If only the Yugo were the worst thing we knew about the former Yugoslavia.
The Yugo was both a great idea terribly executed, and a terrible idea that was much more successful than it deserved. In the 1980’s a few people saw a hole in the American car market – a need for a cheap compact car. One of those people was Malcolm Bricklin. Lets just get this out of the way, if Malcolm Bricklin asks you for money, only give him what you can afford to loose. You are a lot more likely to have a good time than you are to get rich. Let’s also get this out of the way, the Yugo is not the worst car in history. The worst car in history couldn’t meet US import safety standards. The Yugo was just in the wrong place at the right time. Of cars sold in the US, it was at the bottom in terms of quality, but was better than many cars that were rejected by US safety regulators.
The Yugo was the state car of Yugoslavia – originally based off blueprints from Fiat and produced by Yugoslav manufacturer, Zastava. It was a basic, no frills mode of transportation. Bricklin discovered the car in London when negotiations to import another car fell apart. The negotiations fell apart because Bricklin’s reputation preceded him. By the time Bricklin got involved with the Yugo, he had a reputation as a flamboyant entrepreneur, better at vision than business. His vision for success was rarely based in reality.
Despite the involvement of Bricklin, this wasn’t an enterprise destined to fail. There were some very good reasons for bringing the Yugo to the US market. For a variety of reasons, another Japanese car could not be brought to the US market. The Yugo needed a lot of work before it would meet minimum US safety standards. However, Zastava was willing to put in the work. On the downside, as a Communist economy, Yugoslavia’s industry was motivated more by full employment than efficiency. On the upside, the work force was used to working long hours and were willing to make the changes needed to improve quality. The PR and advertising people in the US were able to spin some of the negatives into positives – such as highlighting the handcrafting that went into the Yugo manufacture. Although described as a positive, the “handcrafting” resulted in unreliable quality and pieces that didn’t quite fit together.
The Yugo was introduced to the US at a time when Yugoslavia had just received a bumper of positive press. The successful 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo meant that Americans had heard of Yugoslavia in a positive way. Yugoslavia’s political distance from Moscow made them the “good communists.” Bricklin and company did a lot to build positive buzz before the Yugo arrived in the US. It was shaping up to be a wildly successful launch. The problem was partly that the quality of the Yugo was over sold. When people actually got hold of the Yugo, they were disappointed. In addition, the Yugo was an easy target for comedians. Yugos became equated with losers, alienating the car from one of their natural demographics – teens wanting a first car.
How many teenagers fit in a Yugo? Who knows? No teenager would be caught dead in one.
The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History is a great read – enlightening, entertaining, and thought provoking. The book touches on the bloody conflict that ripped apart the former Yugoslavia. The Yugo came out about the time I was learning to drive and thinking about a car of my own. I ended up with a used car that put the Yugo to shame. You couldn’t run the air conditioner and drive at the same time in my car – affectionately known as the blue chicken bomb. I didn’t think about the Yugo again until Michael Moore used a Yugo and a pizza to try to bring peace to the Balkans. He drove a Yugo back and forth between the Yugoslav (Serbian) consulate and the Croatian consulate in DC using a pizza to attempt an equitable land division. Moore also asked who would fix his Yugo and got officials form both consulates to roll up their sleeves. It didn’t bring peace, but it was a rare light moment in a conflict known for inhumane brutality. When that episode aired in 1994 (8 years after the Yugo arrived in the United States), I was in DC – motivated by the human rights violations in Bosnia to go to law school. But that’s a different story.
By the way, I’ve been “watching” the Fast and The Furious movies while writing this review. It’s appropriate in so many ways. The pieces don’t fit and the movies are more interested in full employment than efficiency.