I’m Here All Week, Folks

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While out hunting one day, a man is mauled by a bear. In a panic, his hunting partner calls the National Parks Service- his friend just bear-ly (heyo!) clinging to life. “My friend was mauled by a bear!” he tells the operator, “I think he might be dead! What should I do?” The operator, a picture of composure, calms the man, telling him: “Okay sir, the first thing you need to do is make sure he’s dead.” The hunter puts down the phone and walks over to his friend. Through the receiver, the operator hears a sharp bang, and then the phone being picked up again. “Okay,” says the man. “What do I do next?” Har-de-har-har. But seriously, folks. In 2002, that joke was ranked the funniest joke to the widest range of people by the University of Hertfordshire. This is the automotive equivalent of that. This is the Yugo. 

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To be more specific, this is a 1988 Zastava Yugo 45, though Americans were sold this car simply under the name “Yugo.” Zastava, started out making weapons in the mid-nineteenth century. In the 1930s, the Yugoslavian army commissioned them to build Ford trucks, and for awhile they dabbled in Willys-Overland Jeeps as well. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that things, much like an irritable bowel movement, really started to move at Zastava. In August of 1953, they began making a rebadged Fiat called the 1300, which was pretty good for market that it was catering to. Okay, that’s the setup. Here’s the punchline.

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It’s 1978. Night Fever by the Bee Gees is at the top of Billboard’s 100 list. A small comic strip called “Garfield” is introduced.  And in Turin, guys from both Zastava and Fiat were meeting to design a brand new car. Well, not entirely brand new. The Zastava 102 (which eventually came to be called the Yugo) was, in actuality, a Fiat 127 with some different bodywork. Now, the 127 wasn’t a horrible car. A bit unreliable perhaps, but that was just a fact of life for all Italian cars back in the day (and kinda today too). The engine carried over as well: a 0.9 liter four cylinder developing 45 horsepower (that’s why this particular car is called the Yugo 45). Because the engine bay wouldn’t accommodate an automatic, the only transmission available was a four speed manual. Whoop-de-freakin-do.

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It’s worth mentioning that, much like the 1300 that preceded it, the Yugo was not an awful car given the conditions under which it was made or the market that it was intended to serve. A New York Times article from 1992 called it “the Yugoslav Model T,” making up over two thirds of the domestic car market. That right there is important. The Yugo, while not a great car by any means, at least knew its market. It played to its audience. Until, that is, an American by the name of Malcolm Bricklin clapped eyes on one while walking around London. While gazing upon the majestic Yugo, Bricklin thought: Yes. This. This is what the American public wants- no, needs right now. I shall be the man to give it to them. Their saving grace. Their new hope. Their Nirvana. Remember that thing we just mentioned about knowing your audience? Malcolm skipped that day of joke school.

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Bricklin was no stranger to being completely wrong about what American car buyers want. In 1968, he decided that the next best seller was going to be the Subaru 360, which, while about as oochie-cuchie-coo adorable as a car can get, was a commercial disaster. It probably had something to do with the fact that Americans at that time were buying muscle trucks with 450 horsepower while the Subaru made as much power as my toaster oven. And my toaster oven is currently broken. Then, in 1974, he decided to sell a car of his own design. A sports car with gullwing doors, no less. However, he also decided that the one thing people value most in an exciting sports car is, um, safety. So, another failure. Not to be discouraged, Malcolm set his dollar-sign-filled eyes on the humble Yugo.

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America’s introduction to the Yugo was much like America’s introduction to healthcare.gov. First, the car had to pass American safety and emissions regulations, which were just ever so slightly more stringent than Yugoslavia’s. So, after more than 450 adjustments to bring the original car more in line with US requirements, the Yugo (now christened the Yugo GV for “Good Value”) was ready to be unleashed on American roads in the summer of 1985. Sales were slow initially, due in no small part to some financial messes (don’t run your company on franchise fees, kids). But within a year or so, the Yugo became the fastest selling first year European car in US history. At one point, dealers sold 1500 Yugos in one day. Some of this was down to price. When it was launched, the Yugo was the cheapest new car on the market, at just $3990. Almost just as quickly however, came the horror stories. There are too many to fully list, so I’ll just give you some highlights. Yugo sent Motor Trend a car to test, but a full review never came out because the car broke down during testing. Yugo came last out of 33 brands in JD Power’s customer satisfaction survey. The IIHS reported that Yugo was the eighth most lethal brand between the years of 1985 and 1989. They were last when it came to resale reliability and last when it came to air pollution. Its seats collapsed. Consumer Reports refused to recommend the Yugo at any price, instead urging readers to buy a used car. Any used car. Anything other than a Yugo, really.

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In many ways, we’ve kinda hit peak Forgotten Metal here. This is it, right here. The car that few remember, and even fewer want to remember. See, the word “Yugo” in car culture is kind of like the word “Enron” in the business world. “Yugo” doesn’t mean this particular car anymore. It’s a symbol. It is, deservedly or not, shorthand for the worst that we can do when none of us put our minds to it. In other words, it’s an easy target. I’m not breaking any ground here, insulting the Yugo. I’m just doing the thing you’re never supposed to do in comedy: punch down.

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Additional Thoughts:

  • Apparently, exported Yugos were made out of zinc-dipped materials, which made them less (emphasis on the “less”) prone to rust than their locally made counterparts. That meant that many buyers in places like Croatia or Serbia ended up re-importing US-market Yugos.
  • Malcolm Bricklin was actually not the first person to come up with the idea of importing Yugos. That honor (?) goes Miroslav Kefurt, who brought three Yugos to the Los Angeles AutoExpo in 1984. As it happened, his assigned stand at the show was right across from Mercedes Benz, so in an effort to stand out, Kerfurt hired his wife and four teenage supermodels to be “Yugo Girls.” That meant wearing tight “Yugo 45” t-shirts and miniskirts and standing next to the red, white and blue Yugoslavian hatchbacks. Subtle.
  • At that same show, Kefurt stood on the roof of one of the cars, denting it. Ever the resourceful entrepreneur, he simply reached inside and popped the dent out. “Go try that at Mercedes Benz!” he said, “Go stand on a Mercedes!”
  • The last we heard from Malcolm Bricklin, he had failed to set up a joint venture with Chinese automaker Chery to build cars for the US market. He got sued over it, in fact.
  • Yugo did offer a sporty version of their car, dubbed the GVX. It had 61 horsepower.
  • There was also (briefly) a Yugo convertible!
  • The Yugo also enjoyed a relatively underground music career too. Here’s a sample. And another.
  • For those of you who are interested, I recommend checking out The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car In History by Jason Vuic. It’s a very good read, and was instrumental in putting this Yugo piece together. Think of it as the Forgotten Metal book club!
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