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How Do You Make A Yugo Cool? Turn It Into A Book

Mar 13, 2010

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How do you double the value of a Yugo? Fill the gas tank.

What do you call a Yugo that breaks down after 100 miles? An overachiever.

Remember the Yugo? Jason Vuic would like to remind you of its not-so-illustrious story. The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History is Vuic's book on the tiny, no-frills, breakdown-prone automobile imported from communist Yugoslavia in the 1980s that is better known today as a punchline than a piece of machinery that might (or might not) take you from point A to point Y.

Despite his book's title, Vuic says the Yugo is far from the worst car in history. There was even a time when the car ignited a sort of Yugo-mania in America. Between 1984 and 1992, Americans bought 150,000 Yugos — at $3,990, it was far and away the cheapest car on the market.

"Dealers signed up to sell the Yugo with an entrepreneur named Malcolm Bricklin," Vuic says. "He's actually called, in business school textbooks, a serial entrepreneur. He jumps from business to business to business and has had some spectacular entrepreneurial successes, but some equally spectacular failures."

When Bricklin introduced the Yugo to American audiences, it may have looked like a good time to bring the product to these shores. Vuic notes that Yugoslavia had been one of three communist countries not to boycott the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles, and it was greeted warmly by the American crowds.

Also contributing to the perfect storm that set the American table for Yugo was the move by American and Japanese automakers out of the low end of the auto market.

"The Japanese were capturing a larger market share, and Detroit was pushing the Reagan administration for some kind of sanctions," Vuic says. "The Japanese jumped in and said, 'Wait a minute, we'll put a quota on ourselves. We'll limit the number of cars we bring to America.' But what the Japanese did, very smartly, was instead of selling spartan Civics and Tercels, they went upscale. And this leads to Acura, Infiniti, Lexus. ... Right when they left the market, the Yugo was the only game in town."

A Bad Car

Yugos were built in an old munitions plant in Serbia. When Bricklin arrived at the plant to view the manufacturing process, he was taken aback by what he saw.

"The floors were unbelievably dirty. They actually had a machine with chains that actually would whip across the floor to take all the oil and scum off the floors," Vuic says. "They painted cars in open environments, not sealed environments. One of the men who went with Bricklin actually saw freshly painted doors coming down the conveyor belt, or fenders if I remember, with dents on them. ... The first Yugos that they viewed, they found rust in the trunk."

Bricklin saw the workers taking shots of plum brandy during their breaks, smoking on the assembly line and stepping from dirty floors directly into newly assembled cars. But Vuic says Yugo's biggest problem was that the company failed to observe many standard quality control practices — "which meant that the Yugo was never catastrophically bad. It just had a huge number of quality issues that added up to a bad car."

Bricklin gave Yugo's manufacturers a 400 item-long list of changes that would need to be made to the cars, and to the company's credit, Vuic says, it actually made the improvements.

"For how famous the Yugo is for being a bad car, these Yugo America men who went over there really did what I found to be a herculean job of prepping this car for America."

Get Your Motor Running

Despite those improvements, the Yugo was still something of a disaster. Vuic says of the 150,000 sold in America, fewer than 1,000 are now in working order — which makes riding in one today an opportunity not to be passed up.

Arnold Campanile, from outside Philadelphia, purchased his Yugo brand new in 1991. He drove it to NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C., without breaking down once, he says.

Cruising (or perhaps puttering) down the streets of Washington in Campanile's Yugo, with a Serbian version of "Born To Be Wild" blasting out of the tape deck, Vuic says all the effort Bricklin's team put in made the Yugo a substantially better car. But somehow, it couldn't save the Yugo's reputation.

"The fact that it was sold here means that it wasn't one of the worst cars in history. It passed safety tests and emissions tests," Vuic says. Still, "On NPR's Car Talk, listeners voted the Yugo the worst car of the millennium."

Vuic thinks that honor is undeserved.

"It wasn't a very good car," he says. It was "one of the lowest quality cars of the 1980s. But many worse cars were sold in America in the '50s and '60s and '70s, especially early imports."

Those include the three-wheeled Messerschmitt that had a handle bar in place of a steering wheel and started with a pull cord, like a lawnmower.

But the Yugo is stuck in the minds of Americans as a lemon. Vuic says that designation might be traceable back to an assessment from Consumer Reports, just a few months after the the Yugo was introduced to America, recommending that consumers purchase a used car rather than a brand new Yugo.

Vuic interviewed the test driver who reviewed the car for Consumer Reports.

"He said the Yugo really wasn't that bad," Vuic says. "For his buyers, it wasn't the best quality. But he said the engine was a tried-and-true Fiat engine that people had used for years and years in Europe and also the United States. He just said it wasn't put together very well."

Yugo America went bankrupt in 1992, a victim of the car's bad reputation and poor business practices — for five or six years in a row, Yugo sold the same model to Americans who expect new models every year — but also, Vuic says, because just as sales took a dive, Yugoslavia started to fall apart.

"And the seats were made in Kosovo, the plastic was made in Croatia, other parts were made in Slovenia or Slovakia. And pretty soon, you couldn't put the car together, just as you couldn't put the country back together."

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