BL50 : Video – George Turnbull and the creation of Hyundai

Here’s an intriguing documentary on the early years of the Hyundai Motor Company, and how former Austin-Morris Managing Director, George Turnbull, spearheaded the creation of this car manufacturing giant in 1975 after leaving BL.

This episode of Panorama was shown in 1976, and shows what can be achieved by the best British manufacturing talent with the right financial backing and motivation.

Triumph man is the making of South Korean giant Hyundai

Hyundai is a motor manufacturing giant today. But be in no doubt – its foundations are British. Not only did former Austin-Morris Managing Director George Turnbull oversee the creation of the Hyundai Pony, but he picked British Engineers to develop the car and then set-up the production line to build it. It was even eased into business by British investment.

It came from modest beginnings. Chung Ju-Yung founded the Hyundai Engineering and Construction Company in 1947, and became very big very quickly – but it wasn’t until 1967 that the company built its first car, a CKD version of the Ford Cortina. From these humble beginnings of building other people’s cars, Hyundai became hungry to build its own.

The company hired George Turnbull who, in turn, recruited a team which included Designer Kenneth Barnett, Engineers John Simpson and Edward Chapman, ex-BRM man John Crosthwaite as Chassis Engineer and Peter Slater (above) as Chief Development Engineer. Their plan was to design and build the Pony – Hyundai’s first car.

Learning from the mistakes of the past

George Turnbull said during the 1976 documentary: ‘The attitude to carmaking here is that it’s very much a team effort, and that’s the big difference between Korea and the UK.’  When put to him that the conditions in the factory, where workers were expected to build cars in temperatures of -7 degrees, he added, ‘I think by Western standards, this is not acceptable, but the philosophy is that people put on plenty of clothing, they work har, and they generate some of their own heat.’

Clearly, that approach to labour and manufacturing would never work in the UK. The Hyundai Pony was introduced in 1975 and went into full-scale production two years later. It sported Giugiaro styling and Mitsubishi powertrains, and owed a great deal in terms of its technical make-up to the Morris Marina, a car that Turnbull oversaw. But it improved on the Morris in many ways – certainly in manufacturing and quality terms.

Throughout the 1970s, Hyundai expanded and commenced exports to Europe. Follow-up products included the 1983 Stellar and the 1988 Sonata. In 1985, the company built its millionth car. Each subsequent model was closer in ability to its European rival, feeding the company’s constant expansion into the powerhouse that it is today…

Enjoy the video.

George Turnbull on the Hyundai Pony: 'We learned from our mistakes'...
George Turnbull on the Hyundai Pony: ‘We learned from our mistakes’…
Keith Adams


  1. Stellar was an interesting car.

    Cortina platform, Mitsubishi engine, wrapped up in a Maserati-like Giorgetto Giugiaro body. Marketed as a Cortina successor for those who couldn’t stomach the Sierra –

    According to howmanyleft, 6 remain licenced.

    What did ‘HD’ on early Hyundai badges mean? HyunDai?
    By late 80s they’d went with the word on the right of the grille, then 90s they had their stylised ‘not Honda’ rounded H.

  2. Showing my age when I remember the launch of the Hyundai Pony… there wasn’t much interest in Britain then. Who would have known that Hyundai would become the powerful automobile producer it is now. Their more recent cars look better & better (I like the i40). The original Stellar set the ball rolling by taking over the Cortina’s mantle.

  3. I remember first seeing one parked outside one of my neighbours in the early 1980s & wondering what car it was, being unsure how to say Hyundai.

    The RWD Pony was never a big seller in the UK, & the FWD Pony that followed was the first model by them that I remember being common, more so than the Stellar.

  4. I was involved within one of the initial dealers for the Hyundai range – the Pony was awful but we marketed the Stella as the new Cortina just as the public turned away from the awful shape and dustpin lid wheel trims of the (Mk1) Sierra (you had to be there – at the the time it looked terrible). The Pony was awful and one example of the pick-up we sold to a local farmer broke up in two (like the Navara’s are now).

    Saying that, they never leaked a drop of oil on the showroom floors – probably due to the Mitsubishi engines.

  5. Fascinating video. I’ve always been intrigued by the british influence in the creation of South Korea’s automotive industry. It’s weird to look back to that era while having the benefit of hindsight; Hyundai is now one of the biggest automotive companies in the world and what is left of the once great british motor industry is owned by foreigners. Mr. Turnbull is right when he talks about the difference in attitude between the UK and South Korea, and how the excessive centralization (and, consequently, the bureaucracy) made BL uncompetitive.
    (Also, kudos to him for being so polite with this arrogant journalist.)

  6. Fascinating programme, oh how we laughed at cars from the Far East forty years ago, but look now at Hyundai now, not so amusing is it? But it hasn’t been plain sailing for the South Korean auto industry as now Hyundai Motor is the only manufacturer left in Korean hands, all the rest apart from Kia who were taken over by Hyundai have gone bankruptow and are now owned by foreign owners. Firstly Daewoo Motors collapsed and were taken over by General Motors now known in the rest of the world as GM Korea, not for one moment in GM’s darkest hours has the General considered getting shot of it’s Korean offshoot but it’s been more that happy to sell off Opel & Saab and close down Hummer,Pontiac & Saturn. Another chaebol Samsung attempted to start an auto division which didn’t last that long and was snapped up by Renault/Nissan and now products built in S Korea are on sale in Europe badged as the Renault Latitude & Koleus. Ssangyong has had the most colourful history,being taken over by Daewoo Motor unwanted by GM when it took over Daewoo,then sold off to Shanghai Auto then bankrupt again and finally taken over by the Indian conglomerate Mahindra. So now the S korea is one of the titans of world automotive production and is a shining example of how state encouragement and long term investment and planning can produce such successful results

    • Daewoo/ Chevrolet was always the black sheep of the Korean Big Three as rather than look to Japan to develop their cars, they chose GM and old GM designs, which weren’t as reliable, and in surveys Daewoo/Chevrolet always ranked well below Hyundai and Korea for reliability and customer satisfaction.
      Not mentioning any names, but after Halfords ended their unsuccessful partnership with Daewoo, where customer satisfaction was poor, one of the worst local car dealers got his hands on the franchise, along with Proton in their ailing Satria years. Ironically after both companies abandoned Britain and the dealer sold the showroom, the showroom now sells SEATs, a one time budget brand that is now one of the best brands on the road.

  7. Korea was an unknown quantity in car manufacturing in the early eighties, as they were best known for exporting cheap televisions and radios, and no one knew much else about South Korean industries. TBH the first Hyundais were awful, and it wasn’t really until the noughties that sales took off and the quality reached Western standards. Similarly their martial arts weren’t that well known then either, but now tae kwon do and tang soo do are as well known as judo and karate.

  8. I wonder how many export customers bought one of those early Ponies without knowing the appallingly basic conditions in which they were built? I can’t imagine that any volume Western carmaker would have subjected their employees to conditions like that! And UK legislation like the 1974 H&S At Work Act would not allow it.

    • I don’t think the Eastern European factories were much better, I heard New Zealand banned the import the import of Skodas until the Czech government could prove they wern’t made with forced labour from politicial prisoners.

  9. Given Hyundai’s connections with Ford at the time from the 1970s up to much of the 1980s, why was the Morris Marina used as a basis for for original Hyundai Pony instead of the mk2 Ford Escort?

    • The Pony was not Marina based at all from an engineering perspective, only in terms of packaging. Hyundai had been building the Cortina and Taunus under licence since the 1960’s. The Pony shown in this film used an amalgam of Mk2 Cortina running gear mixed with the Mitsubishi drivetrain referred to. So McPherson Struts and leaf rear end rather than torsion bars and lever arm dampers!

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