SsangYong and the risks of rebranding | Axon’s Automotive Anorak

17th June 2024
Gary Axon

As Elon Musk and Alfa Romeo have recently discovered to their cost, renaming a brand or product can be a costly, confusing, and ultimately an embarrassing affair.


When Musk chose to rename his Twitter platform ‘X’, utter confusion reigned for an age, with most still referencing ‘X’ as ‘formerly known as Twitter’. Through its Stellantis master, Alfa Romeo has suffered as similar self-inflicted goal by renaming its new entry crossover SUV as Junior, rather than the Milano model name the car was originally set to be launched with. Thankfully for Alfa Romeo, the potential damage has been limited as the Junior has yet to hit most markets, but in the case of X, to many, it is likely to always be referred to as Twitter.

Nissan had an easier ride when it globally phased out its previous Datsun export brand name for the Japanese marque 40 years ago, yet the ex-Rootes Hillman never quite recovered when its new (then-recent) American master rebranded this once best-selling British marque as Chrysler, with its name changing again just three years later to Talbot, when broken Chrysler’s European operations were taken over by the PSA Peugeot Group. Owners of Hillman (nee-Chrysler/Talbot) Avengers were forever getting their boot badges changed!


When it comes to writing the history of a motoring marque, few will ever be as complex or confusing as that of the South Korean SUV marque SsangYong. Difficult to pronounce (and even trickier to spell!), SsangYong has never really enjoyed a strong awareness, desirability, or clear identity outside of its own South Korea territory, due mainly to its erratic past, its bewildering array of band names and badges, and its tendency for going in and out of business.

With roots spreading back 85 years (as Samkong Fat Ltd.), and a post-war automotive background founded by building Jeeps and trucks under licence for local South Korean consumption, by the 1970s the SsangYong Group of companies had grown into one of South Korea’s largest enterprise groups. Due to patchy production caused by frequent strikes and industrial disputes, what became the SsangYong passenger car division was founded in 1963. This grew out of the merger of the Ha Dong-hwan workshop and Dongbang Motor Co. to form the Ha Donghwan Motor Company, before changing its name to a more internationally palatable Dong-A Motors.

After acquiring the respected British Panther Westwinds sports car concern in 1987, SsangYong changed its name from Dong-A Motors to the parent SsangYong, moving production of the 1930s-eques Panther Kallister from Brooklands and Harlow to South Korea. It also funded the development and productionisation of the advanced but complex mid-engined Panther Solo 2 in the late 1980s, and even resorted to presenting an undated SsangYong branded example of the Solo in South Korea, which sadly never made production.


By 1997, however, SsangYong disintegrated in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. It was sold to its fellow domestic automotive rival Daewoo as part of the latter’s ambitious and very fast-paced rush to expand its activities. All SsangYong vehicles were rebranded as Daewoos, but these were short-lived as, due to its own financial instability, Daewoo itself went into receivership in 2000. The SsangYong division was disposed of as General Motors (GM) took over control of Daewoo to form the renamed GM Daewoo, with its products in turn rebranded as affordable Chevrolets.

Ahead of this time, Ssangyong had made a deal with Mercedes-Benz to use some of its cast-off mechanical components and expertise to use in its own SUVs, such as the Musso and Rexton, giving these off-roaders a certain degree of credibility. Their distinctive design, penned by British stylist Ken Greenley (of Aston Martin Virage, Bentley Jura prototype, and Panther Solo 2 fame) also helped certain Ssangyong models to stand out from the bland ‘me-too’ SUV herd. The multi-seat Rodius people carrier of 2004 though, was a tad too ‘different’ for most tastes, this wild MPV being widely regarded as one of the ugliest production cars ever made in recent years!  

The Chinese automotive giant SAIC took a 51 per cent in the dormant SsangYong 2004 and recommenced SUV production, only for Ssangyong to be declared bankrupt in 2009, when all vehicle production was halted. Having been the highest bidder for the failed company in 2010, in 2011 Mahindra & Mahindra (the Indian Jeep manufacturer that now also owns the celebrated Italian coachbuilder and design house Pininfarina) successfully took over all of SsangYong’s model range and manufacturing rights.


Mysteriously, despite Mahindra's own proven SUV activities, the SsangYong brand was revived and returned to the UK (plus many other export markets) in the 2010s via low-key distributors. This low profile meant that the SsangYong name never really built up an image in the UK, so its latest rebranding chapter in the confusing history of the marque will potentially not matter a great deal, as few would-be SUV buyers know what a SsangYong is anyway. In 2022, ownership of Ssangyong changed hands yet again with Mahindra selling its shareholding to the South Korean KG Group organisation.

With the brand name now known as the anonymous and instantly forgettable KGM Motors, most of the SUV and pick-up products of the former Ssangyong remain, but rebranded as KGMs. These include the likeable Korando, the Tivoli and Rexton II SUVs, the Musso pick-up, plus the new mid-size Torres, a stylish SUV available in both ICE and EVX configurations.

KGM is certainly far easier to say and spell than SsangYong, and hopefully the new Torres will help to establish the latest KGM brand name and put the ex-Ssangyong product on the map, but I have still yet to see one out on the roads, and I’m not holding my breath until I do, as I suspect this might take some time…

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