It’s 35 years since the first Proton Saga rolled off the production line in Malaysia. Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional (PROTON) went from nought to something in a very short space of time.
The idea of a national car maker for Malaysia was conceived in 1979 and, following cabinet approval, Proton was formed in 1983. Less than two years later, the Proton Saga was born. It was Malaysia’s first car.
Not that Proton did it alone. Sensibly, the company turned to Mitsubishi for help, using the previous-generation Lancer to underpin the Saga. Many components were built locally near the Proton plant in Kuala Lumpur. Engine and suspension components were supplied by Mitsubishi and bolted to the platform of the Lancer.
At the time, 64 percent of the components in the Proton Saga were sourced locally. As a nameplate, the Saga has been incredibly successful. Some 1.8 million units have been sold, making it the most successful Malaysian car.
It also caused quite a stir in the UK. Launched in March 1989 without a model name, the Proton Saga hit its 12-month sales target within six months. ‘Japanese technology, Malaysian style’ proclaimed the adverts, with Proton acknowledging that the link to ‘Mitsubishi of Japan’ would be a major selling point.
“No-one is going to have an orgasm driving the Proton or looking at it,” is how the Proton UK managing director described the Saga in 1989. Maybe not, but the value-driven Proton certainly struck a chord with UK buyers.
Unveiled at the 1988 British Motor Show, 100,000 people picked up a brochure for the Proton Saga. Of these, 6,000 people left their names and addresses. At one point, Proton enjoyed a one percent share of the UK market.
Within two years, the Proton MPI, as it became known, had racked up 22,000 sales, making Proton the fastest growing new car company to enter the UK market.
The press adverts were deliberately price- and finance-led. FROM ONLY £5,999 EX WORKS. ON THE ROAD FOR £23.99 A WEEK OR ONLY £99 CASH DEPOSIT. These were the headlines in 1989.
Three years later, Proton UK’s approach was even more direct. 0% FINANCE AVAILABLE ON EVERY NEW PROTON OR DRIVE AWAY A NEW PROTON FOR ONLY £99. Best not mention the 18.9 percent typical APR.
The Proton saloon and Aeroback (great name) were available with a six-year warranty, two years free servicing and two years RAC membership. Not bad for cars that cost between £6,450 and £8,949 in 1992.
For some context, the cheapest Ford Fiesta cost £7,682. A Sao Penza would set you back £6,633. A bells and whistles Lada Samara cost just shy of £6,000.
The Lada link is significant. At Proton’s launch in 1989, 158 of the 168 dealers already sold Ladas. The most expensive ‘Russian Fiat’ was the least expensive ‘Malaysian Mitsubishi’. A canny move, and one that helped to propel Proton to greatness.
As history will recall, Proton kind of lost its way after the Saga/MPI. Future Mitsubishi-based vehicles were less convincing, not least because Skoda was finding its feet under the parentage of Volkswagen. Hyundai and Kia also played a part in Proton’s downfall in the UK, although the likes of the Impian, GEN-2 and Satria Neo were never cheap enough to make them viable alternative to cars from the mainstream manufacturers.
You’re not a regular reader if you think PetrolBlog is about to lay into the unfashionable Protons of the new millennium. Instead, you have to wonder what might have been. With proper management, Proton could have been a credible rival to Dacia. Unashamedly affordable with cheap finance. Where do we sign?
Although a return to the UK is unlikely – we live in hope – Proton is thriving under the direction of Geely. July was Proton’s best sales month in 2020 and its highest monthly sales volume since June 2012.
The new Proton Saga is the leader in the small saloon (Shatchback) sector, while the Proton X70 is Malaysia’s best-selling SUV. The future looks bright, with the X50 arriving later this year. It’s based on the Geely Coolray. As compact SUVs go, it looks pretty good. Honestly, it does.
For now, let’s raise a glass to celebrate 35 years of the Proton Saga. Did anyone have an orgasm driving one? Actually, don’t answer that. Ignorance is bliss.