It’s both an 1980s icon and the butt of more jokes than you can reasonably imagine. Even today, its name brings a curl of disgust to the lip, associations with other words like “dud” and “lemon” and “shitbox.” It’s the Yugo, fondly —and perhaps incorrectly—remembered as the worst car in the world. And author Jason Vuic leads us through the car’s complicated history to really understand why this tiny car has such a big reputation.
(Welcome back to the Jalopnik Race Car Book Club, where we all get together to read books about racing and you send in all your spicy hot takes. This month, we’re looking at The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History by Jason Vuic, which details the trials and tribulations of this beautiful, horrible car.)
I’ll admit—my interest in the Yugo is personal. I want one. I want one so bad. My parents owned a Chevette when I was a kid, and somehow the Yugo is supposed to be even worse than a car whose undercarriage was so eaten away by rust after a few years that you had to wear extra protection to keep your legs safe. One day I fully intend to get my hands on as many of history’s most hated cars as I can.
We have a lot of Yugo experience around these parts. Jalopnik Deputy Editor Mike Ballaban infamously has one, and while it’s needed a lot of work to get to the point where it could reasonably be considered “a car”, it’s nowhere near as bad as everyone says.
They say not to judge a book by its cover, but we all do. I picked up The Yugo thinking it was going to be a brief historical sweep of the car with most of its substance composed of tales of how bad the Yugo really was.
Instead, Vuic’s book is a great comprehensive history of all the factors that went into bringing the Yugo to the U.S.—and then its subsequent swift exit. You walk away from this novel with a full understanding of Yugoslavia’s geopolitical history, its engineering capacities, and the global culture of the 1980s.
You do get some of the horror stories that came out of the unfortunate realization that the Yugo was pretty bad compared to its competition at the time, but Vuic offers so much context that instead of laughing at the Yugo, you almost start to feel kinda bad for the poor thing. It wasn’t a vehicle that ever should have made it to the U.S., but it did, to an overhyped reception that had been built on misinformation.
See, it all comes down to Malcolm Bricklin, a savvy entrepreneur who was more of an ideas man than an actual businessman. He gave America Subaru, and he saw potential in the Yugo—he just had no idea how to actually do more than merely inspire folks with his big talk.
By the time Bricklin saw God in the Yugo, he’d already started, succeeded and failed in multiple ventures. His first was tool store franchise. Then it was Subaru. Then it was the Bricklin, his own poorly thought-out safety-focused sports car. This was a man who had talked investors and literal governments (the Bricklin was based in New Brunswick as a way to encourage industry) into giving him money, which he often misappropriated. He’d gone bankrupt multiple times.
But he still managed to talk folks into bringing the Yugo to America. I wish I could have met this fella, because his business strategies come across as total bogus, and yet he still got multiple multi-million dollar businesses off the ground.
The Yugo was crafted by a company called Zastava, which was based in Kragujevac, Serbia and had formerly manufactured guns. According to the book, domestic car demand wasn’t huge. So when Zastava swapped to building cars, it needed an export market in other countries to actually make a profit. But communist-built cars weren’t a huge draw. They were often outdated and poorly constructed—after all, they were built for a country where that car was the only automotive option, so you could take it or leave it.
In the mid-80s, after spotting a Yugo while traveling abroad, Bricklin became obsessed. He firmly believed that there was a niche American market for a cheap microcar that wasn’t fancy but could reliably get you from point A to point B.
Malcolm Bricklin’s offer to sell Zastava’s cars in the U.S. was undeniable. And the American public? They were enticed, too.
See, Bricklin operated largely through hype. He was so good at talking up the Yugo that dealerships were practically begging him to sell the car, that Americans were submitting pre-orders once they found out it was coming. At a base price of $3,990, it was practically a steal.
The Yugo became, for a while, the fastest-selling first-year import in American history. Yeah, you read that right. Yugo America, Bricklin’s company, sold 1,050 cars on its first day sight unseen.
But the bad news was quick to come. There was no quality oversight in the Kragujevac plant. Cars arrived in America already rusty, dented, and poorly assembled. It broke down during test drives. It barely passed crash tests. All that hype that Bricklin built came crashing down around him.
Sales continued for a few years, but as the 1990s approached, Yugoslavia erupted into war. The country disintegrated, NATO bombed anything that might ever produce weapons (including the Kragujevac plant), and Yugo America had gone entirely bankrupt. Yugo pulled out of America, but the company continued a slow trickle of European production until 2008, when the last one finally rolled off the assembly line.
Vuic’s novel is as entertaining as it is informative. He starts every chapter off with a Yugo joke (What do you call a Yugo with twin tailpipes? A wheelbarrow!) that illustrates just how much of a pop icon it had become. What other car has entered our everyday lexicon like that?
The Yugo is up there with New Coke in ’80s experiments that were more exciting in theory than they were in practice. But unlike New Coke, car enthusiasts still remember the Yugo for what it was—as delightful as it was bad.
And that’s all we have for this month’s Jalopnik Race Car Book Club! Make sure you tune in again on March 1, 2019. We’re going to be reading How to Build a Car: The Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Formula One Designer by Adrian Newey. And don’t forget to drop those hot takes (and recommendations) in the comments or at ewerth [at] jalopnik [dot] com!