Shed Theory - How a Proton Saga Became My Favourite Car

I've mentioned before how there are some cars that I don't look back on with particularly good memories. Some were just plain awful in their own right, some parted on bad terms, and some caused great amounts of financial turmoil. But every now and then, I end up with a car that is so unbelievably bad, I fall in love with it - and even if things end badly, I still look back on it with great memories.


Enter stage, then, my 1995 Proton Saga/Iswara/MPI 1.5 'GL'. I can only assume that the 'GL' model designation on this car means something along the lines of 'Generally Lacking' which would be an apt description of pretty much every part of this car.

Some say that only an idiot would buy a car completely unseen, 300 miles away, with a short MOT and known corrosion issues. In this case, I am that idiot. Having seen it online while on a particularly boring day at work on my lunch break, I made the snap decision that it would be a good use of my spare funds at the time. To give some perspective here, the amount I paid for this car was exactly the same as what I paid for the Twingo, and £150 more than I spent on a reasonably sound Mk2 MX-5 with a year of MOT. Quite what I was thinking when I made this decision, I'm still not quite sure.


Fast forward a couple of weeks from that impulse money transfer, and I found myself being given a lift by a generous friend all the way from Cambridgeshire to near-enough Edinburgh, to collect the already appropriately named 'Pooton'. Six hours of being a passenger and contemplating my decision wasn't enough time for me to prepare myself for quite how bad the car was going to be, but there was no going back now - the money had been paid, and I'm not one to be scared out of an agreement, no matter how bad the outcome. Upon arrival, the car stood out like, well, a turd. I'm sure the Malaysians had a fantastically inventive name for the colour when it was new, but 24 years after it was born, there was no better description than simply 'Brown'. The car itself was a state - while some effort had been made in the advert to warn me of how awful the car looked, I was trying to be optimistic, which only set me up to fall when I realised that one of the arch trims was stuck on with sealant, none of the windows really worked, the bottoms of the doors were going even more putrid brown than the rest of the car, and the paint was a bit pitiful.


So it wasn't a good start. It didn't get particularly better upon starting it, either, as I realised for the first time that the wonderful three-speed automatic gearbox seemed to be partial to stalling the engine when in drive and on the brake. Pleasantries and paperwork were exchanged though, and within about 20 minutes of arriving, I was leaving at the wheel of my new purchase - which at the first sight of a mild corner, appeared to have not been a Proton at all, rather a cross-channel ferry. The thing pitched and yawed in the corners as though it was battling a stiff current and some harsh sea winds - driving this car was a terrifying process, as you had to guess how much roll you'd have in a corner to judge the entry speed right in order to avoid horrific understeer or comical minor lift-off oversteer.


I'd driven crap handing cars before, but the Proton set a precedent - even the Twingo, which rocks about on 145-section tyres all round, has a better cornering grip limit and inspires more confidence on a country road. I was beginning to realise where the reputation for these cars had come from when they were new - a budget choice for the savvy motorist, so long as you didn't particularly mind arriving home as a physically-incomplete human being.

There were, however, some good points. The engine, thanks to a long standing agreement between the manufacturers, was a Mitsubishi 4G15 unit with, allegedly, 92hp. The brochure comically describes the 1.5 engine option as 'powerful' - I know this was 1995, but even then, 92hp wouldn't be considered sprightly, especially considering in mine the engine was mated to a Mitsubishi three-speed automatic. It was also quite economical - a rough estimate using some quick man-maths suggested around 45mpg on a run. Legroom wasn't horrific, and boot space was plentiful.


But none of that really gives much of an idea as to why I look back on it with such happiness and such fond memories. Thus far, we know it had awful handling, awful looks, was slow and was bodged together in places where it would have just been easier to give up. So why did I love it?


Well, in some ways, seeing the sheer horror on the faces of some when I turned up in it was worth it. Nothing quite compares to setting peoples expectations of you as low as they are when they see you turn up in a car that should have been resigned to the scrapyard well before the government started incentivising it. Some laugh, some mutter in disgust, some look like they want to cry at the prospect of such a heap still being allowed on UK roads. This isn't a car to be driven if you're craving approval, and I loved that.

But what I loved most are the adventures I went on with friends in this car. It became a comical alternative car to use for hops to the shops and long drives alike - in fact, in the six weeks I spent driving it I managed to see it through well over a thousand miles. It went to Swindon to see a very good friend of mine who desperately wanted to get hands on with it, it managed a trip to Caffeine & Machine (where it aptly ended up parked next to an actual shed), and in the process possibly became one of the only cars ever having visited to receive a unanimous decision from all those who saw it that it was, indeed, an absolute turd. But that was the joy of it, nobody expected anything of it. It was such an awful car from the outside that nobody really expected it to make it to places - but over and over again, it did. I really did get a feeling that it was a proper underdog - a car written off by so many but determined to keep plodding on even if it should have stopped doing so a long time before. I had plans to paint it, make visual modifications that added to its visual horror and overhaul the worst of the underbody components, I had fallen for it that much. But how did it repay me? Upon lifting the car up to assess the underside before committing to the painting, which a good friend had begrudgingly offered to help with, we were confronted with my worst fears. The inner arches were simply patches over patches over patches, and to add insult to injury, the shock mounting was twisted so far out of shape, it had almost lost all ability to hold the assembly in place.


Initially I was sad - not because it had all been money wasted, but because somehow I had genuinely become fond of the car. After a while, however, I realised the stupidity of my plans, the stupidity of driving such an unsafe car, and realised it was for the best - and simply resigned myself to looking back on the time spent with the car fondly, with no regrets.


Other than having a Brown car, maybe. I'll never live that one down.


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