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.
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.
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.
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…