A brief history of Kia: From bicycle parts to the Sportage

The Kia Motors Corporation is the number two car manufacturer in South Korea, second only to long-time competitor Hyundai. Hyundai, by the way, owns 32.8% of Kia. The name Kia is derived from the Korean and Chinese word “ki”, meaning to rise or come out and “a” for Asia. This is because since 1944, Kia Motors has been steadily rising out of Asia. OSV take a look at the history of the Korean marque.

When Did Kia Start Making Cars?

The firm began as a simple producer of handmade tubing and bicycle parts. By 1951, Kia had moved on to making complete bicycles and was manufacturing motorcycles by 1957.

This natural, steady progression continued with trucks in 1962 and finally cars in 1974. The first car Kia produced was the Kia Brisa which remained in production through until 1981. By 1973, Kia had built its first, integrated automobile manufacturing facility, the Sohari plant. Kia’s first export was the Brisa pickup, which was sold in Qatar.

When Did Kia Stop Making Cars?

Interestingly, Kia had to stop making cars in 1981. This was because the South Korean government decided that the country’s auto industry was  too competitive and ordered Kia to cease manufacturing cars and instead should focus on light trucks.

This order remained in place until 1986 when Kia began production of the Ford Festiva (aka the  Kia Pride or Mazda 121) for export. Over the following years, Kia produced or assembled cars for other marques, including the Peugeot 604, the Fiat 132 and the Ford Aspire.

A red kia pride parked beside a lake

When Was Kia Motors America Created?

a Kia Sportage parked with two school children playing behind

Though US consumers had already been driving rebadged Kia cars for some years, Kia Motors America was officially founded in 1992 and, two years later, the firm began selling vehicles from just four dealerships in Portland, Oregon. Since then, they expanded one region at a time. In 1994, dealers sold the Sephia, then Kia introduced the Sportage to US markets. By 1995, over 100 Kia dealerships existed across the US, selling 24,740 automobiles.

When Did Hyundai Buy Kia?

Unfortunately for Kia, the nineties weren’t as prosperous as Kia may have hoped. The Asian financial crisis of 1997 led to Kia declaring bankruptcy. In 1998, Kia reached an agreement with Hyundai Motor Company to exchange ownership between the two companies. The result of this was Hyundai acquiring  51% of the company. Interestingly, Hyundai outbid Ford Motor Company, who had been interested in Kia since 1986.

Anyway, Hyundai currently own about a third of Kia, and Kia own around 22 different Hyundai subsidiaries.

Kia In The New Millennium

Heading into the new millennium, Kia shifted its focus to the European market. It also beefed up its operations in the United States with the opening of Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia, which has an annual output of 300,000 cars for both North American and global markets.

Since 2001, Kia has also opened manufacturing plants in Vietnam, Slovakia, China and the Philippines.

In August 2014, Kia found themselves receiving international attention when Pope Francis rode in the Kia Soul, one of their compact cars. This was during his visit to South Korea, and interestingly drew more attention than the other two vehicles he used – the Kia Carnival and Hyundai Santa Fe.

One black and one red kia soul parked side by side
Has the Kia soul caught your eye? Head over and check our transparent review of this vehicle

This year (2016), Kia Motors reliability was ranked first in the US by JD Power, becoming the first non-luxury brand to do this since 1989.

Kia Today

Kia has seen continued success in recent years and are familiar sights on roads across the world. Models include the Rio, Venga, Soul and Picanto as well as the Sportage, which has firmly established itself in the market next to the Nissan Qashqai. They continue to make cars that are known for their reliability, and their seven-year warranties. And there’s no doubt that we will continue to see an abundance of Kia cars on the road in the future.

Kia as a manufacturer have a pretty exciting history We recommend you take a look at our latest Kia deals here today 
Rachel Richardson
Latest posts by Rachel Richardson (see all)
  • 8th November 2016


  • KEITH PUGH| 24th October 2020 at 2:12 pm Reply

    I have owed in 57 years of driving most makes of cars from Mercedes/Porsche/Lotus/BMW/Ford/ and many more I have just bought my first Kia after treading a 22 month old BMW X3 which had lost 27,000 pounds the Kia is not a BMW but I am very pleased with Sportage but I have had I lot of stick from my friends I will have the last laugh

    • Rachel Richardson| 3rd November 2020 at 9:31 am Reply

      Hi Keith,
      Thank you for sharing your experience with Kia and BMW. Kia have a very strong reputation when it comes to reliability, however, BMW has improved a considerable amount over the last few years and they are certainly moving up the rankings quite quickly.

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