In 1986, Proton and EON organised a media drive from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, to Kuching in Sarawak to demonstrate the durability of the first national car that had been launched a year earlier. Raja Sulaiman, a motoring journalist with the New Straits Times at that time, was among the participants and in this article, he recalls the event which was known as the ‘Sagathon Rally’. Special thanks to him also for providing the pictures to go with the article.
In 1983, while still largely considered a developing country with scant R&D to boast of, Malaysia embarked on a National Car project, with Mitsubishi Motors as the Japanese technology-supplier and business partner. The agreement was that the ‘Malaysian-made’ car – branded as Proton – would be an adaptation of an older generation Mitsubishi model, at least until the country had gained the expertise to build a car of her own.
Malaysians were in splitsville over this – on the one hand, great national pride, and on the other, incredulity and doubt about the country’s manufacturing ability, deepened by an unwillingness to give up what was then one of Asia’s best car markets, offering a dizzying array of makes from all over the world, thanks to a burgeoning and profitable car-assembly industry.
So when the first Proton Saga model rolled out in 1985, spelling the beginning of the end of the free market, it faced more than a fair amount of fault-finding and distrust. In the first year the Saga was sold, much effort was needed to prove its worth to a sceptical public.
“After the Saga was launched, there was a lot of talk about the car’s shortcomings – things like lack of power, flimsiness and overheating,” said Gucharan Singh, EON’s General Manager at that time. “We didn’t know how it started, or who started it, but we knew it had to be challenged.”
So a series of runs, aimed at proving the car’s performance under demanding conditions, such as a hill-climb, were held in the states where the rumours were strongest. One such event was the ‘Sagathon Pahang’ where 88 owners and prospective buyers drove from Kuantan to Genting Highlands (then a popular ‘test course‘ by the public).
One man loaded the car with his whole family, and made a point of bringing along a big jerry can of water ‘in case the car overheats’. To which the EON GM replied: “OK, we’ll meet you up there and drink the water together!”
Another event saw more than 100 Sagas travelling from Ipoh to Cameron Highlands) while a third, held in Kuala Lumpur had 112 Sagas masquerading as taxis, and giving free rides.
After repeated failed attempts to stem criticisms, Proton – through its marketing and distribution affiliate, EON – decided to stage a Sabah-Sarawak endurance run, pitting 12 Sagas against the rough conditions of the region. Called the ‘Sagathon Rally’, it would be a long, punishing drive of 1,111 kms on unpaved, rocks-strewn mountain roads in dusty conditions. The objective was to prove the durability of Malaysia’s first national car.
The Sagathon Rally involved 12 Proton Sagas and 37 participants, mostly journalists. Other than heavy-duty shock absorbers, harder compound tyres, a shield under the petrol tank and bumper-mounted spotlights, the Sagas were showroom standard. The No. 1 car was driven by a Selangor prince (today’s Sultan of Selangor) and his ADC, while Asian Auto’s Mel Lee, Sunday Mail columnist Lee Pang Seng and I were in Car 2. A helicopter followed overhead to offer emergency assistance and act as a lookout since the Sabah – Sarawak Highway was under construction and work crews were present, along with heavy vehicles. There was also a 4×4 vehicle carrying extra spare tyres in case they were needed.
On paper, the states of Sabah and Sarawak look like a motoring heaven – wide open country, breath-taking mountain scenery, no highway speed limit, and hardly any traffic (at the very most, a car or two for every 10 kms). The picture painted rivalled the vistas of Europe’s mountain passes – except that the roads were not paved. In fact, I would say four-fifths of our journey was over surfaces that looked more like dried-up rock beds of a once turbulent river.
The terrain varied from dirt-packed and potholed to gravel to rocks the size of golfballs. Then, there was the fine dust churned up by speeding vehicles, a blinding, billowing cloud on a dry day, or into mud and slush when it rained.
As soon as we left the tarmac, past the Beaufort junction after a short drive from Kota Kinabalu, the convoy spread out. That was better as the dusty conditions made it risky being too close anyway. The surface conditions of the ‘roads’ kept worsening and we winced with every bump, scrape and thud. But the realisation that it was going to be like that for some hundreds of kilometres soon numbed our compassion for the cars.
The roads were worse than we had expected or even imagined but we drove fairly fast and arrived two hours ahead of schedule at the designated first stop. After waiting patiently for the cars to be loaded on a landing craft for a 14-hour journey to Miri, we proceeded to Lawas to board an aircraft (a RMAF Caribou) to get there. While it was possible to drive right across to Sarawak, the roads run through Brunei and that would entail so much paperwork that a landing craft was the preferred alternative.
The second day of our drive required getting up at 4 am and it was going to be a gruelling 14-hour run drive over some of the worst stretches of roads imaginable. If the earlier drive was hitting and punching, this one was like kicking, biting and spitting!
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From Miri to Sibu (where we stopped to refuel), the road changed frequently – from jagged, stony paths, to dirt roads with sneaky, scattered rocks, to blinding dusty trails with dust that we found the particles in the boot and cabin.
At one spot, I drove into a huge cloud of dust at a bend… and slammed into a pile of dirt. Mel, sitting beside me, took the brunt of the force but was OK. We quickly got out of the car to inspect the damage which was not as serious as I feared and the car was still drivable. It could have been worse – the man-high pile was just in front of a bulldozer!
We were lucky as later on, one of the other cars went into a rock wall while trying to avoid an oncoming vehicle and the front passenger got a deep gash on his forehead. That’s when the helicopter proved its value as he was flown to a hospital.
It was late afternoon and our destination was still an hour away. I stopped the car to photograph a mosque that appeared to sit right in the middle of the road. A truckload of locals came alongside and started to scolded us. It seemed we had just offended them with our gung-ho driving!
The last section of dirt-road from Sibu to Bandar Seri Aman proved to be the most interesting, in terms of driving. Here, the terrain was more predictable, mostly a loose pebbly surface where the car slid a bit through bends. A TV crewmember from the helicopter later said that the cars looked look ‘streaming, smoking jetfighters on the ground’ and we were driving ‘like mad men after gold dust’!
We reached Bandar Seri Aman at about 6 pm and a police escort cleared the way for us over the remaining 200 kms to Kuching. It was supposed to be the easiest part of the drive but the police lost their way and we ended up in a small village!
The detour delayed our entry to Kuching, by which time we were tired and hungry and half blind due to the flashing lights of the patrol car in front.
As the enthusiastic crowd cheered and welcomed us, it did occur to me that it felt like we had just travelled to the moon and back.