They Love the Yugo, the Car Others Love to Hate

on Jun10
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In the pantheon of cars considered irredeemable lemons — think Edsel, Aztek, Pacer — one stands above them all, or maybe below. The Yugo.

Arguably no car has been more maligned than the utilitarian Yugo. It has been called “hard to view on a full stomach” and “the Mona Lisa of bad cars,” and it was said to look like “something assembled at gunpoint” — particularly fitting because the Yugoslav company that built the car, Zastava, also made firearms.

You might go so far as to say it was “an out-and-out vile little car,” as Eric Peters did in his book “Automotive Atrocities,” but don’t let Jay Pierce, whose keeps the little cars running, hear you say it.

“This attack ‘comedy’ started with ‘The Tonight Show’ and is a sick way to make the networks money damaging people,” he said with unbridled disgust. “We really need tougher slander laws in this country.”

Mr. Pierce is one the Yugo’s more assertive fans, who defend the car’s reputation with the overprotective affection usually reserved for pet cats that go blind and three-legged dogs.

“You will find people who like it for the obscurity, just for the novelty of owning the unloved,” said Valerie Hansen of Columbus, Ohio, who is restoring her fourth Yugo, a rare 1984 model brought over by a Yugoslav expatriate. Its engine is even smaller than the 54-horsepower version imported by Yugo America.

Ms. Hansen said she was attracted to the Yugo for two reasons. First, it speaks to her ancestral Balkan roots. Second, its mechanical simplicity means she can do her own repairs. “You can fix a Yugo with a butter knife and a rubber band,” she said.

The Yugo was not always viewed so favorably, although its $3,990 price ($9,900 in today’s dollars) grabbed headlines on its introduction in 1985. Competing econoboxes included the Chevy Chevette, which listed for $5,645; the Ford Escort L for $6,327; and a Volkswagen Golf for $7,190.

The review from the ordinarily staid Consumer Reports verged on cruelty. The engine “struggled and strained to climb highway grades in high gear.” On acceleration, “Our 0-60-m.p.h. run took 18.5 seconds.” The transmission? “Easily the worst we’ve encountered in years.” The interior was “covered with cloth that resembles towel material.”

On the other hand, “it’s easy to turn on the high beams when you’re trying to signal a left turn.”

Yet initially the Yugo did not lack buyers. “We did well,” said Steve Moskowitz, who was a dealer and is now chief executive of the Antique Automobile Club of America. “A little too well at the beginning.”

Too well because the legions of new owners discovered problems before dealers did. For one, the cars were shipped with spark plugs unsuited for America’s unleaded fuel.

“We had little small bugaboos — it wasn’t engines failing,” Mr. Moskowitz said. “It was a decent idea, and a good purchase for someone looking for basic transportation.”

Other problems would emerge. “It required specific maintenance,” said Daniel Tohill, who runs the Yugo America Chat/Talk/Buy/Sell Facebook page. “It wasn’t like other cars.” Most prominently, if the timing belt wasn’t serviced at 30,000 miles, the engine’s pistons could ram into the valves and destroy them.

It’s hard to understand why anyone expected more than mere adequacy from the Yugo. It used parts from Fiat, a marque whose reputation for unreliability had led the brand to abandon America in 1983. Fiat, from Italy, was said to stand for “Fix it again, Tony.”

In Fiat’s exit, the automotive entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin saw an opportunity. Mr. Bricklin had introduced the Subaru 360 “Ladybug” to America, which, in 1969, Consumer Reports rated “not acceptable.” The Ladybug failed, but Subaru of America survived. In the mid-70s he created the Bricklin SV-1, a gull-wing sports car whose design presaged the DeLorean. It failed, too. This time, he imported Fiat’s two sports cars, the X1/9 and 124 Spider, rebadging them the Bertone X1/9 and the Pininfarina 124 Spider. That did not solve the rust problems.

In Mr. Bricklin’s telling, Pininfarina ended its contract with him as part of a deal to make the Allanté Pininfarina for Cadillac, leaving him one car short of what he promised dealers. “So I put somebody in charge of finding the cheapest car in the world,” he said in a 2013 panel discussion.

It was found in Yugoslavia. Mr. Bricklin went there and encountered “that piece of crap factory with 50,000 people that should have 2,000 people, 127 Communist unions,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, isn’t this fun?’”

But the Yugo would face a much more formidable nemesis than Communism: Jay Leno.

“I will always have the feeling that Jay Leno personally killed the car,” Mr. Moskowitz said. “Nobody likes owning a car that is a joke.”

It is a tenet of the faithful that the car would have made it if not for those jokes, a staple of Mr. Leno’s “Tonight Show” routines as a frequent guest host starting in the late ’80s. “Leno did incalculable damage to my business and Yugo owners,” Mr. Pierce said.

“Yugo has come out with a very clever anti-theft device,” went one Leno gag. “They made their name bigger.”

But it wasn’t just Mr. Leno (who did not respond to emails seeking comment). Even now car enthusiasts can summon gibes like: “You know why the Yugo has a standard rear window defogger? To keep your hands warm while you push it.” Or: “How do you double the value of a Yugo? Fill the gas tank … if it will hold gas.” It has been made sport of in movies like “Drowning Mona,” and in songs like “In a Yugo.”

Few Yugo drivers take offense. “We’ll make jokes at our own expense,” Ms. Hansen said, but the humor can be macabre.

When David Lang bought a Yugo GVX in 2018, one of his goals was to drive it across Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge, notorious for a Yugo that went out of control and over the side in 1989, killing the driver.

“People are like, ‘Don’t take it over the Mackinac Bridge!’” said Mr. Lang, who lives in Brown City, Mich. “That was the first thing I did with it.”

It was coincidentally on an anniversary of the accident. People reacted as if he were jumping the car over 19 flaming buses, he said. “I’ve done it twice now.”

“People are buying these cars as jokes now, and to win awards in car shows,” said Nick Bygrave, an employee at Midwest-Bayless Italian Auto, an Ohio Yugo parts supplier in Columbus. He found a moss-covered 1987 GVS that had sat in a field for 20 years, but it ran. Once the moss died, it looked like a matte paint job.

“I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but it won Cars and Coffee every time,” Mr. Bygrave said of regular meets.

His strategy is to put his Yugo next to the most expensive car in a show, as he did in a Midwest Motor Vice show in 2018. “My car was parked a few feet away from a Countach, and I won an award for best survivor car,” he said.

As prizewinning cars go, Mr. Bygrave’s $500 Yugo was a bargain, but they’ve been sold cheaper. In 1986, Noce Cadillac in Chicago offered a free Yugo with a purchase of select Caddies. According to a newspaper account, no one took a Yugo.

When Kevin O’Callaghan bought 39 Yugos for his students at the School of Visual Arts in New York to turn into sculptures, the highest price paid was $80. “One guy drove it to my house,” he recalled. “I asked him what he wanted for it. He said: ‘I don’t want anything for this piece of crap. I just want a ride home, and not in that car.’”

Yugo isn’t in the NADA or Kelly Blue Book online price guide, but the car auction website Bring a Trailer sold a Yugo for $2,200 in 2016 and another for $7,500 in April. Long Island’s Hollywood Motors recently offered a 1998 GV for $6,450.

“This … this is a very, very bad idea,” reads the description. “The thing about bad ideas, though, is that more often than not, they are a lot more fun than ‘good’ or ‘safe” ideas.’” Buying the Yugo, it suggests, is equivalent to drinking flaming tequila shots. The car is now listed as sold.

For all of its faults — its many, many, many faults — owners say the Yugo is less troublesome and more charming than commonly thought. When Mr. Bygrave planned a trip from Ohio to New York, his boss — who owns a Yugo parts store, remember — told him, “I don’t think this is a good idea.” Mr. Bygrave wrote “NYC OR BUST” on the rear window with a craft store marker and headed out in a blizzard.

After 11 hours, “when I pulled into New York, people were honking, a cop car ran the siren, a guy in a dump truck was filming us with a phone,” he said. “My cheeks hurt from smiling.”

In 1992, the Yugo succumbed to compound wounds from reviewers, comedians, declining sales, a recall due to emissions standards and bankruptcy. But until 1999, some argued that the car would make a comeback when Yugoslav civil unrest settled. “And then NATO put five missiles into the factory,” Mr. Bricklin said, “but other than that ….”

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