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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Closer Look at ‘The Worst Car in History’

Jason Vuic details rise and fall of the Yugo

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It was the little car that couldn’t, and the most enjoyable part of Jason Vuic’s book, The Yugo: The Rise and Fall ofthe Worst Car in History

(Hill & Wang), is the jokes that were made about it:

Q: What’s the difference between a Yugo and a golf ball?

A: You can drive a golf ball 200 yards.

Q: What do you call a Yugo with twin tailpipes?

A: A wheelbarrow.

And there were plenty more where those came from. But the enjoyment doesn’t end with the jokes. The entire book is an entertaining—occasionally extremely funny—yet entirely serious examination of a galloping business disaster, the people who created it and the economic and cultural era that fostered it.

Was the Yugo actually the worst car ever sold in America? Despite his title, the author, an assistant professor of history at Bridgewater College in Virginia, gives that dubious honor to the Subaru 360. Also in the running are the three-wheeled BMW Isetta and a similar vehicle from Messerschmitt.

People compare the Yugo to the Ford Edsel, another automotive mistake, but at least the Edsel worked. The Yugo was simply a cheap, atrocious piece of automotive junk that managed, after persistent doctoring of the substandard original product, to meet the minimum U.S. safety and emissions regulations to be allowed on the roads. Once there, it typically fell apart.

The man behind its importation, Malcolm Bricklin, is himself, in Vuic’s portrayal, a piece of work. An archetypal fast-talking, optimism-exuding salesman, he leapt to ever newer projects as those behind him crumbled into failure. I lost count, but I believe the book chronicles four business bankruptcies he went through.

His crowning debacle was the Yugo. When Bricklin introduced it to the United States in 1985, it was already 20 years out of date. Built at a huge, and hugely inefficient, plant in Kragujevac, Yugoslavia, it was based on the Fiat 127 and Fiat 128, Spartan subcompacts from the 1970s.

Nevertheless, it became the fastest-selling first-year European import in U.S. history. Because Bricklin had been slick at generating free advance publicity in newspapers and magazines, “Yugomania” was in the air: When it first went on sale, at $3,999, customers stood in line at dealerships. Some bought it sight unseen. Chrysler once offered to buy the company.

Just as quickly, buyers’ complaints of breakdowns and deficiencies began flooding in. Consumer Reports gave it a devastating review; it even took the rare step of criticizing the importer for his questionable track record. The car did extremely poorly on federal crash tests. Croatian-Americans angry at Yugoslavia picketed dealerships and urged a boycott.

Sales plummeted, and Bricklin’s company, Yugo America, had no ad campaign to counter the bad news. It tried desperately to correct defects and/or ramp up production of new models at the Yugoslav plant, but it proved to be a brick wall to deal with a noncompetitive mentality in which production was slow and changes were slight. Yugoslavia’s growing economic mess only added to the difficulties.

Yugo America went bankrupt in January 1989. Bricklin attempted to get out of his mess by importing a compact car made in Malaysia. That went nowhere, and he filed for his (then) latest bankruptcy in June 1991—which turned out to be only a speed bump on his way to further overly optimistic (and also failed) schemes. The last Yugo rolled off the assembly line in Serbia on Nov. 11, 2008.

Vuic’s research and documentation are solid; especially revealing are his interviews with people who worked with or for Bricklin. He puts the Yugo enterprise in the context of Yugoslav history, automotive history and international politics, the latter being particularly important since this was the time Yugoslavia started to break apart.

Between 1985 and 1992, approximately 150,000 Yugos were sold in the United States, though probably relatively few Americans have ridden in one or perhaps even seen one. The author estimates there may be as few as 1,000 working Yugos remaining—if “working Yugo” isn’t an oxymoron.