“Why do you love this kind of thing so much?” That’s what my wife asked me, more bemused than angry, as she rode with me in a rattly, crappy but scrappy 1991 Yugo, as I marveled at the crude hole hacked into the hard plastic dashboard.
It’s a valid question, and not one I really have an answer to, but I’m not sure I need one. What I do know is I have a strange fondness for plucky shitboxes, and I’ve just been given a great one.
This is the same Yugo that was given to our own Mike Ballaban by our former own Tavarish a few years back. I’ll let Mike tell you about how he feels about this car, and about letting it go:
When I first received the Yugo more than two years ago, it smelled like a bomb. To get going, you often had to hit the starter motor with a mighty thwack. The front seats would take on the physical properties of a poorly-constructed trebuchet in the event of any frontal collision, which was good because the driver’s side seatbelt didn’t work, and the passenger’s side seatbelt didn’t exist. The suspension was broken. The rear brakes existed, but they didn’t do anything. Same for the hand brake. Also, it overheated. A lot. Does melting have a smell? But maybe that smell was me, because the heater was also stuck on. The tires didn’t hold air. Or maybe the wheels didn’t let them hold air. The steering wheel didn’t seem to be attached to anything. Oh, and it also needed new spark plugs. And a new battery. And it probably still needs a new alternator.
All – okay, some, “all” is a very strong word to use – of those things are fixed. But the fact of the matter is that in my two years of ownership, we were mostly just able to fix things, as is what happens on a project car. But owning a Yugo in New York City wasn’t exactly feasible. It cost me roughly $100 a month in insurance, with the Geico corporation apparently assuming I’d be totaling the thing roughly twice a month. I had to park it an hour-and-a-half away from where I actually lived, since there was no guarantee at any given moment that it would start in time to move it for the requisite twice-weekly version of automotive musical chairs that New York City mandates upon us, because we live in hell.
And that wasn’t the life it should’ve lived. It deserved to run wild, to be free, to run around corners with its impossibly low weight and joyfully unpowered steering. Both its buzzy little oversquare engine designed by Aurelio Lampredi and transmission designed by whatever Italian and/or Serbian who happened to be communistically walking by that day deserved to be whining in unison down a fun country road.
The Yugo should LIVE, and it deserved to be with someone who could’ve given it life. It deserved to be with Jason.
I took possession of the Yugo in a tearful roadside key-handoff ceremony, then headed out on a test run to a Passover Seder in Queens, a fitting preparation for my own uncomfortable exodus.
It’s also the same Yugo I drove in an effort to defend this wildly-maligned car’s honor last year, so I was generally familiar with how it drove and worked. Of course, that didn’t mean I entirely expected it to make an entire 500+ mile road trip without incident, but, you know what, it pretty much did.
I was met with a lot of skepticism when I told everyone I was going to drive it home—there were suggestions that maybe for once I should try not being an idiot, and ship the thing, but the truth is I talk so much about my fondness for little humble shitboxes like these that I felt like I had to practice what I preach.
Also, compared to what our own David Tracy is doing at the same time, this is nothing.
From the standpoint of writing a story, the fact the Yugo did the trip with relative ease is sort of a disappointment; if it had caught on fire or if the gearshift melted into orange rust powder in my hand or the carpet de-vulcanized into some sort of liquid gloop that would have likely made for more compelling reading.
But the truth, however more boring, is nevertheless worth telling: this miserable little Yugoslav shitbox, a car that was never meant to achieve any higher standard that “eh, good enough,” after 27 years of hard use and neglect and probably a little bit of contempt, somehow managed to complete a highway-speed road trip without dying. Or killing me.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it was “good” in the traditional sense of the word, or, likely, all that safe or comfortable, because, really, it was none of those things.
At speeds over, oh, 50 mph or so, the thing is really quite loud. The engine, even in the overdrive fifth gear, emits a constant gravely growl, like what you might imagine a warewolf with a clothespin accidentally clipped to his scrotal sac might sound like. Nonstop.
While Mike had installed a quite modern-seeming radio with such decadent capitalist luxuries like Bluetooth and four speakers, listening to a podcast with the volume cranked to the max was sort of like eavesdropping on a conversation at a nearby table in a crowded restaurant or bar—you’re hearing it, but able to actually understand, oh, 70 percent or so. Enough to get the gist, at least.
Everything rattles in that little box, too. The passenger’s side door card, the ill-fitting doors, various plastic dash bits, the steering wheel, the upper parts of the doors, a bit, pretty much everything in there is moving, I’d like to think as an act of solidarity with the pistons and wheels, which have to be in motion.
I also think the heater is still sort of stuck on a little bit, or the engine heat just sort of oozes through the dash no matter what. Either is pretty likely to be true.
My goal was to try not to push the car too hard, since my main goal was to just get the thing home. This decision got some outside confirmation when the driver of this black Escalade here pulled up alongside me:
He was very excited, and was yelling out his passenger side window and gesticulating with a hand that had fingers in the usual “V” formation, that could mean “victory” or something dirty to Britons or two, or, if you’re an ancient Roman, five.
Here it meant “two,” which I know because he yelled, in an Eastern European accent, “TWO! I have two of those!”
When we got to a stoplight, he told me again he had two, and was very excited to see one on the road. I told him I was excited as well, and that I was driving it back to North Carolina.
His eyes widened, and his smile melted away. “Now? You’re going now?”
He looked at me in the way you’d look at a person you knew was experiencing their last day of life.
The light turned green and he yelled at me “Don’t do it all at once! Break it up!” Then, he was gone.
Hm. This rattled me a bit, as the man owned two Yugos, and nothing about that exchange said “North Carolina? That’s nothing for a Yugo! Pedal to the metal, and have at it, friend!”
I was a bit rattled, but, well, I was determined to get home, so I kept on going.
Peoples’ reaction to the Yugo is interesting. It’s not so distinctive-looking that people immediately know what it is, but it does catch the eye of some more discerning motorists. A group of women in an SUV before the Brooklyn Bridge asked what it was and told me they thought it was cute, which I think it true, in a rough and humble sort of way, and a guy at a Wawa in Delaware came up to see it, telling me a story about how he used to buy Yugos at auction for $250 and flip them, making good money.
I got a few other thumbs up on the road, and overall people who knew what it was were pleased to see it out and buzzing around. It gets less and different attention than, say, my Nissan Pao.
Where the Pao is immediately identifiable as something unusual, the Yugo is a bit more subtle, and when people can identify it, its legacy is one of such dramatic and potent failure and shame that you mostly get a reaction of surprise and amusement that it’s still running at all. I’ll be honest, I kind of like that reaction.
The Yugo takes concentration to drive, far more than a modern car. Everything is completely, maybe even aggressively manual, and the steering wheel conveys and amplifies every patch of uneven pavement and road imperfections right into your hands, making pebbles feel like potholes and potholes feel like craters.
The shifter feels like if you jammed a plunger into a bucket of stewed tomatoes and old Croc rubber shoes. Finding first gear especially is about as precise as augury, and the others aren’t much better. But it works.
The electrical system is pretty, um, casual. The dash lights weren’t working until I jammed my hand into the ragged hole in the dash and fiddled with the connections on the instrument brightness potentiometer, the dash turn indicator light only works for, I think, right turns, and the brake warning light flickers like a candle all the time.
That also meant some fun tricks. For example, I thought I was getting astounding gas mileage. Watching the needle move and making some guesses and doing some crude brain-math, it looked like I was getting between 60 and 80 MPG! Maybe more?
Then, when the needle was pointing to half a tank, as I was in the middle of being very, very impressed with the Yugo’s fuel frugality, the low fuel LED began to glow yellow. Ahhhhh, now this makes more sense. For some reason, the fuel gauge only uses half the gauge, so 1/2 is E. Which means around 35 to 40 MPG, which makes more sense.
I’m really glad the little low-fuel light worked, because I stopped and put eight gallons in the tank, which holds a massive eight and a half gallons. I would have been very confused if I got stranded, with what looked like half a tank of gas. Of course, I should know not to trust janky old fuel gauges.
Really, the only actual failure I had was electrical, and even that wasn’t awful. It was still a bit rainy out during the drive, and, a few hours from home, the wipers just quit. No warning, they just stopped.
They were sort of marginal to begin with—only one of the speeds worked (fast-ish, I think?) and they didn’t self-park, but they kept the rain off. Until they didn’t.
I checked the fuses, and all seemed okay, but the wiper fuse may be in some other weird hidden fuse holder, somewhere in there. Instead, I just found a Wal-Mart and got some RainX, and used a chemical solution to rain visibility, which worked well enough for the tail end of the storm.
I grew to like driving this thing, because I have a particular set of brain problems that often end up in these sorts of conclusions. It’s actually kind of peppy, surprisingly. This one is the GV Plus model, and “plus” meant it was fuel injected, which means that it makes a rapacious 67 horsepower from its 1.3-liter four.
That also means that of my go-to daily drivers—my 1973 Volkswagen Beetle (with twin carbs and headers, so it makes I think around 65 HP) and my Pao (the tiny 997cc engine in there pumps out 53 HP)—this Yugo is my high power hot rod. It also means that all of my three main cars added up put out less horsepower than a solitary Subaru BRZ.
Such a low horsepower does offer a pretty nice advantage in my particular drive, which took me through Virginia. As you may recall, Virginia is notoriously brutal on speeding, and every time I saw a lurking cop I still got that pit-of-the-stomach panic, only this time, even if I felt like I was wringing it out, there’s no way in hell I was speeding!
It was strangely relaxing and freeing. A big wad of tension right off your plate.
I did manage to get it up to 70 or 75 outside of Virginia, and it really did just fine—or, at least, it was no less loud or shaky or punishing than at 55 or 65.
Taking it slow and steady and dealing with traffic jams in multiple major cities and giving the car some cool-down breaks meant that the drive took a good long while—I got in at around 2:30 am, exhausted, but delighted the trip was so smooth, relatively.
The next day I took the wife and kid out in the car so they could really appreciate its humble charms, and, incredibly, they did! My wife drove it and found it fun, in its own goofball, shitbox way, and my kid, like all rational people, loved the quad rally lights and the whole goofy and fun look of the thing.
We took it to a windy little road and really wrung it out, throwing it into corners and staying hard on the throttle. You don’t really have to let up much with only 67 equines in the barn, but this little socialist grips surprisingly well.
It’s fun. It just is. It’s impossible to get too worried about the thing, because, come on, look at it, it’s a Yugo, which means you can just enjoy it with the gleeful abandon of a box of puppies.
I’m sort of fussy about my Pao—I don’t want to work it too hard or damage it, because I’m so taken by it and parts are hard to find. My Beetle I’ve had so long I feel like I owe it a lot of respect.
But this little blue bastard, we can play a little rough. And sometimes, that’s exactly what you want.
It’s all sort of incredible, when you think about it. This car was pretty much thought of as disposable here in America. It was built to be cheap, first and foremost, and the very fact that it’s still self-propelled today is amazing. The fact that I took it, without a major overhaul, on a long-ass road trip with no major incidents is astounding, and the fact that this stupid little crapcan is actually appealing and fun, in its own way, is humbling.
I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do with the Yugo just yet, but I do know that I plan to drive it, a lot.