As someone who has always owned old cars that were in something just shy of concours condition, I’m quite used to being stuck somewhere with a broken down car. That also means I’m very familiar with how people react to me and my broken-down cars. That’s also why my experience with my most recently acquired broken-down car, the Yugo, was so interesting. It revealed a lesson I very likely should have figured out intuitively: nobody has any sympathy for someone in a broken-down Yugo.
When I’m stuck somewhere trying to get my old Beetle going again, people come and talk and everyone has a story about an old Volkswagen in their lives. They cut the car, and by extension, me, some slack, a leeway granted by an affectionate understanding of the car.
When I had been broken down in my old Volvo P1800S or my Reliant Scimitar, people were interested in the cars, and their age and relative rarity made them interesting to people, and when you were stuck, trying to get SU carbs to keep fuel inside them or something absurd like that, people looked at you like you were an adventurer, boldly piloting fascinating machines, damn the risk.
This is not how people treat you when you break down in a Yugo.
When people see you broken down in a Yugo, there’s no admiration for someone bravely operating a fascinating, if finicky, old car. There’s no fond memories or warm-hearted associations, there’s no sympathy for someone who caught a bad break, mechanically, via no fault of their own. There’s no mutual understanding or camaraderie or sense of kinship, like they know that, but for the grace of God, they could go.
There’s only a strange mix of amusement, smugness, and thinly-veiled contempt. There’s only the realization that the person you’re talking to has already, possibly with painful accuracy, pegged you for a fool. I usually prefer that realization to come later in my interpersonal relationships, but Yugo ownership does hasten that process.
My breakdown wasn’t even that dramatic; it was Friday night, and I’d driven about an hour away from home to see a friend. The ride there was fine, though I did notice that the dash lights I’d thought I’d fixed were a lot dimmer than I remembered. Hm. Oh well!
When I was heading back home, things started off fine, though I noticed the radio cut out when I hit the brakes. And the dash lights were gone. And the horn didn’t work. And the lights seemed dim. And, and, oh damn. The alternator. The alternator isn’t doing its job of, uh, alternating, and as a result I’m running out of battery power.
Once I realized the alternator wasn’t charging, I suddenly felt like I was on the Apollo 13 mission—I had a severe undervolt situation, and I was kicking myself for my lavish electrical spending all the way there. I cut off everything I didn’t absolutely need, but, along the highway, death soon approached, and I sputtered to death and coasted onto the exit, pulling into a parking lot.
Once there, hood open, I tried to get a jump from someone, in hopes I could get enough sweet, sweet, electrons to get me home. I approached a number of people, and while most were polite, when they saw the car I wanted a jump in, if they recognized what it was—most of the older ones did—their demeanor changed from “poor fella, just trying to get home” to “what did this idiot expect?”
Because, really, they’re right! What did I expect?
It’s a Yugo. Sure, the relatively uneventful trip down from New York gave me some false confidence, but of course shit is going to break on this 28-year-old sloppy son of the now-defunct Yugoslavia.
I did manage to get one combination eyeroll and jump, but I couldn’t ask them to stay long enough to actually put much charge back in the battery. I got a little further along and died again, this time making it into the driveway of a closed Ford dealership that was blasting ‘80s rock to its empty parking lot at 1 am. Is this some method of attracting wandering nocturnal Gen Xers who don’t yet know they need a new Ranger?
I did toy with the idea of “borrowing” a battery from one of the Rangers, but I figured even if I brought it back the next morning, they’d still be pissed.
Luckily, another friend happened to be driving nearby that late, and I was able to get a longer jump and some company as I babied the car back home, driving on a dark, dark rural two-lane highway illuminated only with the rhythmic orange glow of my hazard lights.
I just barely made it to my driveway, where the car sputtered to an exhausted halt. It was about 3am, and I was tired, relieved, and humbled.
Hot damn, that’s the next step. Soon I’ll be broken down in the dark for some entirely other reason!