The Proton Coupe: “only a weirdo could love its looks”. Not my words, Carol, but the words of Jason Barlow in 1997. Welcome to PetrolBlog, where being weird is a badge of honour.
With the benefit of hindsight, the Proton Coupe never stood a chance. It arrived in the UK at the end of 1997, just as Ford was teaching the world how to build a cracking small coupe. The Ford Puma rendered the majority of affordable coupes largely null and void. See also: Vauxhall Tigra, Citroën Xsara Coupe, Hyundai Coupe and Renault Megane Coupe.
It was designed to add a touch of glamour to Proton’s rather uninspiring UK model line-up. For Proton’s core audience, the arrival of the Coupe must have been akin to Edwina Currie announcing her arrival at the Conservative Club whist drive by doing a striptease.
Like other Proton models before it, the Coupe was a hand-me-down, able to trace its roots back to the Mitsubishi Mirage or Asti Coupe. Whatever Barlow might think, the Asti’s styling was certainly worth popping a cork for. Memories of Gran Turismo come flooding back.
American readers will recognise the Proton Coupe as the Dodge Coupe (pictured below), while other territories will remember it as the Proton Putra or M21.
In the UK, it was the most exciting thing to happen to Proton since… well, ever. The Malaysian brand built its UK reputation on low-rate finance and long warranties, so the Coupe was a change in direction.
Recaro seats, MOMO knobs and talk of a “lively 1.8-litre, 16-valve, double overhead cam engine” was as out of place in a Proton dealer as an Ann Summers catalogue at a parish council meeting.
The cabin was a delight for fans of all things grey – hello Edwina Currie – while Proton made a thing about the “deep chin spoiler and twin chromed exhausts”. Still want that Ford Puma?
Most people did. The Proton Coupe arrived with a price tag of £13,999, which was too expensive, especially when an additional grand bagged you a Puma and more laughs than a night out with Jethro. It was also around £1,500 more expensive than the most lavish Proton Persona.
“At last, a coupe designed for drivers, not posers,” claimed Proton. The problem is, so many people buy coupes for precisely that reason: to pose. Few people in Britain wanted to pose in a Proton. Besides, the Puma was proof that you driving and posing could mix.
Undeterred, Proton launched the ambitiously named Coupe Evolution 16v. Inspired the race car, the Proton ‘Evo’ featured 15-inch Momo alloys, low-profile tyres more aggressive styling and the option to boost the performance from 133bhp to 150bhp.
As makeovers go, the Evolution was highly successful. It looked like a low-rent Mitsubishi Evo – a suitable nod to the Proton Coupe Cup racers of the time. It cost £13,999, with its launch in 1999 coinciding with a reduction in the price of the standard Proton Coupe, taking it down to £12,999.
Good enough to take the styling beyond the realm of weirdos? Answers on a postcard to Jason Barlow…
Proton tried really hard to attract a younger audience. Some would argue that the gold alloys, rear wing, bonnet vents and large exhaust are a demonstration of a company trying too hard. Whatever, this budget Impreza WRX tribute act looks the business, as most weirdos will agree.
Today, the Proton Coupe is almost extinct. Many have been lost in the name of engine transplants for the Satria GTi and Jumbuck. Others were snapped up as track toys. PetrolBlog would love to find one, as it’s determined to add a Proton to the fleet.
In the meantime, we should celebrate the weird beauty of the Proton Coupe. A six-year warranty never looked more alluring.