On this day 30 years ago, Tun Dr. Mahathir launched the first Proton Saga. The first production Saga, bearing registration number Proton 1 was given to the-then Yang DiPertuan Agong Sultan Iskandar of Johor. Later on 1-September, after the Saga went on sale on 28-August, Tun Dr. Mahathir became the first paying customer for a Proton when he took delivery of a metallic blue Saga bearing registration number Proton 1001, as a gift to his wife Datin Seri Dr. Siti Hasmah.
When revisiting Proton’s history, Tun Dr. Mahathir’s name often came up, crediting him for the creation of Proton.
The early days of Proton was a good period for the company. It kept growing from strength to strength, making inroads into developed markets like the United Kingdom. Exports to the US was also mooted.
Within just six months after its launch in the UK in March 1989, Proton had already sold 5,000 cars – a figure which took Hyundai 1.5 years to achieve in the UK. By 1992, Proton was the fastest growing brand in the UK and many British businesses were interested to sign up with Proton Cars UK to be a Proton dealer. At this point, Proton was already outselling Hyundai and the Volkswagen-owned Seat.
Back home, contrary to popular opinion, the early days of Proton wasn’t that easy. The public was understandably sceptical about the quality of a Malaysian-made car. Yes the government gave Proton the benefit of exemption from paying excise duty and import duty on Japan-sourced parts. But in those days, the price gap between a Proton and a similar range Japanese car wasn’t as big as what it was in later years.
In 1985, a Proton Saga 1.5S costed RM19,005, powered by an 8-valve Mitsubishi sourced Orion engine. A RM22,834 Toyota Corolla LE used a smaller 1.3-litre engine but it came with a then-sophisticated 12-valve technology. In fact the Corolla had the most sophisticated engine in its segment and delivered comparable performance to the bigger capacity Proton. It also came with an alarm – a rather expensive feature at that time. As such, the difference between the Proton and the Toyota, in terms of value, isn’t that big.
At the same time, Nissan, the-then best-selling brand in Malaysia prior to Proton’s entry, slashed the price of its Sunny 130Y to just RM19,500. Naturally, many buyers went for the proven Nissan instead.
So it was not true that Proton didn't have to compete, at least that was the case in the ‘80s.
The team at Proton were under heavy pressure to hit their sales target of around 7,500 to 8,000 cars per year – the minimum volume required to keep the national car project viable.
The task of marketing this little known Proton car to the Malaysian public rested on one Mr. Gurcharan Singh, better known as ‘Gurch,’ who was later given the honory Datuk title in 1988.
Gurch was the first General Manager at Edaran Otomobil Nasional (EON), who was then responsible for the sales and marketing of Proton cars in Malaysia (this was before Proton Edar was setup).
Gurch came from UMW and was responsible for setting up UMW Sarawak Sdn. Bhd, and became its Eastern Regional Director.
An alumni of the St. Michael’s Institution (Class of 1959) in Ipoh, which some say is one of the best schools in the country, Gurch had to fend for himself when his father Harbans Singh passed away when he was about 16 or 17 years old.
His mother was of Chinese-descent, and thus Gurch was fluent in not just English and Malay, but also Mandarin as well as Hokkien. He was a true Malaysian.
When his father passed on, money was tight as his mother was earning only RM80 a month as a washer lady and had to support Gurch and his younger brother and sister.
After leaving school, he worked as a teacher at the Horley Methodist School in Teluk Intan while studying for his Higher School Certificate (equivalent to today’s STPM). He continued working and studying on his own before graduating from the University of Malaya with degree in Geography.
Between 1970 to 1973, he was an Assistant Personnel Superintendent for the-then Malaysia-Singapore Airlines, a precursor to Malaysian Airlines. In 1973, he joined UMW as a Personnel Manager.
When the late Tan Sri Eric Chia was asked by Tun Dr. Mahathir to setup EON, Gurch, who had already proven his mettle by setting up UMW Sarawak in Kuching with only one suitcase and a handful of staff he recruited at a hotel lobby, was handpicked by Chia to be his right-hand man at EON.
Long before pre-launch teaser campaigns and road shows became the norm, Gurch orchestrated one of the biggest teaser campaigns for an automotive brand in Malaysia, a feat that is not matched until today.
Gurch, who was often said to have the ‘Midas Touch’ and had a knack for making something big out of nothing, knew that to win over the confidence of Malaysians, advertisements alone will not do.
He also knew that it was important to build goodwill among Malaysians to support the national car project, and that meant engaging Malaysians from all walks of life – including people in smaller towns where there weren't any Proton showrooms.
Plans for a ‘Sagarama’ road show was then put in motion. The Saga was first shown to the public on 9-July 1985, but the car will not go on sale until 28-August 1985.
In between this period, Gurch, working with public relations agency Daniel J. Edelmen, had two white Proton Sagas – BCH 1351 and BCH 1352 – driven to all 14 states in Malaysia, visiting cities and rural towns, stopping by at fishing villages and air flown to East Malaysia, to explain to every Malaysian what this Malaysian ‘People’s Car’ is all about.
To further emphasise the point that the Proton Saga is ‘our’ car – for every state that the Protons stopped at, the state’s insignia were pasted on the two Protons. At the end of the journey, the Sagas had insignias from all 14 states pasted on them.
Sagarama was also a demonstration of the Saga’s durability. Throughout the three-week long journey, the two Sagas encountered variety of rough terrain in rural areas, challenging weather conditions, to successfully complete the 4,109 km drive without any breakdowns.
We have no idea of what happened to BCH 1351 and BCH 1352 after that, but anyone who knows its where abouts should restore them. These are two very historic cars in Malaysia's history.
The Saga’s popularity had resulted in a long waiting period. At the same time, rumours began circulating that the Proton was ‘underpowered’ and will overheat when driving up Genting Highlands. Gurch was a feisty man and he will not tolerate such baseless allegations against his products.
In typical Gurch fashion, he had to tear the critics apart in a big way. Gurch once again organised another road show called ‘Sagathon,’ this time inviting customers who had already paid their deposits but were still waiting for their cars.
According to this story by our friends at Motor Trader, one sceptical owner brought along a big jerry can of water, just in case he needed it should the car really overheats on the way up Genting Highlands. Gurch told him "OK, we will meet you up there and drink the water together."
Sagathon served two objectives – placating customers who had to wait a long time to receive their cars, as well as answering concerns from the buyers regarding the Proton’s durability.
Two Sagathon events were held, driving up two of Malaysia’s most popular highland resorts – one group driving from Kuantan to Genting Highlands and another from Ipoh to Cameron Highlands. Needless to say, none of the 200 plus Proton cars had any problems driving up either mountains.
My father was one of the first 10,000 or so people to buy a Proton. He cancelled his booking for a Nissan Sunny 130Y after learning about the Proton's price. Like many, he had to wait for months before he could get his Proton, and was invited by Gurch to participate in the Sagathon Ipoh-Cameron Highlands drive, along with 100 or so other buyers.
Above: The late Datuk Gurcharan Singh with my mother at the 1985 Ipoh-Cameron Highlands Sagathon.
Next year, Gurch held another Sagathon event in East Malaysia – the toughest one, driving from Kota Kinabalu to Kuching on 1,111 km of unpaved, rock strewn mountain roads. The drive was so dangerous that Gurch had a helicopter following the convoy overhead in the event that an accident happens and a participant needs to be flown to a hospital immediately.
Later, Gurch continued to introduce many value-added services to Proton owners, including extended operating hours at EON’s Jalan Ampang service centre, which opens until midnight. This was a time when many people were still working half day on Saturdays.
My family’s red Saga ABF 8301 served us well, and my father said it was his second most reliable car – after his Toyota Corolla KE30 which he had before the Proton. The Saga served our family for 22 years, with only one breakdown experienced – a ruptured radiator hose on the-then 15-year old car when yours truly was driving, with a very attractive girl sitting beside.
But looking at the ownership experiences of other latter-day Proton owners, I guess they don’t make the cars the same way anymore.
Curiously, you won’t find any mention of the late Datuk Gurcharan Singh in Proton’s official history, which is a shame, because while Mahathir had the vision, it was Gurch who successfully marketed the first Proton Saga. As we mentioned earlier, the Proton wasn’t really that cheap against the Japanese competition.
The gap in prices between Japanese cars and Proton only widened in the mid-‘90s, when the value of the Japanese Yen appreciated rapidly, a period known as the ‘endaka,’ followed by increasingly stringent price control measures set the government in approving price lists of foreign brand cars. The problem was further compounded by the loss of the Ringgit’s value, especially after the ’97 economic crisis.
In 1990, Gurch left EON to setup Del-Sol Corporation, which put together Hyumal Motor Sdn. Bhd., the first importer of Hyundai vehicles in Malaysia, prior to the formation of Hyundai-Sime Darby Motor.
Gurch was said to have a wife and two children – David and Karen (according to an interview with the New Straits Times made in 1991).
We don’t know much else about Gurch after 1991, but we would like to pay a tribute to him for his good work to this country.