- The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History
- Publisher: Hill and Wang
- Year: 2011
- Pages: 272
The first time I physically remember hearing the Yugo referenced in pop culture was seeing Die Hard with a Vengeance on TV (this must have been 1997 or so, when I was 12 or 13), though I must have known about it before because I laughed: Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson drive a commandeered Yugo down a busy freeway, and when Bruce (John) complains about their pokey pace, Samuel (Zeus) replies “It’s a Yugo; it’s built for economy, not for speed!”
I somehow realized or knew, though I don’t remember how or when I would have learned it, that the word “Yugo” was a punchline for a car only a few steps better than a pennyracer. Jason Vuic’s The Yugo is the story of how the hapless automobile came to be the butt of so many jokes, but also how it ever-so-briefly was a commercial success, and how one enigmatic business was behind it all.
Malcolm Bricklin (born 1939) began his foray into the automotive industry in the 1960s. He made a name for himself by starting an American import company which sold Subaru 360 models to dealers in the United States. To modern readers, this might not seem like a bad idea, but at the time, Subarus were basically matchbox cars, and Consumer Reports labeled the 360 as “The Most Unsafe Car in America”. Bricklin sold his share of Subaru of America, Inc. to his business partner; incidentally, this company would later become a very successful one.
Between the disastrous early days of Subaru of America and the cataclysmic entirety of Yugo America, Bricklin managed to created his own custom car, the Bricklin SV-1, a futuristic car with gullwing doors and an acrylic exterior; 2,854 were manufactured in the mid-70s after Bricklin conned the city of New Brunswick into subsidizing the operation. Bricklin’s habit of making wild, fantastic promises and then completely and utterly failing to deliver are running themes in the story of both Bricklin and the Yugo. It’s very possible that the episode of The Simpsons where Homer discovers a long-lost half-brother (“Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?“) has veiled references to the SV-1, although it probably acts as an umbrella joke for a number of failed car designs.
After the 1979 oil crisis, the 1980s saw the slow return of muscle cars and luxury cars to the American market; prices and sizes crept steadily upward. Bricklin, believing there was a well-defined market for a cheap, small economy car (a blind optimism that would be his downfall), began importing Fiat cars from Italy, but eventually stumbled across a small, cheap export from Yugoslavia, technically transliterated as the Jugo (but pronounced, and eventually respelled, as Yugo). The car was built by the Zastava corporation, a government-controlled automobile manufacturer (and, during the internecine Balkan crisis, briefly and arms manufacturer), in what was then a Communist but not Soviet-block country. To put it succinctly, the Yugo was a copy of a poor Fiat design, made by largely unskilled workers in an environment more concerned about employing everybody rather than increasing quality of efficiency; it was a cheap piece of shit that fulfilled a market niche in a very poor Communist country. That it ever became (ever so briefly) immensely popular in the United States, and thereafter universally reviled and mocked, has a little to do with the fundamentally poor construction of the car and a lot to do with the obstinacy and near-fanatical optimism of its American cheerleader, Malcolm Bricklin.
What many people don’t realize is that despite its current reputation, Bricklin’s imported Yugoslavian turd was, for a very short time, all the rage. Bricklin predicted the market for cheap compact cars—a niche almost entirely unfulfilled in the early 1980s—and he was entirely correct; so when news of a car costing less than $40001 hit, both dealers and consumers clamored to get on the waiting list. The Yugo experiment quickly began to unravel as a couple of things happened. First, the public quickly realized what an unmitigated disaster the car was; even with extensive aftermarket revision, the product coming out of Yugoslavia barely passed minimum U.S. regulatory requirements, and bottomed out on Consumer Reports and other watchdog publication tests. Second, other foreign manufacturers such as Honda and Hyundai began to reenter the compact market with much higher standards of quality, even if it meant a high market price than the excretory Yugo.
Bricklin was eventually kicked out of the company he created with a generous severance package of around $10 million (he was considered too erratic and his history too failure-ridden to attract investors), a move which ruffled his feathers but was much more than he deserved, since the company imploded shortly thereafter. An endless succession of reorganizations, additional loans, and further failures marred the company, and before long their assets were liquidated and the American-Yugoslavian partnership plopped into the gutter of history. Oddly enough, the Yugo itself only stopped being manufactured in 2008; Eastern Europe, with its lax safety laws and continuously-fumbling economy, apparently still had use of such a car until recently.
This all seems a straightforward tale, and it largely is. Even without the benefit of foreknowledge of the Yugo’s demise and infamy, one can quickly determine from Vuic’s exposition that the Bricklin has doomed every enterprise he’s come in contact with. And the notion of a ridiculous subcompact from a struggling Communist country carving a secure niche in the American market is a stretch even without the nearly criminal lack of quality. Vuic’s explanation of Bricklin’s involvement (leadership, if you can call it that), and the details of the Yugoslavian side of the relationship is genuinely informative; certainly, it explained things about the Yugo of which I was unaware. There are stretches however, as Bricklin and his import company keeping kicking the can down the road with more lies and loans, where the narrative becomes monotonous, saved only by the reader’s growing incredulity that such a debacle managed to survive as long as it did.
- Adjusting for inflation, this would be equivalent to an $8,000 car in 2010 dollars.[↩]