Proton Cars wants to expand its existing 78-strong dealer network to between 100 and 110 as the company seeks to reverse its downward sales trend.

Now is a good time for a budget car brand to expand, said managing director Brian Collier. He likens Proton's dealers to the village corner shop - everyone knows everyone by their first names.

"Dealers are fed up with being beaten up by the big manufacturers. All our sales are genuine retail sales and the dealers make a profit," he points out. "Dealers also like us because we're friendly."

Sales have slipped - just 2,500 last year. "But where we do compete we do well and our customer loyalty is very high." It's one of the highest in the business at 80% in 2005, slipping to 70% in 2006 and 2007 as TV and other advertising brought new customers to the brand.

"Our customers are fiercely loyal to us and our dealers - once we have them, they stay with us," said sales and marketing boss Simon Park.

Peak sales for the Malaysian brand were 15,000 in 1992 - the same year the company relocated from Birmingham to Bristol.

In 2003 Proton moved to sister company Lotus in Norwich but earlier this year returned to Avonmouth, taking over the Lotus parts distribution warehouse as its new PDI, dealer and technical training centre.

Here, up to 220 cars - shipped in through neighbouring Portbury docks - can be stored under cover, an unusual bonus for any car maker let alone a small importer.

"We have five cars in each colour and of each derivative," said Park. This allows the importer to cope with the four- to five-month lead time on shipments from Malaysia.

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