Decades after it came to the United States, the Yugo is still a punch line. Late-night talk show hosts savaged it on air to the point that “Yugo” became a synonym for cheapness and a bad deal. According to Car Talk, it was the worst car of the millennium. Simpsons viewers in the early ’90s might remember Homer buying a thinly veiled parody of a Yugo from Crazy Vaclav, who proudly proclaims that “it will go three hundred hectares on a single tank of kerosene!” When Homer asks where the car is from, Vaclav replies that “the country no longer exists.”
If you think I’m about to claim that the Yugo was really a diamond-in-the-rough car, I’m not. The Yugo’s problems were very real, though whether they were truly disastrous is debatable. For such a small car, it was strikingly fuel-inefficient (to be fair, it also tended to perform worse on high-speed American highways) and it had a variety of emissions problems.
But the US auto industry is littered with examples of bad cars — and more people actually drove in them than the Yugo. A grand total of 141,000 Yugos were ever sold in the United States. The Chevrolet Celebrity sold nearly three times as many cars in 1986 alone. The Cadillac Cimarron was an overpriced lemon that sold about 140,000 cars over the course of its lifetime and cost several times more than a Yugo when it first came out. So why is the Yugo so uniquely hated?
Now that it’s become an object of cultural curiosity, it’s worth investigating how the Yugo got such a bad reputation — especially as the US car industry doubles down on its own worst tendencies.
The Rise and Fall of the Yugo
The Yugo was a product of communist Yugoslavia’s state-run car manufacturer Zastava. The firm built locally assembled versions of the Italian Fiat, especially the 600, which were sold in Yugoslavia as the Zastava 750. They were small, cheap, fuel-efficient cars, suitable for a country whose road infrastructure was still being developed, and production of the 750s went on for close to thirty years. As part of Yugoslavia’s nationalist project, parts for the car were sourced from all over the country to make it a symbol of unity.
The car that became known as the Yugo was designed in 1978. Based off of the Fiat 128 and christened as the Zastava Koral, it was part of a push to both bring a new car to the country and to solve Yugoslavia’s balance-of-trade problem so that the country could make payments on the debt it owned to Western banks.
The person who brought the Yugo to the United States was Malcolm Bricklin. He was a caricature of an American entrepreneur: perpetually wheeling and dealing, making grandiose promises and underdelivering, shepherding businesses into bankruptcy, and somehow returning to do it all over again. He began with the Subaru 360, which he was able to import into the United States because it was so lightweight that it wasn’t even classified as a car. He hustled the provincial government of New Brunswick into providing financial assistance to open factories for a sports car he designed, the Bricklin SV-1. It failed, and the government pulled the plug.
By 1984, Bricklin’s newest company, International Automobile Importers, was on the verge of bankruptcy when he was approached by Zastava about importing the Yugo. Bricklin leapt at the opportunity, quickly forming a new company called Yugo America. In traditional Bricklin style, he committed to importing $100 million worth of cars when in fact he had nowhere near that amount of money. He went on to promise that he’d import 250,000 Yugos by 1987. His functionaries, meanwhile, had to contend with getting the car ready for the American export market, which involved an enormous amount of retooling, especially to pass an emissions test.
It might be difficult to imagine now, but for a while “Yugomania” was actually a thing in the United States. People preordered their cars, and there were long waiting lists of people who wanted to buy one. It was advertised as an economy car, one that would be the Volkswagen Beetle of the 1980s. Priced at $3,990 (approximately $11,000 in today’s dollars), the Yugo was substantially cheaper than every other budget car on the market. In its first couple of years on the market, sales were good, if not the wild figures that Bricklin promised.
Unfortunately, the Yugo also ran into trouble quickly — and soon became a punch line for comedians like Jay Leno. Some of that was deserved: the Yugo’s quality control was inconsistent (this improved over time, but too late for the car). In crash test ratings, it fared poorly, especially in comparison to larger American-made vehicles. The Yugo also demanded regular maintenance, especially for its timing belt, which if not replaced every forty thousand miles or so could destroy the engine.
But it was also unpopular for surprisingly banal reasons. It was slow: it accelerated from zero to sixty mph in about fourteen seconds. It was a boxy little car, and had to compete against sexy, slick-looking cars at the peak of Reaganite conspicuous consumption. Many people didn’t seem to want to do the needed maintenance that the car required. In one terrible accident, a woman named Leslie Ann Pluhar was driving across Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge in a Yugo during an extreme wind event when she lost control of her car and it went over the side, killing her. Her speed caused the crash, but everybody assumed that it was because Yugos were so light that she simply flew off of the bridge.
Imports of the Yugo plummeted right as Yugoslavia began to fall apart, and low sales drove Yugo America into bankruptcy in 1992. Dealers gave away Yugos if somebody bought a different car. Meanwhile, the Yugoslav Wars meant that sourcing parts for the car became incredibly difficult. Zastava’s plant itself was bombed in 1999 by NATO. Bricklin moved on to his next idea: electric bicycles.
The Yugo’s Advantages
Despite its many failings, it’s worth trying to recover something from the history of the Yugo. And that’s not just socialist fluff: notice that I’m not writing a defense of the East German Trabant.
People wanted the Yugo because they wanted something cheap, fuel-efficient, and easy to maintain. It didn’t live up to its hopes for fuel-efficiency, but its engine specs were modeled off of Fiat designs from the 1970s: it would have been easy to update its engine and help the car live up to expectations. A better Yugo wasn’t a pipe dream; it’s just that Bricklin didn’t have the time or desire to improve it.
Critics of the Yugo rarely argued for building a better economy car. Those barbs aimed at the Yugo were never intended to convince people that it needed a better emissions system, but rather that the whole idea of a car like that was terrible. Fuel-efficiency wasn’t something to even aspire to.
Today, the Yugo’s various failures are taken as simultaneous proof of the failures of communism and the uselessness of small economy cars. Meanwhile, in Yugoslavia the car persevered and was regarded as a reliable, easily repaired automobile. The last Yugo rolled off an assembly line in 2008.
And in the thirty-odd years since the Yugo became a punch line, what’s happened to American cars? They’ve gotten bigger and bigger, and less and less affordable. It feels like a Dr Seuss story: Americans drive bigger cars to feel safer and because they think they’re more luxurious, which in turn pushes manufacturers to make them bigger and charge more for them, and the cycle repeats forever.
Not only are American cars ever-bigger and pricier, but they’re becoming less effective at the things they’re supposed to do. Pickup truck beds have shrunk to fit more people into the cab, at the cost of proportionally reduced carrying capacity. The whole purpose of these trucks originally was for work, but most people who drive them only do so for pleasure. Who says that American ingenuity is dead? We’ve managed to transform the pickup truck into a shittier SUV — and at an eye-watering price tag.
Meanwhile, American cars rank among the least fuel-efficient in the world, despite decades of technological progress that should have made them better than they are. Even as electric vehicles take off, we can’t help but make larger electric vehicles, which in turn are less efficient at doing their job of cutting emissions. Electric vehicles aren’t a silver bullet to stop climate change anyway, but let’s be honest: oversized electric trucks are a cruel joke. Plus, all that size makes trucks and SUVs much more dangerous for pedestrians. If high-profile deaths and accidents from a vehicle are what you need to get them off the road, the sheer number of children killed because of truck blind spots ought to do it.
The Yugo had problems, but it also had the right idea: a cheap, fuel-efficient, sensibly sized car where the only point is transportation from one place to another. Cars as conspicuous consumption has been a disaster for the planet and for society at large. The end goal is to move away from car dependency and toward actually sustainable transportation — but as long as we have cars, small and fuel-efficient is the standard by which we should build them.