My head was pounding. It felt like it was being crushed in a vice. I could barely breathe. “Do you mind if I take my helmet off, officer?” I asked.
He said it was fine, there was no rush. It was a Sunday afternoon after all, and I had just been pulled over for driving my Yugo without an inspection sticker. I was wearing the race helmet that I bought some months ago, and it was still somehow a size too small. But I had promised my wife I’d wear it while driving the minuscule communist menace all the same.
Safety first, you see.
I was just three blocks from my destination, which was my friend Jesse’s house on Long Island. I was bringing the car there for security purposes. While it was parked in the New York Auto Show, a clumsy miscreant whom I will not name because it’s mean to do that (his name starts with M- and ends in -att Hardigree) somehow snapped the key that locked the doors straight in half.
Spare Yugo key blanks aren’t just sitting around littering the shops of every locksmith from here to Sarajevo, we quickly found out, so a new one would have to be ordered from one of the darker corners of the internet. And since that would take a couple of days to arrive, I wasn’t just about to let my poor, scared little Yugo brave the wilds of Brooklyn unlocked.
So it needed a safer spot. And I had managed to make the three hour drive (it’s about 45 minutes if you miraculously don’t hit any traffic and you don’t need to rely solely on local streets, as I did, in a 26-year-old socialism-mobile) somehow without catching any law enforcement hear. Until right before the end.
Truth be told, getting the helmet off even a few minutes earlier was a relief. And thankfully, the cop let me go with a form to fill out, explaining that if I got the car to pass inspection within ten days, I wouldn’t have to pay a penalty.
Whether or not that was a possibility was still a huge question. The Yugo was missing a horn, a seatbelt, one of the tail lights was dark, and, most terrifying of all, the windshield wiper blades were slightly worn out.
It’s a little hard to explain how it had gotten to this point. I had finally had my pride and joy—and the bane of my existence—dropped upon my head by evil curmudgeons back in February. I did not ask for this project car. I am merely dealing with it.
Here it was, the middle of April. My car had been registered two weeks ago. It was supposed to be inspected within ten days after that. It wasn’t, and now I was in trouble with the Man.
Worse yet, this car that was supposed to generate a torrent of stories for you, our dear readers, had only resulted in a trickle. Partially because life gets in the way (a lame excuse, I know), but mostly because just doing the normal car things had been a bit of a struggle.
When Freddy first dropped it off, he informed me that I had two weeks to drive it before it turned into a pumpkin, as its original temporary New Jersey registration expired then. If I accepted the white elephant of a gift, and kept it longer than two weeks, we would “figure it out.”
Two weeks passed, and because we’re dumb, we of course didn’t. And by that point, Freddy had already traveled back to his libertarian lair in Florida. But I still wanted this worker’s car, so that I may participate in the proletariat revolution and because it weighs just 1800 pounds and has no power steering and makes you giddy as hell when you fling it around a corner, which meant we actually had to figure it out.
I thought it would be as easy as just printing out a few forms, filling them out, and bringing them along to the fine people at the DMV. In fact, it required multiple signatures from one Freddy Hernandez, as well as a clear title in his name, and I had none of those things. And as mentioned previously, Freddy lived a long ways away.
Not a problem, as I’d just mail them right down, and Freddy would mail the necessary documents right back. Except by that point, Freddy had just left for a few weeks of field work, driving McLarens in Europe, hitting up the Geneva Motor Show, and doing god-knows-what at something called a “concours” in Atlanta. It couldn’t be good.
He’d be back in about three weeks, and he could send the documents then.
Three weeks passed, Freddy sent the docs, and by the fourth week, everything I needed to get this puppy legal was sitting in New York.
Where I couldn’t do anything with all of it.
Because I got pneumonia. In my right lung, specifically, if you must know.
Three weeks after that, and some 17 years after this misadventure originally started, I was finally at the DMV getting Yugo a new sticker for its windshield. $212 in fees for the car, and $80 in fees for a latent license renewal later, and it was time to begin the hoonage.
Just in time for the New York Auto Show a few days later, which the organizers had already so graciously agreed to let us park it there while we opined on various nerd subjects and everyone got to hang all over it and just love it to death.
BUT WHATEVER. One week after that, and I was ready to really get this thing on the road. Which is when I met the police man with the very neat mustache.
“I’m just going to get it inspected now,” I said, which was mostly true. I had planned to get it that day, but it had taken so long to get it out to where Jesse said he knew of a good place to get it checked out.
“Are you sure?” the cop asked. “I mean, it’s damn near 5 p.m. on a Sunday. I have no idea where you’ll get it inspected at this time.”
“Eh, my friend says he knows a place.”
The cop looked skeptical. I was sure I was going to be hit with a ticket, yet another pile of money to throw on top of the massive heap of cash it took just to get this thing properly running at first.
I don’t know what it was, whether my white suburban privilege, or pure sympathy for someone clearly not driving a BMW, but he took pity on me. The form was all I got.
And since it really was 5 p.m. on a Sunday, it would mean the Yugo would have to wait yet another week before I could get it inspected.
Unfortunately for the fantasy that is Jalopnik, I actually have to work during the week. I can’t just be running around all willy-nilly screwing around with socialist machines.
Decision day. I still wasn’t sure it would pass inspection. A horn and a taillight are relatively easy fixes.
A seat belt on a Yugo is a whole other story. Unlike the regular three-point belt in virtually every other modern car, Yugos have a weird two-piece contraption, with seperate shoulder and lap belts. At some point in the Yugo’s previous life, someone had taken out the front passenger belt assembly.
And before the inspection, I looked up what the car would need to pass. There it was plain as day, on the New York State DMV website:
Inspect for proper operation and anchorage.
- Model years 1969 and newer - one seat belt is required for each seating position
That language looked pretty damn tight. With any luck, the Yugo would just fail the inspection quickly and with its dignity intact, and I would buy myself another 10 days until I could manage to source a new seat belt assembly.
But wait. Hold on. Was I reading this right? All the law said was that if a car was built after 1968, all of the occupants would need a belt.
All of the occupants.
Which meant that if there was no place for an occupant, it meant there was no need for a seat belt. Right?
I’m no fancy big-city lawyer, but I figured it was worth a shot. Jesse immediately slid the front passenger seat off its rails, and now my car was a three-seater. Which was fine, in the grand scheme of things.
You can’t be a true champagne socialist until you’re being driven around in the back seat—and only the back seat—of a Yugo.
But now it was the moment of truth. We had to get inspected. It really couldn’t wait another day.
I took Raph along for the momentous occasion. Since Raph had experienced the Yugo’s joys from behind the wheel yet, I let him do the honors of driving it to the inspection station while I drove behind him in a BMW 5 Series press car.
Also, because I didn’t have my helmet. Safety first.
Still, I was nervous. I don’t like tests, even ones without huge consequences. I put on the BMW’s massaging seats, I stared at it’s heads-up display, I listened to the satellite radio playing bad 1950s lounge music, all things I couldn’t do in my own car, just to try and distract myself.
On the way there we passed a carnival, complete with rides. Everyone there looked happy. They didn’t look like they were about to try and get the world’s dodgiest Yugo past a state inspection.
The three-mile drive to the repair shop that was going to do the inspection felt like it took hours, but when we got there, the mechanic told us to wait a few minutes while he finished up another job.
For reasons that I didn’t fully understand, there was a chess set in the reception area of the shop. Raph and I decided to play a game, where he proceeded to crush me. I couldn’t focus. I was weirdly getting crippling anxiety over the whole thing.
When the mechanic finally brought it into the bay, he looked skeptical. I didn’t blame him.
They put it into a lift, where it looked like they checked to make sure the handbrake was working. Yep, the rear tires still had a little wiggle. But it was enough for the law, so I might’ve been in the clear.
They checked the head lights, the tail lights, the indicators, all of it. In my head I wasn’t sure what the point was. I mean, did they miss the fact that it didn’t have a front passenger seat? Maybe it didn’t matter after all.
“You didn’t try to get this inspected at another shop, have it fail, then bring it to me, right?” the mechanic asked. I was sure this was it. I hoped the guillotine blade would drop quickly.
“Definitely not,” I replied.
“Alright, because I’m putting it into the computer, and if you did that, it’ll pop right up,” he said.
“Is anything wrong?” I asked.
“Well, your windshield wiper blades are pretty worn. But I’ll pass you.”
Crap. Between all the other repairs, I had forgotten about the wipers.
But it didn’t matter, because THE YUGO PASSED. My baby was legal! I didn’t know how, and it didn’t entirely make sense, but there the mechanic was, putting a New York State Inspection sticker on my windshield.
The whole deal cost only $10. “Congratulations,” the inspection print out said. I felt like the Yugo definitely deserved it. I have a little more to do to make sure it’s extra safe for me and everyone else on the road—as safe as this deathtrap can be, anyway—but for now, she’s legal.
Clearly, this was a time for celebration. And because it seemed to make as much sense as everything else in this car’s life, we decided to celebrate in the only way we thought appropriate.
We headed back to the carnival. We needed to go on the motherfucking gravitron.
And we went there in a street-legal car.