We’re all fully used to the weirdest-sounding car brand of all. A few people reading this may have actually owned a SsangYong, even though it’s fair to say these South Korean products have never been tilted much towards car connoisseurs, more the tightwad chasing the most kit for the least cash.
Back in 1995, when I went on the press launch of the Musso, SsangYong’s initial offering in Britain was a perplexing beast. All mainstream carmakers were piling into the off-roader market like cows heading for the byre at milking time – you were a stick-in-the-mud if you weren’t coming up with a rival to the Land Rover Discovery. And SsangYong only received the necessary blessing from South Korea’s equivalent of the Department of Trade & Industry for its new car project if it specifically devised something big, powerful and prestigious.
This was achieved with help from genuinely upmarket quarters after a licence deal was done with Mercedes-Benz for the use of its 2.9-litre diesel and turbodiesel five-cylinder diesel and straight-six petrol engines.
SsangYong had been making a domestic clone of the Isuzu Trooper for years, and so it had plenty of experience of beefy, body-on-frame four-wheel drives. But now it needed to establish its own product identity, and to do this it called in the services of Professor Ken Greenley to establish its design department and shape the Musso.
This was quire a coup, since Greenley was already part-responsible for acclaimed designs for the Panther Solo, Aston Martin Virage and Bentley Continental R, and taught car design at London’s Royal College of Art.
It turned out as an odd-looking amalgam of sporty estate car top half plonked on to a high-riding Mitsubishi Shogun bottom bit. Not entirely awful but a design informed by strange local customs, chief among which was the privacy of the wealthy owner who would almost certainly travel in the back while his chauffeur drove.
And as to that experience behind the wheel, I noted at the time that the £15,999 standard Musso diesel I tried 27 years ago was hard work on the road – painfully gutless as I rowed through the five BorgWarner speeds, and a rowdy assault on the ears as it crept unwillingly over 70mph. Only the considerably more urgent petrol engine would give the confidence needed to complete an overtaking manoeuvre!
A jiggly ride and vague steering on Britain’s shoddy road surfaces were uncomfortable, but a separate chassis and long-travel coil-spring independent suspension gave it proper off-road ability, bouncing about merrily as it went, and hindered only by a long rear overhang. Four-wheel drive was selectable at speeds of up to 40mph while the rear wheels were already powering along.
There was more good news inside, where the driving position was excellent with supportive seats and a sleek interior ambience reeking of Greenley’s close-up attention. A huge boot on the spacious five-seater was accompanied by a roofline low enough to get a Musso into one of the then-brand new Le Shuttle cross-Channel trains without grazing its roof.
Most of us on the launch reckoned that, despite its suitability to farmland, the Musso was likely to be paraded in suburbia, dragging the odd prestige caravan. The £20,999 fully-loaded GSE had a plastic grab handle on the dash for the front-seat passenger in simulated walnut, which spoke volumes.
As a SsangYong, though, there was barely enough time to sell the anticipated couple of thousand a year in the UK before the manufacturer went bust in 1997 and was quickly snapped up by Daewoo, at which time the off-roader became the Daewoo Musso and fewer still found owners. The patchy, small-scale nature of its imports meant they were never commonplace.
Not long after the turn of the Millennium I was astounded when my sister turned up in one as part of her never-ending stream of secondhand ‘bargains’. The fact it wasn’t on her drive for long pointed to the fact that the Musso was neither well-built nor of any lasting quality. In one contemporary JD Power customer satisfaction survey, the Musso lurked moodily at No 97 out of 120 models analysed.
It’s going to be a real treat to see one at an Unexceptional event, and the Musso will naturally be very much welcomed in such a hallowed arena.
Its footnote in motoring history is an interesting one. Mercedes-Benz had taken a small stake in SsangYong when agreeing to supply the rights to engines and transmissions, and apparently viewed its investment there as part of a scheme ultimately to manufacture a budget range of Mercs in South Korea that would make the German company more profitable. That plan, however, was torn up when it decided instead to merge with Chrysler.
Still, the original Musso ploughed on until 2011, latterly made in Russia as an anything-but-glamorous dual-cab pick-up.