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Made in Korea: around Hyundai city in a Tucson

And you thought Hyundai just built cars? Big has a whole new meaning...

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  • This isn’t a story about the Tucson. It’s not even about Hyundai really. It’s about Korea, although the development of one is wrapped up in the fortunes of the other.

    So where to start? I was going to begin with some sort of random observation about the Tucson and use that to illustrate the scale and ambition of this country, but then we went to Ulsan, and the scale and ambition blew my mind.

    It’s a city of 1.1 million people – about the size of Birmingham – and it’s home to the world’s largest car factory and the world’s largest shipbuilding facility. Both are Hyundai facilities. In my ignorance, I expected the place to be positively Victorian, a mad, dark mash of mills and smog and noise and chimneys, a greasy, poisonous hell on earth, but it wasn’t. It was really rather wholesome and enticing.

    Photos: Rowan Horncastle

    This feature originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Top Gear magazine

  • Guess how many people in this bright, upbeat city are either dependents of employees or employed, directly or indirectly, by Hyundai? Half of them. Some 600,000. Locals semi-jokingly refer to it as Hyundai city. We look back on some of our early industrialists, men who not only built the factories and mills, but supplied housing, education and welfare, and remember them as public spirited, almost philanthropic. Here, in this south-eastern corner of Korea, Hyundai built homes for 200,000, and all the amenities that go with them – schools, hospitals, parks, theatres. And it’s all subsidised. If you’re a single worker, you can live in shared accommodation for about $50. Not per day, nor per week, but per month. I know what you’re thinking: the wages must be rubbish.

    In the shipyard there are these old men on bikes: they pedal slowly around on your sister’s first bike, waving batons and blowing whistles, warning everyone of an approaching crane or 800-tonne low-loader. I ask our guide what they earn. “Over $60,000” comes the reply. I ask for clarification – no, the old men on bikes, like those ones over there. “Yes, at least $60,000 US a year.”

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  • The average wage across the city is over $50,000. No wonder the place is buzzing at night. The philosophy is simple: you pay people well and you can build them a home, sell them a car, feed them in your restaurants, clothe and supply them from your shops, keep them happy. What goes around comes around – Ulsan’s income per head of population is over $80,000 – one of the highest anywhere in the world. Utopia? No, there are bound to be skeletons in closets here, and there’s something communistic about the vast, drab concrete apartment blocks, but it’s the vision, and the sheer scale of it, that counts here.

    We flew into Seoul with a rough plan based on a truckload of research I’d done in the office. You might have heard that there’s more to Hyundai than cars, and maybe even that they’re one of only two marques in the world (the other being Tata) that make their own steel. So the plan was to follow that path, from iron ore to finished car. It would give us a nice geographic journey, from Dangjin in the north-west to Ulsan in the south-east, which would take us over the mountains that cover 70 per cent of South Korea’s land area.

  • But the more I looked into it, the more fascinated I became by the side stories and how the country itself approaches development. There was a drought a few decades back and due to the topography, they couldn’t grow enough rice. So a plan was hatched to reclaim some land for agriculture by building a sea dyke. It’s called the Saemangeum Sea Wall, and at 21 miles long, it’s the world’s largest. They’ve penned up 150 square miles of the sea. It’s like throwing a dam across the English Channel. Imagine the protests, the inquests and turmoil to get this off the ground in the UK. There were ecological concerns, but it was decided that the greater good was served by it being built, so it was built.

    So we went there, it’s stunning. It links whole islands, and is big enough that it has a dual carriageway running all the way along it, even over the giant sluice gates that control it. And on the longest section all you can see in every direction is water or wall, nothing else. That’s surreal. The 6.8-mile-long main straight would be perfect for a run-what-ya-brung.

  • Up in the north, a dam has been built. It cost $400 million and holds back no water at all. Many say it was a waste of money, some allege that fraud was involved in its construction, but the pragmatic reasoning behind it is the key here. Across the border, North Korea has a dam of its own. Relations between the two aren’t good, and the South believed that either mischief or construction failures could cause the dam on the sabre-rattling, nuclear-equipped, weirdly-coiffed side to burst, flooding a good chunk of the south. So as a just-in-case, they built the Peace Dam.

    Are you starting to get an idea of the mindset here? These projects, achieved by private enterprise in cooperation with government planning are massive, ambitious, rapidly achieved and often public-spirited. Nothing stands still here.

  • Except the traffic in Seoul. It’s abysmal, like God sent a plague of cars, as well as locusts. Perhaps we should blame Hyundai. After all, it sells 41 per cent of all new cars in the country, some 685,000 last year. Twenty-five million people, and almost no one rides a bike. It’s the first lesson. Others follow in this prosperous, friendly city; the open-network wifi is unbelievably fast, and although there’s a good smattering of European metal, Korea prefers a homegrown saloon and its goods are moved by Hyundai Porter – the Transit equivalent. The driving style is assertive yet considerate, and the smog...

    It doesn’t get better as we drive an hour or two south, but the greasy thickness in the air is only half the story. This is not domestic smog, instead it blows across the Yellow Sea from China and sits heavy over the town of Dangjin. We’re here to see the Hyundai steelworks – it’s the world’s largest (this, you’ll notice, is a recurring theme), and initially conforms to a vision of post-apocalyptic hell: heat-blackened chimneys, austere buildings, officious officials, 62 miles of conveyor belts, its very own 800mw power station and train line, all set against a backdrop of throbbing industrial noise and vibration. But when I look closer, no weeds, no rust, and when I question a slag heap I’m informed it’s not waste – it goes off to make cement. That’s another Hyundai offshoot.

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  • Again the scale: we park the Tucson in one of seven vast, domed iron-ore stores. It’s the size of a football stadium, and can hold a quarter of a million tonnes of ore. That’s only enough to keep the smelters burning for, ooh, less than a week. We pick up the process once the steel has been formed into giant ingots a foot or more thick, with a footprint the size of a truck. These great blocks, 25 tonnes apiece, are glowing, pulsing with pure heat as they thunder down the conveyor line, into the path of a series of giant machines that pummel, squeeze and roll the 800° metal. Heat radiates viciously up to the overhead walkway, steam hisses, engines churn, pistons shove, it’s like a deconstructed steam engine scaled up more than a thousand times. And at the end of this building, several hundred metres away, the cooled sheet steel becomes a roll, 1.6mm thick and well over a kilometre long. The stuff they make cars from.

    The plates that make Ulsan’s ships come from here too, the plant churns out 24 million tonnes of steel each year. So surely they must have a spare piece? My request is turned down. Shame – I wanted to use our car to transport some metal which would then be made into another car – a sort of slightly confused chicken-and-egg scenario. But there are no scraps, no leftovers. It’s a 25-tonne roll or nothing. I check the Tucson’s towing capacity. It’s not going to work.

  • In search of a different pace, a different take on the country, we head south, first to the Saemangeum Sea Wall and then inland. The Tucson takes distance in its stride – it’s comfy, good-natured and capable, and arguably the most polished, handsome car the firm has produced, if not exactly fizzing with energy and life. It’s in the mould of a Toyota or a Nissan. Hardly a surprise when Japan’s not far away.

    We end the day sleeping on a floor in Jeonju – a traditional guest house. But even in this more isolated central belt of the country, you get the feeling this is something put on for the tourists. The next day it’s soup for breakfast. There’s a lot of soup in Korea, mostly watery and swimming with vegetables. Protein may be lacking, but in five days I don’t see a single person I’d class as obese. Nevertheless, this picture of old Korea feels a bit forced, like it’s showing an agrarian, rural world that’s fast fading.

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  • We do miles through the mountains and it’s all rather pleasant. There are nice views across forested hillsides, isolated communities where locals view us with unabashed curiosity, but the roads are beautifully surfaced and temptingly twisty. It’s not stellar stuff, and I can’t say the Tucson was the right tool for the job, or that the Koreans have much of an enthusiastic driving culture (or tuner industry, for that matter), so at Geochang we hop back on the motorway for a long swing south via Busan to Ulsan. Once you’re used to the lane discipline (no prescriptive fast or slow lanes, so watch your mirrors), motorways are good here, although when it all jams up there are inveterate lane-changers, always looking for a speedier path through.

    Distances aren’t big in Korea – it’s smaller and more densely populated than England – but travel is slow. Inland, that’s down to the topography; by the coast, to the traffic. So we arrive in Ulsan, where Hyundai is king. It bustles, glows bright beneath neon at night and the air is clean.

  • Under its founder, Chung Ju-Yung, Hyundai was a vast single company – chaebol is what they call these family-run conglomerates out here – but was split up following his death in 2001. The various branches are separate now, but almost all are still run by his brothers or sons. It grew fast, rebuilding infrastructure, dams, roads, powerplants, in the aftermath of the Korean War in the Fifties when the country was one of the world’s poorest. It built cars to drive on the roads it made, construction equipment to assist with building, and steel to underpin it all (Ju-Yung famously said that the only difference between building a skyscraper and a ship was that one needed a propulsion system). Fingers everywhere, each informing the decision-making that leads to the next.

    We visit the car factory, the world’s biggest, with 1.5 million cars built each year by its 36,000 employees. It’s colossal, of course, but by now I’m getting a bit number-blind. In factory one, we watch the steel from Dangjin being unrolled into giant presses, where it’s stamped and formed into recognisable parts of a car. The numbers are baffling: a car every 10 seconds, 24 on-site restaurants, 5,000 cars a day loaded on to boats by an elite team of drivers who apparently earn six-figure salaries. We watch them in action at the factory’s own dock. They don’t hang about, but are so smooth as the cars sweep up the ramps that it’s like watching t’ai chi. Apparently the cars have to be parked within 10cm of each other, wing mirrors in, every time.

  • And then it’s the shipyard: 63,000 employees, 78 restaurants, company theatre, football team, 20 ships in build across 10 dry docks, 3.2 million tonnes of steel plate alone. Hyundai builds 15 per cent of the world’s heavy shipping and 35 per cent of its marine engines. Vast cranes lift and carry 1,500-tonne reservoirs the size of stately homes and drop them into gaping hulls, whole sides of ships are carted about on weird purpose-built transporters. There are engines bigger than my house, and, currently in build, the world’s largest-ever container ship. It’s a quarter of a mile long. Everywhere, the pinprick firefly glow of welding torches, and, once again, everything in this mechanical ballet moves with perfect choreography, carefully directed by these old men on bikes. I stand and watch for ages – it’s fascinating.

    Later we drive back north on Highway One, the country’s first motorway and, yep, built by Hyundai. My head is full of facts and figures, but there’s a bigger picture at work here. What has pushed Hyundai to grow so fast, to be so ambitious? In fact, what drives the whole country? OK, I’m sure a relatively loose regulatory structure helps, but when a company – or related companies – is this big, what’s good for Hyundai is ultimately good for Korea. Hyundai only built its first car in 1976, but look how fast it’s progressed. It’s now caught up with the Japanese and, following the Lexus template, is separating Genesis off as a luxury brand and introducing N Performance to prove to Europeans that it can build a fast car, too. Would you bet against them?

  • It’s this seamless transition and expansion, from one area of business and industry to another that characterises not only Hyundai and other chaebols, such as Samsung and LG, but the whole country. In the UK, we had our industrial revolution but, for the most part, have struggled to move from manufacturing into large-scale high-tech industries. It’s like we need to have a pause, to rest on our laurels for a while. We think of ourselves as a developed nation, while Korea says it’s a developing nation. And it’ll always say that, because it’ll always be aiming higher.

    They have a phrase in Korea: Pali-pali. It means hurry up, get on with it. This is the Korean psyche. They’re a friendly people, more open than the Japanese, but they want to get things done. And then you look at the local geography and realise the external forces at work. For a thousand years, China and Japan have fought over the Korean peninsula and today, as an independent nation, it’s fighting against the economic might of the two countries that trap it in a vast pincer, not to mention the threat of an unhinged military dictatorship to the north. And it’s that spirit, that energy and drive that’s at the heart of this nation. A brown Hyundai Tucson is just another step along the road.

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