If all the China hype about a lower-cost producer from Asia-Pacific planning to invade North America sounds vaguely familiar, it is.
Whatever happened to Proton?
A decade and a half ago, there was a cadre of those who said the same things about Proton that are now being said about some Chinese automakers, though there wasn't the same sense of inevitability or widespread fear and loathing.
One of the optimists was Malcolm Bricklin, who had visions of importing Protons to America as part of his Global Motors venture. It never happened.
Proton is short for Persusahaan Otomobil Nasional, which is Malaysia's national automaker. Production, which once approached 250,000 units a year, has slipped to about 175,000.
As such, it is entitled to the lion's share of the Malaysian auto market. And thanks to lingering tariffs on imported automobiles, Proton still grabbed 44 percent of passenger car sales there last year, according to data from JATO Dynamics. Proton automobiles also are sold in Australia, Iran, Nepal, Turkey and the United Kingdom.
But much of Proton's international luster comes from Group Lotus. Proton acquired 80 percent of Lotus in 1996 and bought the rest three years ago.
Lotus was founded in 1948 by race driver Colin Chapman, who built the company's reputation on racing victories, though the last Formula One race won by Lotus was the Detroit Grand Prix in 1987 when Ayrton Senna was the driver. Lotus hasn't won a championship since Mario Andretti was the driver in 1978, four years before Chapman died.
But the sports car brand and the company's engineering consultancy are still driven by the early racing triumphs. And Chapman's initials A.C.B.C. -- which stand for his full name, Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman, are entwined in a monogram that remains a part of the Lotus logo.
Lotus sports cars are sold the world over and have starred in a few James Bond movies.
Lotus has engineering centers in England and Malaysia, plus consulting offices in the United States, Germany and China.
Proton has made progress recently. Since the company was founded in 1985, it relied heavily on Mitsubishi building and selling reworked Mitsubishi models, and Mitsubishi owned part of Proton.
But the times are changing.
Proton has beefed up its proprietary engineering and design operations. Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Mitsubishi Corp. have sold their stakes in the Malaysian carmaker. Other Malaysian automakers have emerged.
Last November, the company inked a mutual cooperation memorandum of understanding with Volkswagen.
No equity investments were exchanged, but there are several likely areas of intense cooperation. Proton will assemble VW cars in Malasia for sale in Southeast Asian markets, beginning by the end of this year.
And more firm contracts are expected.
As part of the partnership, Volkswagen could use Lotus engineering facilities and could supply Proton with powertrains. It's also likely the two automakers will help each other get established in their respective home markets and later may jointly develop vehicles.
Major partnerships with Volkswagen would help Proton, especially in Western Europe.
But deals with VW aren't likely to get the Malaysian carmaker any closer to North America.
You may e-mail Edward Lapham at