It’s hard to believe, but SsangYong is 60 years old this year. We look back at its sometimes glorious and sometimes unhappy past.
While browsing for web updates the other day, we were quite surprised to see that SsangYong was releasing 60th anniversary editions of the Korando and Rexton. We had no idea the company had been around for that long, so obviously we had to find out more about this Korean manufacturer’s little known past.
As it turns out, the SsangYong brand doesn’t go back 60 years, but one of the two separate companies that would eventually merge to form it, does.
The first company, Ha Dong-hwan Motor Workshop, was established in 1954 and manufactured mostly trucks and public transport vehicles in a country that, at the time, couldn’t really afford private vehicle ownership. It did so successfully and in 1963 merged with the Dongbang Motor Company, which had been established a year earlier. The new company’s name was Ha Dong-hwan Motor Company.
Thanks to Ha Dong-hwan’s strong reputation in Korea, the company received a contract to build Jeep-type vehicles for the US army. It also kept on building a variety of trucks and buses and successfully traded under its new name until 1977.
Information is sketchy on why another name change was necessary, but Ha Dong-hwan became Dong-A Motor. The company went about its business under this banner for nine years until it was taken over by the SsangYong Business Group and emerged as SsangYong Motor. The people in charge must have liked this name, because it stuck.
While SsangYong the motor manufacturer may not have been around for 60 years, the actual brand name dates back to 1962 when it was first used for a cement manufacturer. The owner of this business and soon to be founder of a South Korean conglomerate was Kim Sung Kon. He started out in 1939, establishing Samkong Fat Limited, manufacturers of the most popular soap at the time. The profits from Kim Sung Kon’s soap business eventually gave him the opportunity to branch into other fields and the name he chose for his new world-conquering venture was SsangYong, which means “double dragon”.
So, in 1986, the SsangYong group bought itself a car brand and needed a car to attach it to. It acquired a small sportscar manufacturer in the UK called Panther Westwinds, but the venture failed to produce a vehicle. Panther wanted to build a sporty two-door machine, but SsangYong wanted a four-wheel drive four-seater. The two companies just couldn’t make it work and so SsangYong got rid of Panther.
It’s next partnership, however, would be legendary. In 1991 it teamed up with Daimler-Benz to develop an SUV with Mercedes Benz parts. This partnership should have been equally beneficial to both parties, but SsangYong definitely got the better part of the deal. The Mercedes tie-in gave it a giant foothold in new markets and established the brand as reliable and trustworthy.
SsangYong’s first car, the Musso, had a sticker on the back that read: “Powered by Mercedes Benz”. This gave it some serious street cred straight off the bat, which is mainly why it sold so well worldwide. Even today, it is a highly respected off-roader.
Mercedes agreed to the deal because it needed a stake in the SUV market while it was busy developing the first generation ML, which came along only six years later.
For a while SsangYong did very well. The Musso was sold through Mercedes dealerships, but it didn’t take the company long to set up its own network.
SsangYong obviously couldn’t sustain profitability with only one model, so over the years other passenger cars and trucks were designed, built and sold.
Once again, the partnership with Mercedes was crucial. The Korando had Mercedes engines and transmissions while the first Rexton and Kyron both used Merc transmissions. SsangYong made sure the world knew about it and piggy-backed on Mercedes’ solid reputation.
But after its initial success, things spiralled downwards for a few years. Daewoo bought a controlling stake in SsangYong in 1997 but sold it off in 2000 after some financial troubles. In 2004, China’s SAIC took control of the company but posted massive losses in 2009, resulting in SsangYong being placed in receivership. The official explanation for these losses was the global economic crisis and strike actions, but SsangYong accused SAIC of using it only to get hold of its research into hybrid powertrains.
SsangYong limped along until 2010 when a new investor boosted the value of its stock by 15%. This investor turned out to be Mahindra, which purchased a 70% controlling stake in the company.
It turned out to be just what SsangYong needed. Mahindra spent a lot of money on infrastructure and new model development, the result of which can be seen today.
SsangYong continues to deal exclusively in SUVs and bakkies. In SA, you can currently buy the Rexton, Korando and Actyon Sports double cab. It’s a decent range of vehicles with no major flaws to complain about.
Where to next? We can only speculate at this point, but it’s a fact that SsangYong continues to grow internationally.
Investment in new models has also led to the development of a new car called the XLV. It was first revealed at the Geneva Motor Show and features an innovative 2+2+2+1 seating arrangement.
This vehicle will be powered by 1,6-litre turbocharged petrol and diesel powertrains that SsangYong has designed itself.
Recent reports indicate that the production XLV will be launched sometime in 2015. Hopefully it will breathe even more life into the brand and keep it strong enough to go on for another 60 years.