You’ve probably all heard about the legendary Yugo GV — the Yugoslavian hatchback imported into the U.S. and sold as the cheapest car available in the 1980s and early 1990s. While lately the car has become a bit of a hipster-magnet stateside, in the land where it was built — now Serbia — the Yugo was and remains a real workhorse. Just listen to what this owner has to say.
I’m currently returning to Germany from an absolutely epic trip to Turkey in my $600 Chrysler Voyager — a vehicle that I spent two months and about $1,000 fixing, only to fail Germany’s rigorous inspection twice last year. My cheap diesel manual Voyager has logged nearly 3,000 miles during this Turkey trip alone, and some of those miles were truly grueling — more on that in a future installment. For now, let’s talk about the car culture at my current location: Belgrade, Serbia.
Last year, I received a few messages on Instagram from a man with one of the sketchiest accounts I’d ever seen. Claiming to live in Belgrade, the man with no profile picture and only four posts — all of which were odd, and the latest of which was from 2012 — was inviting me to hang out with him.
Combine the random DM from a sketchy Serbian Instagram profile with the fact that I’d never been to Serbia before, and you could make an argument that taking the mysterious character who goes by “mxhc” up on his offer would have been an utterly foolish decision. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in this life, it’s that you shouldn’t judge a person by anything other than their character, and that character shined through in “mxhc’s” message:
I just read your air tight plan to tour that thing all over Europe. If you come anywhere near Serbia, it would be really great to come visit. Been on jalopnik for more then 10 years now, since Murilee Martin, so prospects of meeting one of you guys sounds alluring.
I’m located in capital city of Belgrade, New Belgrade to be precise. Communist experiment, shoving village people in blocks of grey buildings :)
maybe seeing yugos in the wild, still driving along, would be a site to see
He’s a huge Jalopnik fan, he’s clearly got a great sense of humor, and above all: He lured me in with promises of Yugos in the wild. Not imported and driven around Richmond, Virginia by a 27 year-old hauling craft beers to his axe-throwing club — no no, these were legit Yugos. True economy cars driven unironically.
To be sure, there’s still an occasional unironic Yugo to be found in the U.S., but that’s extremely rare. Most cheap-bastard original owners have long since sold their eastern European hatchback and there aren’t many out there who babied their economy car. As for current cheap-bastards looking for inexpensive, reliable-ish transportation — very few of them look for Yugos as there are so many better options out there.
But in Serbia — where the Yugo was built for over 25 years — things are a bit different. In The Land Of The Yugo, the unironic Yugo runs free and it is a beautiful thing.
The man who offered to show me the coveted unironic Yugos was mxhc (known in the non-internet world as Dragoslav), a software developer, family man, and dirt bike fan who’s lived in Belgrade for 20 years after growing up in a smaller town in the country. Never before has a man’s real-life creepiness level been this far below his internet creepiness level, I sure as hell am glad for it, because at six-foot-five and 250 pounds, the man could crush me with one hand. Instead of doing that, though, he gleefully showed me Serbia’s old national car, the tiny Zastava 750. That’s the little Fiat 600-based car you see above. Like many great Yugoslavian cars, it was built in Kragujevac, an industrial city (the fourth largest city in Serbia) located smack-dab in the center of the country.
Serbia’s Zastava brand built quite a few cars over the years, including a pickup truck called the Poly:
The Poly was based on the 101 shown below (also called the Zastava Skala or Yugo Skala), which itself was based on the Fiat 128.
I’m currently sitting in Dragoslav’s gray concrete high-riser building in Belgrade. He just yelled over his shoulder that he found some user reviews for the amazing Poly pickup, so I may as well share those. It turns out, the Fiat-based Serbian pickup is a workhorse, but it’s unfortunately deeply, deeply uncomfortable to drive. From one of the reviews (translated from Serbian):
Cheap and affordable parts.
It heats well.
He can carry much more than prescribed. So the wood to the top and over the roof, and he lies down halfway. Just a little donkey....it is ideal for work
While driving, I just pull the choke and it drives while I rest my legs :)
Until it warms up (at full throttle), it suffocates. Only when it gets the working temperature of slag like a butterfly ...
For me, 1.98m comfort is a nightmare, ie not enough space, even though the seat is completely ...My leg goes almost over the gearbox, so I have to move it regularly to change ... the speed, because the pedals are much to the right than it should be. It also happens that I move the turn signal lever with my knee, and it often annoys me when I accidentally turn it off (with my knee) when the keychain is on the key, so I have to keep it separate from the others.
[Body rust] is despair due to the fact that there is no opening on the floor of the cabin and the trailer, and over time it rots harder in those parts.
For this model under 2000, be sure to pay attention to the inside of the rear baskets and a set of bodywork pathos, because there is the greatest despair ...
God I love that translation. “There is the greatest despair.” Also, the part about using the choke for cruise control — absurd!
Another owner echoes similar sentiments, writing:
Very grateful car. how much you invest 2x pays off (only when it comes to the work you do with it, not the price to sell) It can pull more than you can imagine, so you suffer as long as you think it can and then add half more about it: D nice to go when well maintained.
[Body rust] is desperate, comfort even worse.
Before we move on, I just want to point out that the Yugo GV that the legendary Subaru of America founder Malcolm Bricklin brought to the U.S. only stuck around until 1992. But in Serbia, the vehicle continued on until 2008, though by then, it had become the hideous Zastava Koral you see below:
Gosh that thing looks bad in person. Speaking of hideous cars, Dragoslav also pointed out the Zastava Florida, a late-1980s creation from Zastava that — though designed by the man who created the Golf MKI, Giorgetto Giugiaro — is beyond ugly:
If you’re curious to learn more about the Zastava Florida, you can watch British race car driver Tiff Needell try with all his might to show any enthusiasm for this cheap eastern European machine:
As cool as the Zastava 750, Koral, and Florida are, the highlight of my car-spotting adventure with Dragoslav was our interaction with a man named Milenko, who was working on his Yugo 45 on the side of the street.
Milenko was working in a parking spot on the side of the road near Dragoslav’s apartment, cleaning his Yugo 45's spark plugs. The Yugo 45 was a bare-bones model not sold in the U.S. — it didn’t even have power brakes! Seriously, there’s no brake booster to be found in this engine bay; in fact, there’s barely an engine to be found here (the 45 horsepower 900cc four-cylinder is tiny):
Dragoslav translated for me, telling me that Milenko said he’d bought the car new 30 years ago and that “Every bolt, every screw [has been replaced]. There is nothing left of the original car.”
Still, Milenko is a fan. “He is content with the car. It was a cargo car...He used it to transport furniture [on the roof].”
Just imagine seeing that tiny, power brake-less 45 horsepower car with a big couch on the roof and Milenko banging through the four-speed transmission and wringing out the 900cc engine. He’s been doing it for 30 years! The fact that this man still likes the car after all that says it all:
The Yugo isn’t the crap-can that everyone says it is. It’s an incredibly soulful, useful machine — one that I think will continue to find unironic use for decades to come in eastern Europe.