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At First, there was Saenara (or National Motor)
Daewoo's life in the US was short lived—the result of Daewoo Group's far too vigorous business model that precipitated overexpansion. The tragic story of the once-prominent conglomerate will forever be tied to the automotive branch's global success. A story of "what could have been" if Daewoo Motors' entry-level models hadn't been marred by a chaebol (the name for a Korean business conglomerate) spread far too thin while drowning in heavy debt. If only the Daewoo Group had more time, we may have seen some truly upscale and innovative models. Tainted by their ties, the high-trim versions of the rare Daewoo models are, for the most part, the last functional remnants of an old overseas venture.
Daewoo's lineage can be traced back to South Korea's recovery following the Korean War. The Korean Government issued Five Year Economic Development Plans in order to industrialize the country, stabilize the automobile industry, and get the economy back on its feet. Companies were set up to manufacture certain passenger and commercial vehicles. The Saenara Motor Company was formed from from National Motor, which it had been called until 1962, and spent the majority of its energy constructing models from semi-knocked-down kits from Datsun and scrap metal leftover from the War.
Under a plan to regrow South Korea's economy, the government focused its efforts on keeping companies local so that many of their industries could once again flourish and help the country become self-sufficient. The South Korean Government reassigned Saenara to Shinjin Industrial—selected for their technological resources—in 1964. Shinjin Industrial later created the Shinjin Automobile Company as a division to take over the automotive operation. The division officially collected the plant as their own in 1965.
And then there was Shinjin
In an agreement with Mitshubishi Motors, Shinjin planned on receiving shipped parts to reassemble Mitusbishi's models. This, according to other competitors, was not on par with what they had initially agreed upon with the government, which annulled the deal in 1966. After the fall through with Mitsubishi, Shinjin changed its name to Shinjin Motor and formed an agreement with Toyota to assemble Coronas, building the imported kits with at least 20% of their own parts. The success led to an unchallenged monopoly that would only fall after Hyundai, Asia Motors, and Kia all received agreement plans within the next five years.
As you can imagine, passenger car production in South Korea soared. By 1972, Toyota sold their 50% stake in Shinjin Motor to GM, since Toyota wanted to expand into the Chinese market but was forced to resign any production in South Korea in order to do so. This created a joint venture between the Shinjin Industrial Company and GM. They agreed to change the name from Shinjin Motor to General Motors Korea (GMK). GM went ahead and introduced their cars into South Korea, opening the doors for newer rebadged models like the Opel-inspired Rekord and Holden-inspired LJ Torana, known as the Chevrolet 1700, and later the Saehan Camina, in Korea, when the company renamed itself as Saehan Motor in 1976. However, financial difficulties prompted Shinjin Industrial to sell its share to the Korea Development Bank shortly after.
The Formation of the Daewoo Group
Meanwhile, a man named Woo Choong Kim founded textile exporter Daewoo in 1967. Daewoo (meaning "Great Universe" in Chinese) was the second largest exporter in South Korea by 1972. Daewoo became known for buying other companies out to expand into several fields. Acquisitions like Hankook Machinery, Ltd. (later becoming Daewoo Heavy Industries) manufactured parts like diesel engines and industrial machinery. As Daewoo bought out more companies, it acquired resources that furthered its capability to branch out into even more industries. This opened up the door for the Daewoo automobile.
In 1978, Daewoo acquired the 50% share in Saehan Motor from the Korea Development Bank, establishing a joint-venture with GM Korea. Many of their models were GM products rebadged as Saehans. By 1983, though, Daewoo acquired controlling interest and renamed the company to Daewoo Motor Company. It became one of the top passenger car producers in Korea along with Hyundai and Kia. They continued to produce many GM cars with the Daewoo badge, like the Daewoo LeMans (known as the Pontiac LeMans, Opel Kadett E, and Asuna GT elsewhere), the Espero (built on GM's J platform, like the Buick Skyhawk and the Oldsmobile Firenza), and models like the Saehan Rekord became the Daewoo Royale and the Daewoo Imperial (heavily inspired by the Chevy Imperial).
At Last, a True Daewoo Car
Daewoo, now fully capable of handling all aspects of automobile manufacturing on their own, went on the buy the rest of the stake from GM in 1991. To further their reach across the globe, the Daewoo Group went on to purchase many foreign companies throughout the nineties—such as International Automotive Design (England), Rodae (Romania), FSO (Poland), Avia (Czech Republic), and Uz (Uzbekistan). Their expansion and agreements with other companies lead to the creation of more passenger cars like the Honda Legend (known as the Arcadia) and the Cielo.
Daewoo finally produced their first in-house products in 1996, with their first motor being featured in the Lanos. A subcompact car with a 1.5L inline-4 engine, the Lanos was available in four trims: S, SE, SE Plus, SX, and later SPORT, and three body styles: a four-door sedan and a three and five-door hatchback. But while the Lanos was built on GM's T platform, the Leganza featured Daewoo's authentic V100 platform. The name "Leganza" was a blend of the Italian words elegante and forza to mean "elegant power." The name might have taken some influence from its Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. Available as a mid-size sedan, it was probably Daewoo's most popular model in the US. It ran on a 2.2L inline-4 and was only available as a front-wheel drive four-door sedan with three trims: the SE, SX, and CDX.
The American Demise and Daewoo Motors Today
However, Daewoo's existence in the US was short lived as a result of the Daewoo Group expanding too quickly in too many fields. When the Asian financial crisis hit, in the late 1990s, Daewoo found itself in $50 billion dollars of debt. Many of their automotive endeavors were struggling to reel in a profit, and in order to pay off some of its debt, it put the automotive endeavor up on the market. GM working with its Japanese partners Isuzu, Suzuki, and Fuji Heavy Industries, agreed to purchase 66.7% of the assets in 2001 and changed the name to GM Daewoo, completing a full circle back to Korea. Without much strong success in America, GM let Daewoo Motor America, Daewoo's American importer and distributer, walk. This, however, created quite a bit of controversy, as Daewoo dealers, fully aware of their inevitable demise, began cutting the prices of some of their top trim, newer, or less-used models in half- in some cases from $18,000 to $9,000. While on the surface it seemed like a steal, with promises from dealers that GM would honor any repairs under warranty, this was simply not the case and many Daewoos were sent to an early grave due to the lack of available imports and parts from Korea.
GM Korea, however, was able to stabilize itself back home. Any new imports to the US were rebadged as Chevys or Suzukis, while GM focused on expanding the Daewoo brand throughout Asia. Nearly ten years later, as GM expanded its share in the company and gained a majority ownership, the name was changed to GM Korea, and has since gone on to become the second largest automobile manufacturer in South Korea behind Hyundai, selling models like the Chevy Malibu and the Buick Encore.