Old Gold Top Gear: Proton MPI

Looking back now, it’s hard to believe that Proton was once the darling of the UK motoring industry. When the Malaysian firm burst onto the scene in 1989, it quickly established a firm foothold in the market, once enjoying as much as 1% of total UK sales. At the heart of its success was the Proton MPI – a Mitsubishi Lancer-based budget motor.

The Proton MPI didn’t offer a huge amount of choice. Buyers could choose between a hatchback and Shatchback, a pair of petrol engines and three trim levels. But it did offer proven Mitsubishi reliability, cheap prices, excellent warranties and attractive finance deals. As the ads promised, the Proton MPI could deliver ‘Japanese Technology and Malaysian Flair’.

Within two years of its arrival, the Proton MPI had racked up 22,000 sales, making Proton the fastest growing new car company ever to enter the UK. Awards duly followed – What Car? best car of the year 1991, Auto Express best value popular new cars 1992 and What Car? best buy family car up to £10,000 1993. Good effort, Proton.

Proton 1.3 and 1.5 GL Aeroback

For buyers interested in getting from A to B without worrying about going via C, it was just the ticket. Cheap, reliable and at one point, a dealer network that was more extensive than Citroën’s. The Proton MPI was everywhere – loved by school teachers, adored by budget conscious families and driven by the masses. Many people would embrace the Proton brand, going on to buy six or seven subsequent models.

This created a double-edged sword for Proton. On the one hand it had a legion of loyal followers who would gratefully lap up every special edition of the Compact, Persona, Wira and Impian that were to follow. But on the other hand the loyal fans were quite literally dying off and weren’t being replaced with new buyers. By the time the Savvy and Satria Neo arrived, Proton had a shrinking market and an even smaller dealer network.

Old Gold Top Gear: Proton MPI

So you could argue that the MPI represented the peak of Proton’s presence in the UK. Rather like the patches on the elbows of your geography teacher’s suit jacket, it was never cool. But two decades later it suddenly holds a huge amount of charm. So it was dated in the 1990s? Who cares? It just makes it even more charming in 2013.

The hatchback version even had a vaguely interesting name – the Aeroback. It sounds like the result of a rock supergroup involving Steven Tyler and Chad Kroeger. The first single? This is how you remind me that I don’t want to miss a thing.

There were even a few deliciously sounding special editions along the way. Who could resist the lure of the Proton 1.5 GL Black Knight? Sadly it looks like there is only one left on the road today.

Proton GL Black Knight

In fact it’s rather tricky finding any Proton MPIs. It’s destined for extinction – an unfashionable car that moved quickly towards bangerdom. Go straight to jail, don’t pass go and don’t pick up any collectable bonuses.

And to think that barely 22 years ago it was being applauded by a tanktop-wearing Chris Goffey for its respectable anonymity. This snippet from the Top Gear archives is notable for the brilliantly loud warning buzzer – I thought a nuclear submarine was about to appear on the canal. Also look out for the bit when Goffey shamelessly tosses a fuse into the water. Today the BBC would have received as many as six complaints for such a blatant bit of literring.

Enjoy the video. PetrolBlog’s love of old Protons is growing stronger every day. Don’t be surprised if one arrives at PBHQ some time soon…

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ABOUT AUTHOR
Gavin Big-Surname
The chief waffler and founder of PetrolBlog in 2010. Has a rather unhealthy obsession with cars from the 80s and 90s, and is on a one-man mission to collect the cars nobody else wants. Also likes tea and Hobnobs.

8 comments

  1. May 24, 2013
    Neil

    Fifth Gear used one as part of a ‘banger’ feature a few years back.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPIn2hYMHg0

    I was strangely attracted to it. Shame they then ran it over with a tank a few episodes later…

    Reply
    • May 24, 2013
      Gavin Big-Surname

      I remember that. Came up pretty well after a good wash. Didn’t they run it with no oil a couple of weeks later.

      Just one question – who is Kate Lawler?

      Reply
      • May 24, 2013
        Neil

        Not this one, I think it was a Persona. I also think I should probably get out more….

        Reply
    • May 27, 2013
      Tom

      Good stuff that video.

      O/T but I’ve not seen a facelift e46 M3 before, can see why it didn’t come from the factory like that!

      Reply
  2. May 27, 2013
    Tom

    I remember my ride in one of these (a Scottish taxi) as distinctly scary!

    Still a car so poverty spec that it has only one door mirror is strangely appealing!

    Reply
    • May 29, 2013
      Gavin Big-Surname

      Ha! Most people remember rides in taxis as scary!

      One in a Proton MPI must have been terrifying…

      Reply
  3. July 5, 2013
    JeremyNg

    In Malaysia the hatchback calls Proton Iswara and the other calls Proton Saga. There are still a lot of numbers of it running on the road , actually it’s a very reliable car and easy to maintain.

    I strongly agreed with you that Proton is growing day by day but not many Malaysians gonna agree with it because most of us actually hate Proton due to few reasons (Main reason : extremely high tax on non Malaysia cars such as Honda, Toyota and etc). To be honest, Proton tried very hard to capture back all their customers. One of their latest product which is very good : Proton Preve (1.6 turbocharged engine + 7speed CVT), not sure you guys get it at UK ?

    Btw, currently they actually joint venture with Honda to produce a car which is something very interesting.

    Reply

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