KUALA LUMPUR: A few days ago, a friend showed up at the gate early in the morning after getting a newspaper from the sundry shop.
Waving the rolled up paper in his right hand, he looked excited beyond words by the time I went out to greet him.
“Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad drove visiting Indonesian President Joko Widodo to lunch in a red Proton Persona yesterday,” he said as soon as I came within earshot.
Pointing to the photograph of the two leaders splashed across the front page, he expressed pride at being an owner of the same type of vehicle he bought three years ago.
My friend had turned up to share the news, knowing that I am a diehard Proton fan as well.
While walking into the house for coffee, we stopped to admire my 20-year-old Proton Iswara Aeroback in the porch. Apart from the normal wear and tear, the apple green hatchback has been reliable ever since the day I drove it out of the Edaran Otomobil Nasional (EON) distributor showroom on that fine April morning in 1999.
In the dining room, we resumed our conversation and started reminiscing about the early days of Proton and the development of the Saga as Malaysia’s first homegrown automobile.
A NATIONAL DREAM
It all began in October 1981, when Dr Mahathir asked Yohei Mimura, president of Mitsubishi Corporation, to consider participating in the production of Malaysia’s first national car project during a courtesy visit here.
Things progressed rapidly soon after, and by February 1982, Mitsubishi had come up with a detailed proposal, which, after much deliberation, was approved by the Cabinet nine months later.
That led to the incorporation of Proton, short for Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional Bhd, on May 7, 1983.
Ten days later, the first of 14 groups of trainee engineers, researchers, development designers and managerial staff headed for Japan for training that lasted between three months and a year.
About a month later, a 550,000-square-metre site for offices and production facilities was acquired in Batu Tiga, Shah Alam.
Construction began on Aug 1, 1983, and progress was nothing short of incredible as the factory was completed four months ahead of schedule.
Conscious of the long interval between prototype experimentation and commercial production, Proton launched a nationwide “Name the National Car” competition to maintain public interest.
By the time the contest closed, 102,823 entries proposing 334 names had been received. The panel of judges shortlisted three — Saga, Perdana and Gagah.
On April 30, 1984, the judges decided Saga would be the name of the car. Their task was made easier after learning that saga seeds were once used to weigh gold, and the tree that bore the blood red seeds was renowned for its stability, reliability and endurance. Those were the very qualities desired for the national car.
During a special ceremony, army Staff Sergeant Ismail Jaafar’s entry was chosen out of the 11 that proposed the winning name Saga. For his feat, the Penangite won a red Proton 1.3S saloon that would be delivered to him when commercial production began.
At around the same time, trial runs and commissioning were progressing like a well-oiled machine at Batu Tiga. In April 1985, the first 30 precommercial production models were rolled out and less than three months later, on July 1, commercial production began in earnest.
Then, just nine days later, Dr Mahathir witnessed the first Proton Saga coming off the production line — one year ahead of schedule — at 10.30am on July 9, 1985.
Proton’s production speed and efficiency astounded everyone, including a visiting representative from the United Kingdom’s Institute of Mechanical Engineers, who described the achievement as remarkable and impressive, considering the site was just an empty field two years earlier.
The confidence-building achievements helped Proton to shrug off the recessionary gloom enveloping the world at that time, and made it the most talked-about newcomer in an internationally-competitive industry, as well as among Malaysians, whose curiosity was whipped up by promotional campaigns following the start of public sales on Sept 1, 1985.
In response to the overwhelming local interest, Proton initiated a pre-launch campaign called “Sagarama” and invited motoring correspondents to take the national car to all corners of the country for an introductory test drive.
On Aug 7, 1985, two white Saga 1.5S saloons embarked on the epic journey after a flagging-off ceremony officiated by Proton and EON chairman Tan Sri Jamil Jan here.
The mere mention of that particular event jogged my memory almost instantly. I dashed off to my study and returned jubilantly with the 1985 New Straits Times annual and related materials in my grasp.
Within minutes, my friend and I began poring over an article detailing the experiences of the occupants in one of the vehicles — New Sunday Times motoring columnist Raja Sulaiman, photographer Lee Hon Yew and cartoonist Datuk Mohammad Nor Mohammad Khalid, or more popularly known as Lat.
The Saga saloons completed a gruelling tour of Peninsular Malaysia within a fortnight, without experiencing a breakdown. They headed north for Penang and Alor Star before crossing the East-West Highway to the northeastern tip.
Then they headed down the entire east coast stretch towards Johor Baru, and back north towards Melaka, Seremban and Kuala Lumpur, with time to spare before taking part in the National Day celebrations on Aug 31.
What the men saw and felt along the trip was nothing short of phenomenal. Everyone they met along the way, from toddlers who just learned their first words to octogenarians eager to get behind the wheel, was captivated by the Saga.
With policemen begging for a ride, an entire busload of passengers happily posing for photographs, petrol kiosk attendants insisting on serving them first, and an entire beach fraternity happily coming to their rescue when the car got stuck in the sand, the bewildered men were left wondering if there was anything that could not be achieved with a Saga.
On several rare occasions, the crowd turned out to be a pain. At a petrol station, the locals shook their fists in exasperation when Raja Sulaiman and his friends kept closing the car doors, boot and bonnet that they kept opening.
Even stopping by a rubber estate for an idyllic photoshoot turned out to be stressful as scores of eagle-eyed motorists ignored regulations and stopped by the roadside to watch with gaping mouths.
At the Taiping Museum, the men met their first unhappy customer: an official who was dismayed at the Saga for stealing the thunder from his many painstakingly-prepared and precious exhibits.
The most memorable incident took place at the Sultan Abdul Halim Ferry Terminal in Butterworth, Penang, when a kacang putih peddler peered through the window and began studying the interior from all angles.
Suddenly, without warning, she demanded: “Ini Proton Saga kah? Ada air-con. Berapa juta?"
(Is this the Proton Saga? There is air-conditioning. Does the price come up to millions?)
Tickled by her audacity, Raja Sulaiman revealed the modest price, only for her to comment: “Oh, kalau macam itu, boleh beli dua!"
(Oh, in that case, I can buy two!)
The men could only afford to look on with sheer satisfaction. A car that looked a million ringgit and sold for peanuts definitely had a bright future ahead.
“Talking about your beloved Protons again?” my wife interjected upon returning from the market.
Her comment made my friend and I look up from the magazine and nod in unison. We were beyond delight when she placed a plateful of kuih on the table before disappearing into the kitchen.
Fuelled by the treat, we shifted focus to other references on the table with renewed vigour and sought to find out more about campaigns organised by Proton to dispel doubts, rumours and criticisms that threatened to mar the national car’s progress.
Among the campaigns that EON organised were two exclusive treasure hunts. The first took 88 Saga owners and potential buyers to the hilly landscape of Genting Highlands and Cameron Highlands.
That event was also held to coincide with the sultan of Pahang’s birthday on Oct 24, 1985.
Scurrilous rumours of the Saga’s inability to negotiate sharp corners and tendency to overheat when climbing steep terrain were quashed beyond doubt when all the cars breezed through the challenging circuit without any reports of breakdown.
The second treasure hunt, with 193 Sagas travelling in a convoy from Ipoh to Tanah Rata in Cameron Highlands, went down in history books as the biggest motoring event organised in Malaysia. It was held on the eve of the installation of Perak ruler Sultan Azlan Muhibbuddin Shah on Dec 8, 1985.
SABAH, SARAWAK ADVENTURE
Encouraged by the successes and accolades received, more treasure hunts and larger crosscountry events called Sagathons were organised.
In August 1986, the 1,111km Sabah-Sarawak Sagathon was the first of its kind in the two states and it was also EON's most ambitious publicity stunt.
Arriving in a pot-bellied C-130 Hercules aircraft at the Kota Kinabalu airport, most of the 30-odd Sagathon participants did not know what was in store for them. On paper, the two states looked like a motoring haven with miles upon miles of open road, idyllic countryside, no speed limits and practically no traffic jam.
However, the so-called highways that they traversed four-fifths of the journey turned out to be dried-up rock beds of once turbulent rivers.
Dirt-packed and potholed, the way was strewn with rocks the size of fists. In other places, fine dust covered the ground, waiting to be churned up by tyres into a blinding, billowing cloud on a hot dry day, or into mud and slush when it rained cats and dogs.
The hostile and unpredictable terrain, however, was welcomed by the organisers and Proton with open arms.
The group’s safe arrival at the Holiday Inn Kuching after surmounting all hurdles made the Sabah-Sarawak Sagathon the ultimate endorsement for the national car’s durability.
Before taking his leave, my friend shared my opinion that the Saga’s strong attributes played a pivotal role in swaying the decision of judges to Proton’s favour at the British International Motor Show in Birmingham.
During the October 1988 event, the 1.5GLS sedan and 1.5GL Aeroback made history by winning three medals, two golds and one silver.
The accolades said volumes about the Saga’s capabilities, as the only other vehicle manufacturer that won the record equalling number of gold medals that year, was the world-renowned and established marque, Jaguar.
Looking back, the Saga had effectively chartered the direction for future made-in-Malaysia cars to follow in facing up to the fundamental realities of sustained industrial growth and continued viability.
While walking my friend back to the gate, we found time to discuss the plan to develop a new national car by 2021.
While expressing hope that the privately-funded project would take the Malaysian automotive industry to greater heights, we remained convinced that it was the Saga and Dr Mahathir’s dream-turned-reality more than three decades ago that set the stage for this latest venture to progress.