Proton Manufacturer Profile & Rally History

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Proton Home Country: Malaysia Malaysia

If you want to know how a new car manufacturer starts in the modern days, here is a very good example. In fact most new car manufacturers these days would come out of Asia. However I can’t help saying Proton is a far more interesting and clever attempt than all other new makes coming from Asia. Those would come from Korea or China - if they haven't collapsed against a styrofoam wall during transport. But the Malaysian government wanted to have a car industry too. So with government finances two manufacturers were started. Proton started in 1985 and the resounding Proton name is actually an engineered abbreviation for Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional = National Automobil Enterprise. A few years later Perodua was started in the same way as Perusahaan Otomobil Kedua = Second Automobil Enterprise. This basically made Proton the first Malaysian car make and often you find a Malaysian flag in the shape of a “1” on their rally cars because of this. However Proton’s proper logo is a yellow head of a tiger on dark blue background. The tiger shows strength and grace. Funny enough Peugeot chose their lion for similar reasons and there are distant similarities to early Peugeot logos. Perodua then chose green and red as their colours in an oval with the colours devided by a line resembling a “P”. Perodua tried making their own designed and engineered cars from the beginning, which starting from nothing, no experience, were not very good cars. Although by now Perodua has taken on help from Daihatsu, their cars are still widely regarded as laughing stock and therefore Perodua serves more as an example how not to do it, compared to Proton.

Proton invested their money into Proton City, north of Kuala Lumpur, which to the day is one of the most modern car factories with the longest straight conveyor belt in the world. In the cars, well you have to start somewhere from nothing and that is why Proton tried things the other way round to Perodua. One of Proton’s first cars was the Proton Tiara, which was a CKD assembly of the Citroën AX. Unfortunately PSA did not seem to have any fitting cars for the Proton range and the Malaysian market beyond that, and some years later PSA declined another cooperation with Proton. Which was silly really, as Proton’s biggest problem throughout seemed engines, especially until 2013 Proton still had no diesel engine in their range, while PSA, who is famous for their diesels, at the time was very much struggling to survive and could have done with the money.

Anyway, after the Tiara Proton turned completely to Mitsubishi for CKD assemblies as a result, starting off with the Saga, which was a Malaysian built Lancer F hatchback. The Perdena is a Mitsubishi Galant and in the early 2010s is the only car left at Proton that is no independent design. The Satria was a Mitsubishi Colt. More complicated is Proton’s main model, the CKD Lancer. If you find it confusing that we treat Mitsubishi Lancer EvoIV as a different model of car to previous Lancers, so does Proton in giving these cars different names too. Lancer of the generation EvoI-III translates as Proton Wira. Interestingly Proton built a 2-door version of this generation Lancer called the Proton Putra, and one can only scratch their heads why this lighter car wasn’t used for rallying, especially not at Mitsubishi who sold this variation as the Mirage in the USA. Lancer EvoIV-VI as Proton Waja (In UK called Impian for some reason, maybe trying to live of the good name the however tiny car Hillman Imp had) and the next generation as Proton Gen. The Lancer of the generation EvoIV-VI looked from the outside like a facelift, but under its skin it was a completely new car, i.e. the engine position had changed. What is more, for the European market Mitsubishi called the Lancer now Carisma, which was slightly different to the Asian Lancer and assembled in an ex-Volvo-DAF factory in the Netherlands. And the Proton Waja was based on the European Carisma. But Proton wanted a Lancer Evo too, and that again being based on the Asian market Lancer that was different to the Waja, Proton needed another different name. So Evo versions of Mitsubishi generations I-III is the Proton Wira Evo and generations IV-VI & VII-IX are the Proton Pert Mk1 & Mk2. The Pert model name is an abbreviation of Proton Eon (Petronas daughter and sponsor) Rally Team. This to my knowledge is the only proper road car ever that carried “Rally” as part of its mainstream model name!

The next significant step in the development of the brand was when Proton bought Lotus in the 1997. You can read more of this at Lotus. But it was a curious situation, Proton rescued Lotus from Kia ownership since 1993, but it didn’t look like a rescue at first. Under Kia Lotus was forced to stop the Esprit model, while the Elan was suddenly sold as a Kia Elan. These were the two main models at the time and spelled certain death for Lotus. Then comes another Asian manufacturer and asks Lotus to design cheap mass production cars for them? For Proton this certainly was the start of a new era, going towards what they always wanted to be, an independent manufacturer with their own, independent models. The model names are confusing, but have method. The first Lotus influenced Protons were the Satria Neo in 2006 followed by the Gen2. Satria is Malaysian for Knight. Not sure why they used different sub-names as Neo and 2, but the customer should find a market relation what these models replaced, i.e. Satria Neo = Satria (Colt) successor, but also clearly see this is Proton’s own model, no more CKD of anyone, i.e. Neo as part of the model name rather than a hidden Mk2.

But it turned out even for Lotus that was not stupid at all. OK, so they had to go into a strange field for them, but Proton earned money with this, which they eventually used to help Lotus to new models too. And it made Proton very intersting. Look at the rear design of a Gen2 and compare it to the rear of a Lotus Elise and you see the relationship in designs! But more even the Satria Neo. While the current Mitusbishi Colt is high and slim, Lotus came out with a Colt successor that was very low, wide, good aerodynamics, low centre of gravity.... The Satria Neo goes refreshingly against the global trend and you can bet a Satria Neo corners much, much better, sportier and safer than i.e. a higher than wide Mercedes A-Class! (See i.e. the Elchtest dilemma, I am not surprised the A-Class failed the Elchtest, I am just surprised that Mercedes was surprised!) To be honest, I don’t get the modern trend. Surely there are some people left in this world who want a sporty, even if compact and affordable, fun car, like a hot hatch rather than a van? If you remember both had the same predecessor, compare a Proton Satria Neo to a CZ3 generation Mitsubishi Colt, who doesn’t see with his bare eyes that in an emergency situation the Colt is bound to tip over onto its side where the Satria Neo will still be a very safe car, those people should have their driving licences taken away! It is simple driving physic basics! And what Lotus hasn’t done, Proton has a Malaysian based motorsport department called R3 for Race-Rally-Research (contradicting with modern FIA rally class names. Not only does the R5 Turbo class mean every manufacturer has to promote a 1980s Renault, for amateur rally drivers in the Asia Pacific region the R3 department offers a Satria Neo R3 R2!). Malaysian R3’s take on a “GTI” version of the Satria Neo has a black bonnet, indeed inspired by Opel Manta, Ford Capri and rally cars of the 70s, only the Proton black bonnet is indeed carbon fibre. And if a VW Golf or Peugeot 308 can have a rear diffusor, how about a front splitter for the Satria Neo R3 road car! The top version Satria Neo R3 is available with a supercharged, Lotus designed 1.6 Campro engine! Sadly Proton and Lotus are currently somewhat slowed down by a change of management. (DRB-Hicom bought the shares of the government. Good news, this may give Proton its long overdue diesel engine, which would come from Honda. However DRB-Hicom is also strongly involved with VW, who already, unsuccessfully tried to get their fingers into Proton in 2007. Currently VW is looking into Asian production facilities for its own cheap brand, and VW will not have any interest in keeping Proton nor Lotus alife. You never know the truth behind such politics, but clearly Proton and Lotus are not experiencing an easy time right now for a number of reasons outside of their control.)

But I like to believe in the good of DRB-Hicom. And clearly as it is, Proton has in my eyes an excellent constellation to hit the global market. I can only see two things wrong with Proton’s current models: the lack of a diesel engine and. Sorry, their interior, especially dash boards, are cheapest, primitive, cold hard plastic. But then, VW has the exact same cheap hard plastic interior, yet all Germans tell me they are best in quality, so who am I to know? Beyond the VW plastic, Proton has an excellent range of characterful cars with brilliant details, see what I said about the R3 models. The diesel engine could be addressed through DRB-Hicom partner Honda and for the interior materials there may be great news too: Because there is talk of using Austrian Steyr-Magna interior design and production facilities. This in turn makes Proton, alongside their already existing Lotus links, very European friendly when most Asians more seem to buy out European companies to copy engineering and use marketing names. In fact I see major marketing potential here for when Proton wants to become global. For some reason being Asian alone does already give you an image of being low in price and reliable (which in my experience most of the time simply is not true!), but no Asian make can really play the legends and emotions card in Europe. I would push Lotus again like hell and make clear that cars like the Proton Satria Neo are Lotus influenced, use Lotus Campro engines, play further on the Satria Neo R3 lines, etc.. Proton gets the affordable and reliable tag basically automatically, but for car fans we could play the emotions card big style, making Proton stand out from all other Asian car manufacturers. And that is the customers you want, as they will be more loyal than those that just need a cheap form of transport. And it is good they do motorsport with a car that resembles their products, which basically just leaves rallying or touring cars.

In rallying things started in late 1994 with a full Malaysian enterprise: Karamjit Singh and Ron Teoh in a Proton Wira gN with Petronas colours. So driver, navigator, car, sponsor, all Malaysian. Their first start in WRC proper and in Europe was the RAC Rally 1994. UK is the only European market where Proton is present until today and repeated RAC starts also explain the links to the MEM team. Highlights of these early days were when Karamjit Singh won the PWRC 2002 with a Proton Pert and in 2001 Hermann Gassner managed a fastest stage time overall on the Rallye Monte Carlo in his groupN Proton – although latter was part effected by the lucky lottery type conditions found at the Monte as it is not normal to beat all the McRae's, Burns' and Grönholm's in their works WRCars, driving a groupN.

In UK there was a Satria (non-Neo aka Colt) S1600 project from 1998 to 2000. This however was not a works project at all. It was former Vauxhall Nova driver and tuner Harry Hockly. He turned to become a Nissan B-team in the BRC, but that was an unhappy project and so Hockly developped a Satria S1600 for the BRC. This was a private effort by Harry Hockly, but he did get some backing by the UK importer.

After a short break, it seemed a very good idea to take their first independent model, the Satria Neo, into rallying. A WRC project seemed financially out of reach and also why start from the top as a new manufacturer. Talks to Prodrive seemed also financially out of reach, plus public would probably identify successes more with Prodrive than with Proton’s base car. It still seems a surprise MEM was chosen for the project. MEM = Mellors Elliot Motorsport is a small, hardly known, British tuner. Actually better known than MEM may be the company's lead man Chris Mellors as a rally driver in a selection of Ford cars up to an ex-works Escort WRC. MEM started in preparing Fords, mainly groupN ones for Chris Mellors’ own use. The company carried on in groupN projects and when Proton searched for help for Karamjit Singh’s gN RAC starts, a deal came with MEM that saw its highlight in clinching the PWRC title in 2002. This same tuner was then entrusted with the Satria Neo S2000 project, even developing this car. It seems a huge step from preparing a groupN car from existing Mitsubishi parts to developing an S2000 car from scratch. But Chris Mellors decided to take on this huge challenge since the base car had this low, wide, aerodynamic shell and low centre of gravity, the base car was already so good for motorsport, that you hardly can go wrong. It still was brave, in contrast to Prodrive and the likes, MEM counts around 14 members of staff, and other than Ford/M-Sport (Pipo), Peugeot (Sodemo), Skoda and VW (both Oreca) this tiny team develops and builds the engines themselves too! Kudos that in rallying young Proton shows this kind of loyalty and give small people like Chris Mellors a chance to grow with them, it all feels like a nice family!

I said above, engines always seemed the big problem for Proton. It honestly is amazing what this small team does compared to 250+ staff outfits like M-Sport and Prodrive. The Satria Neo S2000 seems lacking the results it deserves, but somehow it was bad luck more than anything else. If you look through the results sheets of this car, easily 90% of retirements were down to driver error or engine related issues. On the BRC Pirelli Rally 2009 Guy Wilks in the Proton was way in the lead when in the closing stages after a spin the hot catalysator on dry grass meant the poor, small team lost a brand new shell alongside victory in a big fire (YN09 DOH, chassis 6 on it’s first ever rally). Or see Monte Carlo 2012, until the penultimate stage PG Andersson was leading SWRC and 9th overall when a split fuel line caused another fire (thankfully this could be extinguished early and the to the day newest chassis 12, YN61 HCP was not lost and could even go on to win the next SWRC round instead). The fuel line supplier is Eaton, same as for Ford and Citroën WRC teams, have you ever heard Sébastien Loeb lose a result for something silly like this? Eaton is a good company, their equipment must have done thousands of rallies, the one and only time of something going wrong had to be in a Proton?

And it is equally a curiousity that the engines seem a problem. When Proton turned away from Mitsubishi CKD assemblies and Lotus could not develop the excellent but complicated Campro engine over night (Campro = camshaft progression, a very different and clever way of variable valve timing), Proton turned to Lotus F1 partner Renault. The Savvy to the day uses a 1200cc Renault Twingo engine. Proton’s own 2000cc engine was a V6. Which was very interesting, power and price from a 2 litre and smoothness of a V6, who can offer that these days! As said Proton does things different to the norm, but we don’t need another Asian with zero character, do we? However V6 for an S2000 car is too heavy. For a short time Proton used a Renault Clio 2000cc engine in the Waja, so that is what they could take by the regulations for their S2000 car. But strange then, the Renault Clio was never a bad car in competition, yet poor MEM was going round circles with this unit. Not only was the engine inexplicably unreliable, if you stood on start lines of stages, or after tight hairpins, the Proton lacked visibly power to its S2000 opposition. (No kidding, with that impression I positioned myself with a stop watch some 200-300 metres from the start lines of a couple of stages at the Barum Rally 2010 and found both Protons lost 2 seconds to the Skodas, Peugeots and Fords on these first 300 metres alone – in that light, that at the end of stages Proton’s times were still competitive proves the more how excellent the rest of the car is!) So what do you do? Increase power won’t help the already bad reliability. All you can do is take it with humour. See the results sheet of Ypres Rally 2010, where Chris Mellors told me: “All 3 cars dropped their 3rd valve all in the 4th stage, that’s what I call precission engineering!”. But clearly I can’t await an R5 version of this car, as that would mean the Lotus Campro engine, which is amasing, 1600cc and available with both turbo or supercharger. It really seems this Renault engine was the single big problem of the car in performance and reliability and the Campro could be the answer to everything.

COLOURS & TYRES:

All groupN cars typically in Petronas sponsorship, incorporating a turquoise on white colour scheme, the UK importer supported BRC Satria S1600 however were yellow. Today the Satria Neo S2000 is also all yellow.

REGISTRATIONS:

The cars are registered in the name of Mellors Elliot Motorsport. This means they have modern style Yorkshire-Sheffield plates starting with Y for Yorkshire, Sheffield being identified by YL-YU (YA-YK being Leeds, YV-YZ Hull). However right in its PWRC winning year the two Singh Pert Mk1 displayed a W for West England, or more accurately for Bristol area combinations between WM-WZ (WA-WJ being Devon, WK-WL Cornwall...). Reason being Bristol is the base of UK's Proton importer. This seems a rare exception, Singh's Pert Mk2 from 2004 was again on Mellor's name with "Y"-plates.

Proton Rally Cars

Model Class
Proton Proton Pert (Mk1)  Group N
Proton Proton Pert (Mk2)  Group N
Proton Proton Satria Neo  Super 2000 / WRC 1.6T
Proton Proton Wira  Group N

Rally Honour Roll

Year Class Place Manufacturer Events
2011 IRC Super 2000 / WRC 1.6T 7th. Proton (41pts) 11

Season Summary | Season Points | Events Calendar

2009 IRC Super 2000 / WRC 1.6T 5th. Proton (13pts) 11

Season Summary | Season Points | Events Calendar