Korean Car Culture Really is Black and White
Automologist MAC makes a trip to Seoul and found that the local car scene is the opposite of K-Pop.
One of the great things about writing about cars is you often get some flimsy excuse to go check out the scene in some other country. This happened to me when I was invited to an event in downtown Seoul, Korea. Checking out the car culture in countries that I go to is something I relish, so I was excited, but things didn’t go anywhere near as well as I had hoped or expected. Instead of being wowed by exotic street machines, I hit a wall of blandness.
Any colour you like as long as it is white or black.
The first hint that my expectations were to be dashed was when I joined the queue for a taxi: wall-to-wall Hyundai Sonatas or Kia Optimas. Not that they are bad cars, but there was absolutely no variation. Just Optimas and Sonatas as far as the eye could see.
My second indication that I was to be disappointed came as the taxi came to a stop at a traffic light in downtown Seoul. This is when I discovered that just about every car in Korea is Korean. Now, I don’t mean that there was a predominance of Korean cars, I mean they were ALL Korean. Sure, on the drive I saw a smattering of BMWs and Mercedes and Range Rovers, but all around and as far as the eye could see, there seemed to be just Sonatas and Fortes and Tucsons and Santa Fes and Grandeurs.
I did spy the very occasional Toyota—and how boring the car culture must be if I got excited by a Camry—but where were the Hondas, the Mitsubishis, the Isuzus and the Fords; all so conspicuous by their absence. Some of you out there may think that I am kidding, but the stats that I could find indicate that something like 85% of the passenger cars on the roads of Korea are Korean. But worse than that, of those Korean cars, almost 83% are made by Hyundai or Kia (which is of course owned by Hyundai).
But wait, it got worse. Not only is there not much variety in Korean cars models, but there is also virtually no variation in the colours of the cars. To put it simply, every car is either white, black, gray or silver, and I do mean just about every car. I asked my host why all of the cars were achromatic, he simply replied, completely earnestly: “Because we like those colours.” I didn’t want to appear facetious so I didn’t tell him that technically they are not colours as they do not appear in the spectrum and are in fact tones.
Now, I know some of you out there will not believe me, so I did actually do some research on the subject and lo and behold, I found an article in the Korean Herald from March of last year that also explored this theme; the following is a graphic from that story:
Didn’t see any blue ones.
Some of you may be remarking that in a land where almost half the population have the surname of Park, Kim, Lee or Choi (no, I am not making this up), then variety is not actually the spice of life and the subtle art of blending into society means that you should never stand out. I am not an anthropologist, so I will let those people who like to study people debate why there is such a lack of colour in the lives of Korean car owners. I just know that the streets were really colourless.
Even VWs come in white or black.
Arriving back at my hotel in Seoul after a hard day, I saw a bright red Chevrolet parked in the middle of the sea of white and black and, you know, after just a few days of being immersed in Korea, it looked odd. It really stood out like a sore thumb; it almost shouted out “look at me I am desperate for attention” amongst the rest of the grey drabness. It appeared almost too vulgar to be on the streets of Seoul.