History originally published in Examiner.com 7/17/2010 and news item November 16, 2008
What a deal it was! Look, Ma, a new car–they call it a Yugo–for only $3,990. A Chevrolet Chevette, in comparison, sold for about $5650. Even used cars with dubious priors and suspicious sellers could set you back more, and that’s not considering the pig-in-a-poke factor.
But what was a Yugo? Well, to say a Zastava 55, made by Zabodi Grvena Zastava, is correct, though not very helpful. Saying it was built in Kragujevac, Yugoslavia, when the communist country still existed, explains more. The 55 was based mostly on the Fiat 128, but the body was all new. Styled in Italy, the 55 was crisply drawn though no one but its mama could call it pretty.
It was smaller than the Fiat it was based on—only 137.4 inches long overall—and 3 inches shorter that the Chevy (Suzuki) Sprint. The wheelbase was a meager 84.7 inches. Despite its diminutive size, it could seat four, though the two in the back have to slither through the small front doors. Power was from an SOHC 1116cc four driving the front wheels through a four-speed transaxle, to Tigar 145SR-13 tires on 4.5 x 13-inch wheels. Working hard, a 19.5 second quarter-mile (at 65 mph) was possible, 0-to-60 mph taking the whole of 14 seconds.
The Yugo GV, as the car was named when it went on sale here, found waiting lists as people lined up to buy a car made with 60 cents per hour labor—opposed to $ 23 per hour here or $2 or $3 in Korea. With a mid-year start, only 3,895 Yugos were sold in the United States in 1985, but this soared to 35,959 the next year and hit 48,812 the year after, selling more than Saab and meeting more than half of BMW’s sales. Not bad for its second year on the market.
Alas, the bubble burst. Even as Zastava improved the Yugo GV, buyers soon tired of a 10-year old design with 200-year old quality, Despite bright trim colors, materials weren’t up to ’80s practice, and fit was poor. Additionally, the small number of cars with air conditioning had it as an add-on underdash unit that cooled the diver’s right shin and left the rest of the car tepid. No one wanted to buy a used Yugo and few wanted to buy a new one. Sales slipped to 31,546 in 1988.
Yugo’s importer’s followed procedures right out of the manual, freshening the model line for ’89 with a performance model call the Yugo GVX. It featured 155/SR13 Tigar tires, alloy wheels, a 1301 cc 64-hp four with a five-speed manual transmission, a new front bumper with integral spoiler, fog lights and matching lower bodyside cladding, Quarter-mile time dropped to 19.38 seconds (at 70.8 mph) with 0-to-60 mph clicking off in a mere 13.5 seconds. On the skidpad the GVX squealed to a .71 g. Sales plummeted to 10,576.
Not giving up, for 1990 Yugo America made good on its promise of a convertible. All Yugo Cabrios were wrapped in GVX trim—though that model was dropped—and had electrically-powered tops “with manual capability.” That didn’t inspire very much confidence. Worse yet, the Cabrio was priced at $ 8990. Add A/C, AM/FM/Stereo and destination and a Yugo was pushing 10 grand. Even the base Yugo, now with five-speed and 1.3 liter standard, had crept up to $ 4,435. It was still the cheapest car in America but looked cheaper than ever, Sales slid to 6,359, including 74 Cabrios.
Though the Yugo Cabrio was listed for ’91, none were sold. However, an automatic transmission finally joined the option list, with 88 self-shifters actually making it into the country. But sales fell again, down to 3,092. Zastava struggled gamely, with civil war raging just miles from its doors, announcing new seats, larger front brakes, beefier suspension and a modified steering-column angle for ’92. A Yugo five-door hatchback was said to be in the offing, but it was for naught. Though 1,412 cars were sold January through March, a visitor to Yugo America headquarters found locked gates and an empty yard. The American importer filed for bankruptcy and Zastava’s manufacture of automobiles–though later revived–had became a casualty of war.
The Yugo had not been great car or even a good one, but somehow it deserved a better ending than that.
Yugo ends production (Published November 16, 2009)
The last Yugo rolled of the assembly line at 9:00 a.m., November 11, 2009. With no more ceremony than factory worker’s hand-written paper sign reading “ćao, nema viša” (“goodbye, no more”) on the tailgate of Yugo number 794,428, production of the Yugo has ended.
Earlier this year, Fiat purchased a 70 percent controlling interest in Zastava Automobili from the Serbian government and will begin production of the Fiat Punto in the company’s plant in Kragujevac, Serbia, by the end of 2008.
Americans are familiar with the Yugo from its 1985 introduction in the United States by entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin (who earlier had brought the first Subarus to the U.S.). Selling for $3,990, the Yugo GV (great value) was significantly the cheapest new car for sale in the country. Sales were initially strong as car buyers were attracted to the low price, but the cars could charitably be described as being unsuited for American driving. More accurately, the consumers reported a lack of quality. Consumers Reports was more blunt, calling it “barely assembled bag of nuts and bolts.”
Early adopters were willing to forego quality, sales rising from an initial 400 cars per month in September 1985 to 5,000 monthly a year and a half later. On the other hand, the first cars were equipped with an 1100cc 55-horsepower engine, and with a manual transmission only, its market was limited in an America where automatic transmission sales were well over 90 percent.
Road & Track magazine tested a Yugo GV in 1986 and found that it would edge out a 1984 Chevrolet Sprint costing $1,000 more in acceleration, but the Yugo returned 30 mpg in “normal driving” while the Sprint achieved 44 mpg, no doubt in part from its five-speed versus four-speed transmission. The bigger competition, however, turned out to be the Hyundai Excel.
Although R&T found it would do “all the necessary things” in its first full test, in more extended use, owners found “Yugo” and “reliable” didn’t belong in the same sentence unless there was a “not” in there somewhere. Owners complained of engine failure, shifter and transmission problems, malfunctioning brakes and electrical system faults, in addition to interior and trim parts that frequently went AWOL or were dishonorably separated from service.
By 1988, Yugo’s 300 dealers in the U.S. had inventory clogging their lots and offering news cars that had been there for several years for half their original selling price. Yugo America went bankrupt in 1989, and no ’89 models were imported. With reorganization, the new Yugo America became a subsidiary of Zastava Automobili. But even though, quality had improved with fuel injection replacing troublesome carburetion and a 1300cc engine having been made standard equipment, the Yugo’s image had been irreparably damaged. It wasn’t helped by the EPA recalling 126,000 vehicles for failure to meet emissions requirements with its complex carburetor arrangement that by the time of the recall had been replaced by injection. Even a convertible, the GVC Cabrio, wasn’t able to revive the little car’s fortune
But Yugo hung on in the United States until 1992 when Yugo America Inc. told dealers in a letter that the compact car had fell victim to “civil strife in its European homeland,” according to the New York Times. A dealer visiting Yugo America’s headquarters found the lights off and doors locked. The final count total for Yugos coming into the United States was 145,511.
Production continued at Zastava, however. Even in 1999, six months after when “NATO used the factory for target practice,” in the words of a Zastava Automobili press release, the factory was up and producing cars again. (Zastava, it should be noted, was an arms maker long before starting car manufacture). Zastava, still government owned even after the Communist government had fallen, continued to improve its product, as a company press release notes:
“For an encore, Zastava’s engineers forged an alliance with PSA/Peugeot-Citroen, and developed Europe’s most affordable diesel car, the Florida TDC, a five-door hatchback that was praised by Britain’s AutoCar magazine (in its February 28th, 2008 issue), in the last throes of the company’s independence.”
The Yugo isn’t quite the last car from Zastava, however, though the last Scala 55 will be built on November 20. The Zastava 128 is assembled in Egypt, and Zastava is negotiating with government officials in the Congo about building the Scala 55 and Yugo Koral In in that African country.
But on November 11, 2008, it all ended for the Yugo at the Kragujevac factory. As they say in Serbia, “Ćao, nema viša.”
Terror on the bus (March 21, 2022)
I was on a bus in Seoul, Korea, for the media introduction of the Kia Rio in 2000, sharing a seat with another American journalist. An attractive young woman in the seat ahead of us turned andn introduced herself as a journalist from one of the former regions of Yugoslavia when that country flung itself apart like kids off a playground merry-go-round spinning a little too fast. She said, “You know, we once made a car in Yogoslavia. It was called the Yugo.”
My American comrade and I froze, faces likely ashen, both wondering how we were going to be polite and honest at the same time. We knew what the Yugo was, but how not to say it while not offending our new friend.
Fortunately, she continued before we had to speak: “It was a terrible car. It was so bad. Go around the corner and the doors would pop open.” I dpon’t remember how the conversation continued after that except that my colleague and I were able to resume breathing.
- How do you make a Yugo go faster?
- What do you call the shock absorbers inside a Yugo?
- Two guys in a Yugo were arrested last night following a push-by shooting incident.
- The new Yugo has an air bag. When you sense an impending accident, start pumping real fast.
- A friend went to a dealer the other day and said, “I’d like a gas cap for my Yugo.” The dealer replied, “Okay. Sounds like a fair trade.”
Why does a Yugo have a defroster on the rear window? To keep your hands warm while you push it.