself remember riding in a friend’s 86 Excel during a rain storm when water began dripping heavily from the corner of the windshield down onto my leg.)
Eventually, America’s National Transportation Safety Board would order four recalls for the 1986 Excel, citing problems with the transmission locking up, potential engine fires, erratic cruise control issues and braking problems.
By the early 90’s, junkyards across America were piled high with Hyundai Excels.
Car reviewer Murilee Martin, later reflecting on the 1986 Hyundai import, wrote that “the first-year Excel was the worst motor vehicle sold in America during the final quarter of the 20th century.”
As sales continued to plummet and its reputation for low quality took a beating, the company became the butt of jokes such as Hyundai standing for, “Hope You Understand Nothing’s Driveable And Inexpensive”.
The automaker was even featured on David Letterman’s famed top 10 list in a segment called, “Top 10 Hilarious Mischief Pranks To Play In Space.”
“No.8: Paste a ‘Hyundai’ logo on the main control panel.”
That was then
Despite the company’s rough start, it eventually gained back consumer confidence and is now recognized by both industry watchers and consumers as a maker of quality automobiles.
Here are some ads from those early days in the American market (and a few from the European) back when the advertising was actually better than the cars.
The ads were self-deprecating, almost to the point of being desperate. They were, however, quite clever and fun.
If you want to read more about Hyundai’s successful though sometimes rocky ride, check out Donald Kirk’s excellent book – Korean Dynasty: Hyundai and Chung Ju Yung
Classic Hyundai Ad Gallery
For more on Hyundai’s rise, check out Donald Kirk’s excellent book- Korean Dynasty: Hyundai and Chung Ju Yung.