Book Review: The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History

Satish Kondapavulur
by Satish Kondapavulur
book review the yugo the rise and fall of the worst car in history

Society likes stories about failure. Who knows how many people have bought books about the fall of financial institutions, tech companies, sports teams, organized crime families, and politicians? People interested in the automotive industry are no exception when it comes to stories of failure. Bob Lutz never wastes any time discussing the sales flop that was the Pontiac Aztek. A movie was made about the failure of the Tucker Car Corporation. And society as a whole loves to tell jokes about the Yugo, widely thought of as among the worst cars of recent history.

But sometimes it’s just as worthwhile to read about the achievements, especially when attaining the end goal seems improbable. The achievements are what historian Jason Vuic focuses on in The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History. To Vuic, the fact that a group of people managed to get together and sell the Zastava Yugo in the United States was an extraordinary achievement, illustrating the circumstances to the last detail. He emphasizes the projects undertaken by Yugo America Inc., from making sure the Yugo could meet US emissions standards, that the construction of the car could meet actual quality standards, and gain customers.

The story of the Yugo would not be complete without the story of Malcolm Bricklin, and Vuic doesn’t disappoint in that area. Vuic first covers Bricklin and his foray into a franchising hardware stores (which went belly-up due to lack of a warehouse) before writing about the automotive-related ventures. Vuic starts by dedicating a chapter to Bricklin introducing Subaru to America. (He was promptly forced out of Subaru by new investors after the Subaru 360 was given a terrible review by the Consumers Union.) After that there’s another chapter on the Bricklin SV-1. (The SV-1 stood for Safety Vehicle 1; it wasn’t, with heavy, leaky doors and shoddy fiberglass-backed acrylic body panels.) And then comes a chapter about Bricklin importing the FIAT X1/9 and the Spider. (Those were way too expensive for the 1980s.)

By the first third of the book and before ending the story of the Yugo in America, Vuic portrays Bricklin as a man capable of raising immense amounts of money, but ultimately incapable of producing lasting results. However, Vuic emphasizes the achievements rather than failures. In the case of Subaru, Bricklin at least brought Subaru to America. For the Bricklin SV-1, at least Malcolm Bricklin got as far as building an assembly line and delivering 1,800 cars. As for bringing the X1/9 and Spider back to America, at least he had a business partner that made important improvements to the cars.

Vuic gives numerous anecdotes of the challenges endured in ensuring the Yugo was ready for America. For instance, Vuic tells of a long fax sent to the Yugo factory in Kragujevac by Tony Ciminera, the senior vice president for production and engineering. Called the “four-meter fax” by Zastava managers, it specified all the parts of the car that needed to be added or fixed by the factory. Another involved Zastava employees drinking brandy every morning and during breaks, which seriously concerned American employees in charge of getting the cars built to US standards. One more story involved the separate “Yugo-A” line at the factory, when Zastava bosses nixed the idea of having a select group of workers be eligible for higher wages and possible bonuses for meeting targets, stating that it was impossible in their system. When Ciminera pointed out that the bosses rode to work in Mercedes cars, he received the response that “Some workers are more equal than others.”

Unlike Malcolm Bricklin’s past ventures, Yugo America took a number of steps to be taken seriously. One thing they did was hire Kissinger and Associates, Henry Kissinger’s consulting firm, to bring on a consultant named Lawrence Eagleburger, who was a former ambassador to Yugoslavia. Additionally, Henry Kissinger was needed when Yugo America considered importing the Proton Saga built in Malaysia (a rebadged second-generation Mitsubishi Mirage), due to his relationship with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, and Yugo America agreed to some hefty consulting fees ($200,000 and $10 from each Proton Saga sold in the United States). They spent millions of dollars on an ad campaign that aired when most Americans watched the evening news. The car had around 250 dealers.

As Vuic is a historian, he also concentrates on the Yugo’s impact on foreign policy. During the 1980s, American companies were looking to do business in Yugoslavia, and the Yugo was a public symbol of the relationship between the two countries. The U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia had a Yugo and traveled to local functions in the car. In the case of Yugoslavian foreign policy, exporting the Yugo was a source of hard currency for paying off massive foreign debts. Croatians did not like the Yugo as the car was built in the Serbian part of Yugoslavia and staged public protests against the Yugo’s export, due to Yugoslavia’s human rights record and the existence of political prisoners.

Close to the end of the book, Vuic puts the spotlight on one last accomplishment. And that was the Yugo’s ability to become a part of American popular culture despite the car’s exceptionally slow sales. The advertisements during the evening news put the word “Yugo” in people’s mouths. Jay Leno alluded to the Yugo during his routines on The Tonight Show during the late 1980s. David Letterman sometimes mentioned it in his Top Ten lists. The Yugo became a punchline for newspaper columnists across the country. Baby boomers will know what the Yugo was, while their faces will turn blank if asked about the Vector.

In the end, despite the accomplishments, Yugo America had to go bankrupt. The cars didn’t sell and had way too many defects, especially when compared to the cheap Japanese cars a decade earlier. There was a great deal of trepidation about safety. The fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the pending breakup of Yugoslavia meant the country had more on its mind than exporting Yugos. Furthermore, parts for the car came from different Yugoslav republics, so it was nearly impossible to continue building cars amid the tension in the region. By 1992, the Yugo couldn’t come to America anymore due to lack of inventory and lack of sales. There were no more achievements for Vuic to write about, only failures.

Be aware that this book doesn’t read like any of the Bob Lutz books. It does read like something assigned by a college history professor to undergraduate students. (All the footnotes throughout the book give that impression.) But the book’s significance lies in the fact that during the 1980s, when customers began buying up Honda, Toyota, and Nissan cars in droves, leading to a deluge of books analyzing the business practices of Japanese companies, the Yugo experience in this book provides a notable contrast, chronicling the things that went wrong for a brand with plenty of potential.

All in all, The Yugo is an excellent read, depicting the accomplishment of bringing a car made in a Communist-bloc country to America. Considering the descriptions of the factory that made it, the portrayal of the individuals involved in bringing it to America, and the quality of the Yugo itself, the fact the car was sold in the United States at all is commendable. Nevertheless, the Yugo couldn’t ever be sold in America for an extended period of time, and sooner rather than later the project ended in failure.

Satish Kondapavulur is a writer for Clunkerture, where about a fifth of the articles are about old cars and where his one-time LeMons racing dreams came to an end, once he realized it was impossible to run a Ferrari Mondial. If you happen to have a Yugo in Northern California, he would love to drive it sometime. (He’ll even buy a tank of gas to help double the value of the car.)

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  • Jimal Jimal on Feb 05, 2015

    Just after I graduated high school I picked up a job delivery pizza to make gas money to get me back and forth to the technical school I attended. I went the pizza delivery route specifically because the restaurant I worked for had a fleet of Yugo delivery cars. Good or bad is a relative term, and I don't want compare a Yugo to anything modern, but compared to a clapped out '75 Camaro they weren't as awful as some people here write. They sure took a beating from a bunch of late teen/early 20's delivery drivers who could invariably find some dirt road between the pizza shop and their delivery. When Yugo the company fell apart, the pizza shop owner started replacing the Yugos with Ford Festivas. Not nearly as much fun to abuse.

    • See 1 previous
    • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Feb 06, 2015

      @misha1973 BINGO! You said it perfectly! I keep cars forever (300K+ miles) and friends around me can't make them last past 150K miles. A few friends figured it was b/c of the brands I chose - and that figures into it a little. The rest of it is treating the machine with reasonable care and doing the maintenance with decent parts and supplies. A couple have gotten pretty frustrated when the tried to ape my purchase plan only to have their cars break down b/c they treat them too roughly. Why do I get good service and they don't. Well they say, they must have bought a lemon. Yeah right. If I drive their car it's clear - they've run it through all the potholes, slammed the doors so hard they rattle, left broken stuff stay broken until it broke something else, duct tape repairs, etc.

  • WildcatMatt WildcatMatt on Feb 06, 2015

    Every time I read about how Malcolm Bricklin was good at raising large sums of cash, I wonder what might have happened if he had hooked up with John DeLorean just as the DMC-12 was coming to market.

  • Art Vandelay I’d grab one of these if I’d spent my working life at GM for sure!
  • Analoggrotto The factory is delayed due to an investigation of a peter puffery ring lead by VoGhost, Tassos, EBFlex a Chevrolet Volt.
  • FreedMike Looking forward to the protests at the factory accusing Toyota of excessive woke-ism. First,, grooming. Lord help us all.
  • MrIcky I remember when Gladiators came out and everyone was shocked at how expensive they were. Now all the off road specials have caught up or passed it financially. I like this truck a lot, but I'd still take my Rubicon over this. I'd take this over the Ranger Raptor or Tacoma TRD though. When I found out the increase in track for the new TRD was just wheel offset-I knew they were just phoning it in. Why spend so much R&D on those stupid seats when you could have r&d'd longer arms or a front locker.
  • Alan Hmm, I see a bit of politicking here. What qualifications do you need to run GM or Ford? I'd bet GM or Ford isn't run by experienced people. Anyone at that level in an organisation doesn't need to be a safety whip, you need to have the ability to organise those around you to deliver the required results.