Through the 1970s and 1980s, the cheapest new cars on the UK market, and in many European countries, were from behind the Iron Curtain – Skoda from Czechoslovakia, Polski-Fiat from Poland and, the best known, the Lada from Russia. Equipment levels tended to be high, performance and handling less so, the value was clearly evident in the brochures and advertising, as was the age of the basic designs. The Skoda was derived from 1950s Renaults, the Lada from and Polski-Fiats from 190s Fiats. Not necessarily bad places to start, but by the late 1980s the ages of the starting points were showing.
The late 1980s saw the start of the end of this pattern. The opening up of Eastern Europe saw Skoda fall into VW’s arms in 1990, Polski-Fiat was absorbed by Fiat in 1992 and Lada faded as the car aged, newer models were not offered in the West and competitors emerged offering the similar value in a more modern and easier to own package. Cars like the first Hyundai Pony and Kia Pride (Ford Festiva), and ironically, the VW developed Skoda Felicia, raised the standards and ease of use enough tog justify a price in between the Eastern Bloc cars and entry level Western brand offerings.
One player who didn’t go as far into Europe was Proton from Malaysia. While the original Hyundai Pony used a Mitsubishi engine, some Giugiaro styling and a team of ex-BL development engineers and senior leadership, the original Proton Saga was little more than a licence built 1983- 88 Mitsubishi Mirage/Colt/Lancer (and Dodge Colt, Plymouth Champ, Eagle Vista – the range of names is slightly mesmerizing). Visually, it was the Mitsubishi saloon, with a 1.3 or 1.5 litre engine and minor styling changes.
Paul showed us a Colt hatchback in January – here is an Dodge badged estate I saw in France last year, not that it was ever sold there, and looking a little tired but with those taillights still evident. Actually, this is worth an Outtake all of its own, so watch this space.
Proton was a start up company, as part of Malaysia’s ambitions for industrial growth, owned by a local conglomerate HICOM with a minority stake held by Mitsubishi. The major market was local but exports were also shipped, most notably to the UK from 1989, also a right hand drive market of course.
The hatchback, in a form different to the Mitsubishi or American brands, came in 1987 as the Aeroback. The triple valve (or 12 valve for 4 cylinder engine) came in 1990, from Mitsubishi.
Autocar tested one in 1991 (£8990 is now about £19500, or 10% less than a basic Ford Focus) and whilst some positives are found, there’s a fair bit of faint praise and some critical observations about everyday things like space and ergonomics, not to mention driving pleasure. I doubt many were taken to 6000rpm or bought for the back road experience though.
Perhaps surprisingly, Proton continued production of the basic car until 2005, latterly as the reskinned Proton Saga Iswara and Saga LMST and alongside a growing range of value for money products, although the brand left the UK in 2005 having failed to secure a tie up with MG-Rover. UK survivors are now in the low hundreds, many no longer registered for on-road use.
Proton is now 49.9% by Geely of China and 50.1% by Malaysian conglomerate DRB-Hicom, with a range of vehicles now based on Geely products.