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South Korea’s second largest auto manufacturer got its start producing steel tubing and bicycle parts during the Second World War. The brainchild of Kim Chul-Ho, the company was founded in Seoul in 1944, as Kyungsung Precision Industry Corporation. In 1945, the company completed its Youngdeungpo factory, which was then located on the outskirts of Seoul. Youngdeungpo produced bicycle parts: frames, saddles, pedals and mudguards. Working its way up to producing complete bicycles by 1951, Kyungsung Precision Industry eventually evolved into a producer of two-wheel motorcycles and three-wheel motorcars—before ultimately venturing into four-wheel truck and passenger car production.
With the onset of the Korean War in 1950, the company relocated temporarily to Busan and remained productive. The company dealt with materials shortages by using empty oil drums and wire rope instead of steel, which, at the time was being redirected to the war effort. In 1952, the company’s name was changed to “Kia”, a word derived from the Sino-Korean words ki ("to come out") and a (which stands for Asia). Kia, roughly translated means "arise or come up out of Asia" or "rising out of Asia".
Upon cessation of hostilities in 1953, demand for consumer goods soared. Kia was perfectly positioned to respond. Motorcycle production started in 1957, trucks came in 1962. The company began exporting its bicycles to the United States in 1965, moving some 100,000 of them a year by 1969, with sales exceeding one million dollars.
In 1973, Kia opened its Sohari factory; the first fully integrated automotive production facility on the Korean peninsula. Configured to build both cars and trucks, Sohari’s conveyor system enabled a production capacity of some 25,000 units annually. The first passenger car to roll off the line there—the 1974 Kia Brisa S-1000—went on to outsell its Hyundai and Daewoo competitors by a significant margin. Considered the Korean “People’s Car”, the subcompact Brisa was capable of a top speed of approximately 87 miles per hour.
By 1979, the success of the Brisa emboldened Kia to partner with Peugeot and Fiat to broaden its product lineup. This strategy enabled the company to do so quickly, while saving money on development costs. Peugeot’s 604 gave Kia an entry into the executive sedan marketplace, while the Fiat 132 gave the company a larger family car to offer. Things went rather well until 1981, when new government enterprise consolidation regulations imposed by then-President Chun Doo-hwan—designed to minimize internal competition in the Korean economy—predicated Kia’s exit from the passenger car market.
Fortunately, the company had just developed the Bongo and the truck was well received by commercial vehicle purchasers. Initially called the Kiamaster Bongo, production started in 1980. The descendant of the model is still in production as of this writing (June 2013). Powered by a four-cylinder diesel engine, the Bongo could be configured in a variety of ways. Later iterations even included a minivan. Sales averaged 40,000 units a year, keeping Kia relatively healthy until the trade restrictions were eventually relaxed. During that period the company’s leadership made one savvy move that later served Kia automobiles very well. They brought in Ford and Mazda as equity partners.
When Kia got back into automobile production in 1986, this gave them entrée into markets other than Korea. Getting back into car production, Kia introduced the Kia Concord, Capital, Potentia, and Pride. The 1987 Kia Pride (based on a Mazda design for that company’s Mazda 121) found its way to the United States wearing a Ford badge. The 1987 Ford Festiva was in fact a 1987 Kia Pride, which in turn was a Mazda product in disguise. Seven years later when the Pride was reworked, it came to the U.S again, this time as the Ford Aspire.
Spring boarding from this success, the company created Kia Motors America in 1992. In 1993, the company set up a European network covering 16 countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Greece, Italy, Switzerland and France. In 1994, the company introduced the Kia Sephia—the first Kia automobile sold in the United States branded under its own name.
The so-called cute-ute Kia Sportage compact sport utility vehicle followed in 1995. By the time the Sportage made the trip across the Pacific Ocean, Kia had one hundred dealers in 30 of the United States, selling some 24,000 vehicles annually. Further, Kia completed a joint venture for a production facility in China in 1996. Just in time for the Asian financial crisis to run the company into bankruptcy in 1997.
If Kia was going to survive, it needed a partner with deep pockets.
Ford already had a relationship with Kia and tried to broaden it. However, Hyundai outbid Ford Motor Company, and Kia remained a Korean concern. Gaining a controlling interest, Hyundai bought a 51 percent stake in the company. While subsequent divestments have decreased that position significantly, Hyundai is still the majority stockholder in Kia. With this fresh injection of capital, Kia proceeded to set the world on fire, heading into the 21st century.
Now a member of the Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group, the brand has undergone a concerted effort to improve Kia automobiles on every front. This has resulted in greatly improved reliability, stunning new designs, and a brand new factory in the United States. Identifying design as its "core future growth engine", the company hired former Audi design head Peter Schreyer as its chief design officer.
Schreyer infused Kia’s product portfolio with crisp, European-looking designs any premium manufacturer would be proud to park in its dealer’s showrooms. The sleek lines and elegant details Schreyer brought to Kia vehicles have resulted in one eye-catching model after another from the brand that gave the world frumpiness on wheels in the form of that first Kia Sephia.
November 2009, marked the opening of the first U.S. Kia Motors factory; Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia in West Point. The facility is currently building the Kia Sorento crossover vehicle and the Kia Optima sedan. Further, determined engineering has improved the reliability aspect of Kia cars as well. The company now offers one of the strongest warranty protection programs available. This has improved consumer confidence considerably.
Today’s Kia vehicles are among the most desirable in their price ranges.