Home » Yugo, Subaru, And Also Proton? It Turns Out Malcolm Bricklin Really Liked Importing Dirt-Cheap Cars

Yugo, Subaru, And Also Proton? It Turns Out Malcolm Bricklin Really Liked Importing Dirt-Cheap Cars


Sometimes, when we write a story readers will get an additional article in the comments. The beauty of a community like ours is that a lot of you are experts in the cars you love, and sometimes you get your time to shine. Sometimes, that time is when we write about how Mattel is celebrating 40 years of making Hot Wheels in Malaysia by introducing the 1985 Proton Saga as a Hot Wheels car. Then you get to learn how Malcolm Bricklin just really loved importing cars and selling them for dirt cheap.

Welcome back to Comment Of The Day! Every day, we read every single comment posted on our site and pick the one that made us laugh, get informed, or feel warm inside. You don’t have to go into our comments sections and write thousand-word stories about why you love a car so much, but a lot of you do, and that means a lot to us. So we’re highlighting some of the most excellent bits of thought that you’ve formed into words and digitized onto our website.

Yesterday, Jason wrote about how Mattel is finally going to make the 1985 Proton Saga into a Hot Wheels car. While initially baffling, there is a good explanation for this. The diecast car maker has been putting together sweet scale cars out of its Perai, Penang plant that’s called Mattel Malaysia Sdn Bhd. I have hundreds of cars built by this plant sitting in a suitcase in my closet. About a decade ago I laid them all out on a bar in my parents’ basement. Check out this sweet picture probably taken by an iPhone 4.

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Mercedes Streeter

To celebrate this occasion, Mattel has decided to put Malaysia’s first mass-produced car to be built and sold by a Malaysian company into production as a Hot Wheels car. That means that you’ll be able to score a 1985 Proton Saga for your personal collection. I wish Mattel made more cars like these into Hot Wheels cars!

But for some of you, the mention of the Proton Saga didn’t conjure up images of adding one to your diecast fleet, but of the man that tried to bring the real car to America. Reader mbricolage first fired off this comment:

If I’m remembering the story correctly, Malcolm Bricklin was going to import the Saga to the US after the Yugo was inevitably a massive sales success.

Because “just import a car from an emerging market so that you can advertise that you’re selling the cheapest car in its class” is definitely an infinitely-repeatable plan.

Responding, Yugo owner Matt Sexton told quite a fascinating story:

This is true. As I read it, he wanted a four-door because that was a sticking point for many in the price bracket. But Zastava didn’t make one. So he went looking for other cheap car manufacturers and found Proton. The agreed to the deal with Bricklin and everything was going swimmingly until Mitsubishi got wind of it. The Saga was essentially a Mitsubishi built under license for Malaysia, but that license did not include export to the U.S. Which was a huge sticking point because Mitsubishi was about to enter the U.S. market themselves and didn’t want to be competing with an even cheaper version of their own product.

The amazing thing is that Proton America actually did achieve certification for the Saga, and as I recall there were about a half-dozen U.S.-spec examples assembled. I have always wondered if they still exist somewhere, talk about a piece of Malaise-era automotive history!

I’m a Yugo owner and a few years ago I happened to find a Proton America media launch kit on eBay. They had dealers signed on already and were ready. It’s really fascinating stuff.

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Sure enough, there are reputable sources backing Sexton’s story up. Here’s a blurb from the Los Angeles Times:

Malaysia’s money-losing national auto manufacturer, Proton, has signed an accord to distribute its Proton Saga car in the United States. Proton America Inc., headed by Malcolm Bricklin of Bricklin Industries, will import the car into the world’s biggest car market.

And here’s another article from the same source, explaining how the Saga was supposed to hit our shores in 1988. Analysts at the time predicted by 1990, 1.2 million small cars a year would be coming from “underdeveloped nations,” providing lower-cost alternatives to Japanese competition. Bricklin, the distributor of the Subaru 360 (Yes, Bricklin started Subaru of America by importing a dirt cheap little cars from Japan), Yugo, and creator of the Bricklin SV-1, formed Global Motors Inc. to distribute both Sagas and Yugos. Bricklin ended up selling his stake in Global Motors and just two years later, Global Motors itself went belly up, never delivering on the plans to sell Sagas here.

This will be worth its own look at a future date, but we’re blown away by this. Where else can you read an article about Hot Wheel cars and learn some obscure car history on the side? So today’s COTD goes to mbricolage and Matt Sexton for this awesome bit of trivia. This nomination comes from our own David Tracy, who jokes that while these comments were made yesterday, there’s no rule that the comment has to be from today. I suppose he’s right!

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16 Responses

  1. You guys should do an interview with Malcolm Bricklin. Just the stories about him I read on various car sites are so much fun; I can only imagine what an interview would reveal. I don’t have his contact info but I’m sure someone in your circle does.

    1. Alex Perez was one of the three importers back then. He tried it again in 2002, this time rebranding ARO as Crosslander. That scheme ended the following year when the Romanian government accused him of fraud; there’s now an outstanding arrest warrant against Perez, so now he can’t go to Europe.

      When his potential dealers started calling for the money they invested in inventory and showroom construction, Perez made a deal with Mahindra. Mahindra eventually called off the deal, partly because of Perez’s false claims of Mahindra’s fuel economy figures and because Romania told Mahindra of their shady encounter with Perez. Now Perez can’t go to India, either.

      I haven’t heard from Perez in years. He may still be hiding in Florida or Georgia, because Brazil wants to lock him up after getting burned in the Crosslander fiasco. The man is now wanted in three countries.

    1. But it’s weird without $kaycog posting some scandalous pic with, “sorry, she can’t find the bucket to wash your car” or whatever would go with that. This site has quickly become my favorite. Now we just need UDMan and TempoFan to pop up again in here.

  2. Aww, I thought my one liner comment in that thread that got 70+ likes would have a chance. But I too was fascinated by the history of Proton and these comments.

  3. Zastava /Yugo made 4-door sedans, the Fiat 128-based Zastava 101, also called the Yugo Skala 55.
    There was also a 5-door liftback version.
    It was somewhat popular in Eastern Bloc countries, and southeastern Europe.
    Admittedly, the Saga was probably a much better and more modern car for US needs than the Skala 55 would’ve been.
    Maybe Chrysler-Mitsubishi partnership blocked its import, since the Saga itself was a Mitsubishi Lancer/Mirage-derivative.

    1. There was also the Florida, which I believe Zastava developed with at least some thought that it might be sold in the US, certainly they did push it pretty heavily in other export markets.

      A good explanation might be that Bricklin wanted to hedge his bets by not relying entirely on a single supplier in case the relationship with one soured

  4. This is quite an honor, really!

    Regardless of how one feels about Yugos, Jason Vuic’s book “The Yugo – The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in the World” is an excellent read.

  5. Bricklin’s first venture was importing cheap scooters from Japan to sell to college students. That is what led to his connection to Soo Bar Ooo and that bankruptcy, that ended up with Subaru assuming control.

    Another one of his bankruptcies was the EV warrior, his scheme to take advantage of CA’s ZEV mandate. The idiea being to sell the E-bikes at cost and the credits that they generated to the automakers that wanted to sell cars in CA.

    My Uncle in Law was his Lawyer for some of his bankruptcies. Bricklin gave him a fairly nice Ford powered Bricklin and my Father in Law had a couple of Bricklins in various states of disrepair including one of the prototypes that was powered by the Torino (Jeep Tornado) OHC 6 “hidden” in the back of the storage lot for his construction company.

  6. I am actually unseasonably excited for the HW Proton. I hope they make it more of a ‘stock’ model and not into a drift car or something, it’d be great to have 2021’s Festival of the Unexceptional winner on my desk!

  7. He also tried to import Cherys (Cheries?) at one point in the early 2000s, and was talking to one or two other Red Chinese automakers at the same time, but it seemed like he wanted them to basically fund everything for him with his main contribution being himself, and the whole thing kind of fell apart

    Also, at one point, he wanted to bring back Yugos under the new name ZMW (for Zastava Motor Works), which led to a threat of legal action from another automaker

    1. Yes, he did try to import Chery into the US in 2006. But you left out the fact that Bricklin also had a explosive attitude, and that contributed to the collapsed Chery deal.

      And the Yugo/ZMW collapse was mostly fueled by legal action from BMW, who was not pleased with Bricklin’s wordplay.

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