Book Review: The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History

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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