• Mar 22, 2010
In 1985, just nine months before the Yugo came to America, Yugo America CEO Malcolm Bricklin and second in command Tony Ciminera toured the Zastava plant in Kragujevac, Yugoslavia. This is where the Yugo 45, the crazy-cheap car Americans would come to know, love and then loathe, would be built and rebadged as the Yugo GV (Bricklin intended GV to stand for "great value," but he never bothered paying the ad firm to spread the word). Ciminera was horrified at what he saw.
Workers would take brand new body panels they'd just finished stamping and toss them onto a pile. Meaning that the new cars would roll off the assembly line dented. Bricklin, of course, failed to see the problem and told Ciminera just to fax the Zastava workers a list of changes needed when the two of them returned to the U.S. The problem with that plan was that the Zastava factory didn't have a fax machine. Once they got one, the fax that Ciminera sent them was over four meters long. And Bricklin was sticking to his fanciful nine-month deadline.





Jason Vuic's new book The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History (Amazon link) isn't so much about the actual car, but rather the never ending blunders, unmerited chutzpah and collective cluelessness of the people behind the eternally-doomed sub-compact. Vuic felt compelled to write the book after a New York artist was able to purchase 39 Yugos for $92 a pop – in the mid-90s! Front and center sits the amazing, seemingly unstopable Malcom Bricklin, a man willing to hop in bed with communists, socialists, repressive dictators and Henry Kissinger (all factor into the Yugo's story) to make a quick buck.

After three back to back failures in the car biz – Subaru, Bricklin and IAI, importers of Pininfarina Spiders and Bertone X1/9 a decade past the cars' primes – Bricklin was wandering down a street in Paris when he saw his first Yugo. Instantly knew he had to bring the car to America. This is why Malcolm Bricklin is not only very different from you and I, but any other entrepreneur in history.



The thing is, Bricklin's plan almost worked. Despite a Michigan congressman publicly accusing the communist Zastava plant of using slave labor (they didn't), despite the Zastava workers drinking plum brandy from 6:00 am to 1:00 am (they did), despite all the me, me, me! excesses of the 1980s and meteoric rise of luxury makes like BMW, the Yugo was almost a success. Americans were lining up ten deep for the brand new $3,990 Yugoslavian cars, which were in reality shoddily made, decade and a half old Fiats. At one point, Yugo sold 1,050 cars in a single day. Of course the good times didn't last, and neither did the cars. Vuic points out that as of 1999 there was only one Yugo registered in the State of Florida.

Were the Yugos really that bad? Yes, but also no. Vuic spills a good deal of ink explaining what he calls, "Yugomania," an almost mindless acceptance of the Yugo as a good car for a great price. Then fate steps in and starting with a brutal review by Consumer Reports ("You're better off buying a good used car than a new Yugo"), some misinformation from the NHTSA about the Yugo's 35 mph collision results, Bricklin's pyramid-scheming ways (why pay for national advertisements when you can buy a several hundred acre ranch in Colorado with your company's credit line?) and even the S&L junk bond scandal all eventually conspire to bring the Yugo down. Oh, and Nato bombed the Zastava factory in 1999, seemingly just for good measure.



Even if you have no interest in the Yugo, or even no interest in cars, Vuic's book is a must read. Not only is every page filled with laughter (did you know Bricklin started a go-cart franchise featuring Subaru 360s?), but Vuic actually starts each chapter with a Yugo joke (Q: What do you call a Yugo with brakes? A: Customized). If the book has any shortcomings, the biggest would be not interviewing Malcolm Bricklin. Readers are left clamoring for more Malcolm (after Yugo, he proceeds to found three more companies that go belly up). Also, a little more information about the car, specifically how the cars failed, would have been nice. Though it should be pointed out that Yugo might be the most exhaustively researched 213 page book ever written. Just remember, Yugo filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in just four years. Malcolm Bricklin is still at large.




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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 39 Comments
      • 4 Years Ago
      145,511 Yugos were sold Stateside between 1986 and 1991. That's considerably more than the number of Peugeots, Sterlings, or Alfa Romeos sold in the United States during that time period.

      Renault, Citroen, Lancia, and Fiat itself were long gone.

      And it's hard to imagine that a $3,990 car with - in 1986 - independent front and rear suspension, an overhead camshaft and rack-and-pinion steering could truly have been the "worst car of all time."

      Truth is, it wasn't.

      It's easy to understand why it was popular, some time ago, to deride the Yugo as the "worst car of all time."

      After all, Soviet Russia was The Enemy. And many Americans viewed Yugoslavia as part of the Eastern Bloc (it wasn't).

      And the very idea of a budget car very nearly presents itself as opposed to the American dream. Why sell people a car they could pay cash for and own, immediately, outright; run for pennies on the dime; dispose of in 5 years, and replace with another brand new car?

      Of course, in countries where the concept of fixing things is more prevalent (either culturally, or by way of sheer necessity), you just maintained the one you had. These cars were certainly more durable than their reputation suggests, as hundreds of thousands of Yugos across the former Yugoslav republics (where many of the roughly 750,000 built between 1980 and 2008 continue to run) will attest.

      Fiat was long gone by the time Zastava entered the U.S. market. Indeed, Fiat warned Zastava (its longtime partner) not to go; "America will eat you alive," they said.

      On the balance, given that Yugoslavia was imploding, I'd submit that Zastava did fairly well to sell 150,000 cars, while developing a cabriolet with a power folding top and a 5-passenger family car (sold in the U.K. as the Sana, and favorably reviewed by Tiff Needell of Top Gear here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCe4lQ2K08Q).

      It's time - like that of the country in which it was born - may have been short-lived, but there's no doubt the Yugo had an impact. Hyundai executives have confessed to have been watching it closely to judge their own chances. The 3-cylinder Chevrolet Sprint and (Korean) Ford Festiva were nothing less than Detroit's knee-jerk reactions to the Yugo - and I'd argue that neither was as fun to drive.

      Sure, the Yugo had a clunky gear-change that took some getting used to; but take that Italian-bred 1.3-liter engine to 6,000 rpm and back. Now try the same with a Festiva. Or an Excel.

      Already 100 years old when it began making cars in 1953, the Zastava complex had been rebuilt from the ashes of World War II (the retreating Nazis had removed everything of value). After almost 4 million cars built, Zastava from 1991 through 1999 survived an embargo, a civil war, and wanton destruction by NATO jets determined to demonstrate superiority over what is, possibly, the world's most famous/ notorious postwar budget car (i.e.: excluding the Bug).

      Three months after the bombing, they were making cars again. That's more than can be said of Volkswagen (for instance), which in 1945 needed considerable foreign (British) investment to restart production.

      I'd be wary of the claims this book makes, from the fax machine story on down. Yugoslavia had several car, bus, and truck plants at the time that the Yugo was exported to the 'States, and could hardly have been accused of lacking sophistication.

      I've toured Zastava's facilities (quite possibly, unlike the author). They've been ISO 9001 compliant since 2000, and were in 2007 judged by Opel engineers as a suitable site for assembly. In 2008, one of the major British magazines reported from those same lines and was suitably impressed.

      In 2009, foreign investment finally showed up. Fiat is now building Fiats at Zastava, and may send a Chrysler or two the factory's way.

      The unfortunate ethnic hatred recently reignited in spectacular fashion may explain the motivations of an author who, ethnically at least, has ties to the Balkans (Zastava was founded in 1855 as a Serbian factory and, following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, remains one today).

      Whatever the case, he has maintained that he doesn't know much about Yugoslavia, past or present. Which, equally, isn't a good place to start when writing a book which makes the bombastic claims this one does.

      Lots of Zastava history here, in the "Heritage" section (a little dry, but interesting nonetheless):
      http://www.zastavanacionale.com

      And just to stick a fork in that "commie" image, here's an enthusiast if ever there was one - the guy who developed the suspension for the Florida/ Sana:<
        oRenj9
        • 3 Years Ago
        This is absolutely the best post I've ever read on Autoblog. Thanks!
      • 4 Years Ago
      My family has a Yugo in Belgrade.
      After almost 30 years it still runs.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Actually these were extremely tough little cars. Granted there were tons of production problems, but after a couple years only the strongest ones must have survived. I had an '87 GV as a lot car for a bunch of years. After enough jumps, spins, overrevs, small tree collisions, constant underbody rock peltings, and near rolls pretty much any other compact would have been dead, but the Yugo kept rolling along. It always started. Plus the thing was parked in a field for 5 years and never really got very rusty. It did however get grass growing out of the hood and chipmunks living in the fusebox. The shifter comment is dead on though - the book should read "The Worst Shift Linkage In History".
      • 4 Years Ago
      A 1985 Yugo is not nearly as crude as a 1975 Renault 12. I learned how to drive on one of those, and let me say, you learned by baptism by fire. Cheap European cars back then were fun because you learned how cars worked and you took nothing for granted. Kids today are spoiled. They expect cars to start in the morning.

      I also owned a 1984 Hyundai Pony, and while it didn't last very long, I did buy it in bad condition for $200 and I drove it for two years and it still it took me on a 700 mile round trip in the hot summer without breaking down.

      I also think a lot of people confuse the Skoda, with the Yugo. Those two cars were introduced about the same time in North America, and I think people only remember the Yugo, so the Skodas got lumped in with the Yugo.



      • 4 Years Ago
      What the Yugo proves to me is that there's always a percentage of the American public that will be fooled by something or someone. A Yugoslavian-made '70s Fiat 128 was NOT a good idea in 1985! The roundly criticised Chrysler Sebring is not a good idea now. It's quite possible that Fiat-Chryslers of the near future will have all the combined reliability of Fiat electrical systems and Chrysler transmissions. I WON'T be one of the first to find out.
      • 4 Years Ago
      145,511 Yugos were sold Stateside between 1986 and 1991. That's considerably more than the number of Peugeots, Sterlings, or Alfa Romeos sold in the United States during that time period.

      Renault, Citroen, Lancia, and Fiat itself were long gone.

      And it's hard to imagine that a $3,990 car with - in 1986 - independent front and rear suspension, an overhead camshaft and rack-and-pinion steering could truly have been the "worst car of all time."

      Truth is, it wasn't.

      It's easy to understand why it was popular, some time ago, to deride the Yugo as the "worst car of all time."

      After all, Soviet Russia was The Enemy. And many Americans viewed Yugoslavia as part of the Eastern Bloc (it wasn't).

      And the very idea of a budget car very nearly presents itself as opposed to the American dream. Why sell people a car they could pay cash for and own, immediately, outright; run for pennies on the dime; dispose of in 5 years, and replace with another brand new car?

      Of course, in countries where the concept of fixing things is more prevalent (either culturally, or by way of sheer necessity), you just maintained the one you had. These cars were certainly more durable than their reputation suggests, as hundreds of thousands of Yugos across the former Yugoslav republics (where many of the roughly 750,000 built between 1980 and 2008 continue to run) will attest.

      Fiat was long gone by the time Zastava entered the U.S. market. Indeed, Fiat warned Zastava (its longtime partner) not to go; "America will eat you alive," they said.

      On the balance, given that Yugoslavia was imploding, I'd submit that Zastava did fairly well to sell 150,000 cars, while developing a cabriolet with a power folding top and a 5-passenger family car (sold in the U.K. as the Sana, and favorably reviewed by Tiff Needell of Top Gear here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCe4lQ2K08Q).
      bob
      • 4 Years Ago
      Did they ever follow through with their station wagon, the Wego?
        • 4 Years Ago
        @bob
        They had one with a special trim package for Tennessee. It was the Y'allgo
      • 4 Years Ago
      "everybody needs a yugo sometime" ..pretty much sums it up
      • 4 Years Ago
      One thing about these communist cars: they were assembled poorly, so they were unreliable when new, but from everything I've heard, they were actually quite durable, because they were engineered to last for as long as possible, to save resources.

      (I avoided saying well engineered, because they focused on different things nowadays, and a car with those qualities, even with the best assembly, would be considered poorly engineered in fully developed nations. But in developing nations, the low cost of running and high durability would be considered good engineering.)
        • 4 Years Ago
        To be COMPLETELY fair, I was referring to communist cars in general.

        But, yes, if you stick with OEM parts all the time, well, they're built just as badly as what came on the car. Locally made parts to replace what breaks, though, were the idea, IIRC. Obviously, that doesn't work in the US.
        • 4 Years Ago
        If you go to the countries of Former Yugoslavia, you will see they are one of the most predominate cars on the road. Most are the pre-90s built ones and they are still going strong...the US owners seem to have the most problems keeping them on the road (or maybe just want to have a new car all the time).
      • 4 Years Ago
      Back when I loaded groceries onto cars for my first job a lady drove up in a Yugo. I loaded her car and shut the hatch which then popped off the hinges and fell to the ground.

      I thought oh my god this woman is going to be pissed and I'm going to get fired.

      Surprised I hear. "Oh don't worry about that son, happens all the time. Just pick it up and put it back on. No big deal."

      The reason why it sold was because it was cheap and it really wasn't a bad looking car in 1985.

      You have to wonder if the Tata Nano is going to become Yugo II. I mean the Yugo was a piece of junk but I don't remember stories of them catching on fire like crazy. Of course the Yugo would have to actually run more than a mile to catch on fire.
      • 4 Years Ago
      The Yugo: the only car so terrible, it was *still* terrible in LeMons.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I bet Borat owns one.
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