The Story of Malaysia’s First National Car Brand, Proton

The brand has gone through ups and downs, but a partnership with Geely and move towards EVs has it on the right foot for the future

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2:19 PM HKT, Fri May 24, 2024 3 mins read

“What are these cars? They look different… haven’t seen them before,” my British friend said with an inquisitive tone as we stepped out of the entrance at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). She wasn’t wrong. They looked different for sure, strange almost, to the foreign eye, especially for someone visiting Malaysia for the first time. The brand in question was Proton, Malaysia’s first automobile manufacturer.

As ubiquitous as nasi lemak (coconut milk rice, Malaysia’s national dish), Proton cars are on roads all over the country. From the congested thoroughfares of Kuala Lumpur to the scenic highways lining the coast of the eastern state of Terengganu, they’re literally everywhere.

However, for the uninitiated, like my friend, the word “Proton” conjures images of atomic particles, not sedans and hatchbacks. So, here’s the story of Proton — it’s one that’s chock- full of high highs and low lows, and, for the time being, wraps up with a surprising connection to China and the ongoing EV revolution.

The Origin

The year was 1979 and then Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad had a vision to keep car manufacturing in Malaysia and circumvent the country’s reliance on imported vehicles. Through this grand ambition, he hoped to position Malaysia at the forefront of Southeast Asian industrialization.

It was simply dubbed the “National Car Project.” Proton—the Malay backronym for Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional (National Automobile Enterprise)—was created in May 1983 to drive the momentous project.

Due to the lack of infrastructure and expertise, Proton first collaborated with Japanese giant Mitsubishi Motors to get things rolling. While Mitsubishi provided designs and technologies, Proton handled manufacturing, staying committed to the ethos of keeping manufacturing Malaysian.

The First Car


Image via Proton.

Launched in 1985, the first Proton car was fittingly named the Saga. Interestingly, the name was crowdsourced from the Malaysian public and the winning entry came from a Scrabble game! An air of coolness and intrigue aside, “Saga” stood for the abbreviation Safety, Achievement, Greatness, and Ability.

Modeled after the Mitsubishi Lancer Fiore, the Saga had all the hallmarks of a modern 1980s sedan; a boxy, almost Brutalist, body kit, rectangle lights, and a workhorse engine for day-to-day driving.

Most importantly, it was affordably priced at RM17,000. That’s about USD3,600. For context, the current basic Proton model starts at RM35,000 (about USD7,500). A substantial price hike, but still an affordable choice for white-collar Malaysians in the current economic climate.

Driven by a wallet-friendly price, adequate features, and national pride, the Saga sold well. A litmus test gone right, the model proved that Proton was a feasible venture and Malaysians were positive about its future. The beginning of a new saga, if you will.

New Models

Proton New Models

Image via PistonHeads.

The years after the launch of the Saga were experimental and exciting for Proton. In 1993, it launched the Wira, which means “hero” in Malay. Departing from the signature angular shape of the Saga, the Wira was inspired by the 1991 Mitsubishi Lancer and came equipped with electric windows and a Proton-designed dashboard.

Five years later, Proton took a gamble with the Proton Satria GTi, its first foray into high-performance cars. Decked out in a head-turning sporty body kit and high torque engine, the hatchback was as much a cruiser as it was a speed demon.

However, the real breakthrough for Proton was in 2004. More than two decades after the Saga, it finally had the technology and experience to create a vehicle without Mitsubishi, which would eventually conclude its involvement in Proton in 2005. The car was Gen 2, an abbreviation for “Generation 2” to signify the ushering of a new era for the company — but unfortunately, it was short-lived.

Downturns and Acquisition

Proton X70

Image via Proton.

A slew of headwinds hit Proton between 2013 and 2016. Tax adjustments, changing consumer habits, and stiff competition shrunk its market share, eventually costing its pole position in 2013 as the nation’s top automaker to Perodua, a national rival backed by Daihatsu Motor. To put this into perspective, Proton’s share in 2016 was just 12%, after selling only about 72,000 cars that year.

Proton needed a lifeline fast and Chinese automotive giant Geely was quick to throw one over. In 2017, Geely bought 49.9% of Proton from parent company DRB-Hicom, ensuring a revamp of the national car brand without stripping its core Malaysian identity.

Naysayers were quick to doubt Geely’s promises, voicing their disappointments over the support of a foreign investor in a legacy homegrown brand. Nevertheless, it appeared that Geely kept to its word with the launch of the X70 in 2018.

The X70 looks different yet familiar. Despite lifting off most of the engine components and exterior styling from the Geely Boyue, the Proton design team took creative liberties to incorporate Malaysian heritage to differentiate the X70 from its Chinese counterpart. For example, the grills and speaker covers reflect the interwoven pattern apparent in Malaysian woodwork.

Fast forward to the present, and Proton closed out 2023 with its strongest performance since 2012. Beyond that, it plans to unveil an affordable EV range in 2025.

Banner image via Malay Mail.

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