Q&;A: Why the Iconic Yugo Isn’t Just a Punchline
By Keith Barry
May 10, 2010
Jason Vuic used to be an ordinary guy. He toiled in relative anonymity, teaching modern European and world history at Bridgewater College in Virginia, never dreaming that a 30-year-old car could make him a celebrity.
Then he wrote a book about the Yugo.
Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History chronicles the introduction of a Communist-made subcompact into the middle of Ronald Reagan’s America and how a little car had a big impact on the American psyche. We picked up a copy, assuming it would be a light read for a long train ride. Instead we found a fascinating and rigorously researched history that was more fun than a night’s worth of Yugo jokes.
Inextricably tied to the history of the Yugo is its importer, colorful entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin. Before Yugo, Bricklin’s achievement included importing the downright lousy Subaru 360 to America, going down with the ship at a chain of hardware stores, trying (and failing) to build an all-new sports car and importing Fiat convertibles in the early ’80s.
When Bricklin brought the tiny Yugoslav hatchback to America in 1984, it became a runaway success. Ads blanketed nightly newscasts and popular magazines while dealerships had long waiting lists. But six years later Bricklin’s big plan was a memory after he’d been fired. The little car disappeared from dealerships soon after.
What happened? Vuic argues Bricklin’s venture never had enough capital and, together with the Yugoslav factory, could not adapt to competition from newcomers like the Hyundai Excel. (Another bad automotive joke.) But what Vuic finds most fascinating is how a sub-par car remains a cultural touchstone.
Naturally, we had to give Jason Vuic a call. We caught up with him at home, where he gave us a half hour of his time. Coincidentally, that’s about how long it takes a Yugo to get from 0 to 60.
Wired.com: How did a respected academic end up spending valuable time writing a book about the Yugo, of all things?
Jason Vuic: I’m an American of Yugoslav descent, and I’ve been interested since I was a kid in those rare moments Yugoslavia entered the American consciousness. I remember when [President Josep Broz] Tito died. I remember the Sarajevo Olympics. I remember when Vlade Divac replaced Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And I also remembered the Yugo.
I’m not a car guy, though I love cars like most Americans. [The Yugo] was something that every single American knew about. I’d say I study Yugoslavia, and people would say, “Do you drive a Yugo? Do they still drive Yugos?” “This car always had some sort of power. It was iconic for whatever reason. So one day I just looked it up and I found there was little (information) on it.”
Wired.com: Did the former Yugo executives answer the phone when you called? Aren’t they in the Witness Protection Program now?
Vuic: When they did say they’d talk, they’d talk a lot. These people have careers now, so a number of people wouldn’t speak to me. I’d say most of the Yugo guys — the Americans, the executives — most of them were proud. I knew there’d be some flak for my title, “the worst car in history.” The reason I wrote that is that’s what Americans think. Most Americans who are Gen-X and older believe that the Yugo is the worst car in history. It’s on Car Talk, it’s on NPR, it’s on the cover of a book called Crap Cars, it’s in jokes.
The Yugo wasn’t a very good car and it was a sales catastrophe. So (company executives) wanted to go out of their way to tell me that it wasn’t the worst car ever. And I agree. But it’s the myth I’m talking about. It’s a bad car, but I’m writing about why it is we hate this car so much. The (executives) who talked to me were really adamant about saying the press was unfair, Consumer Reports was unfair. Most (executives) really didn’t want, and didn’t like, when I called it the worst car in history. They had positive memories.
The Yugoslavs, the workers, never really understood what was happening. They made the car, they shipped the car to America. In general, people didn’t get what was happening with the Yugo and they certainly didn’t get it when the Yugo started to go south. The workers knew when the line started to slow down, but they were shipping 30,000 or 40,000 cars a year. And they didn’t know what to make of [Yugo America founder Malcolm] Bricklin and the Americans (and) the Communists dealing with the arch-capitalist Bricklin.
Wired.com: How did serial entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin get along with the Communist factory managers?
Vuic: There are no entrepreneurs in Communist countries. Bricklin was an arch-capitalist. The people in the upper echelons in Yugoslavia don’t have fond memories of Bricklin, but people who worked with him in America really loved him. They said “Go easy on Malcolm” and I tried to be fair.
Wired.com: Do you think Bricklin believed in the car?
Vuic: I do. I think Bricklin believed in all his ventures. I’ve studied a lot of his career, and I don’t see him as a con man. I never felt he was socking away money for a rainy day in any of his ventures. I found Bricklin literally going down with the ship. Think of Enron. Those guys weren’t going down with any ship. Bricklin (also) went down with the Bricklin SV1 in Canada. He went bankrupt, full on.
What motivates Bricklin is the chase, that entrepreneurial chase. When Yugo was failing, his accountant went out to find investors. They found a group of investors and Bricklin was going to make $5 million — but he was angry because he didn’t want to leave. I think if Bricklin was wanting the Yugo to go down or go out, he would have left.
Wired.com: What does he think of the book?
Vuic: From what I understand he’s not too happy with it, but I haven’t heard from him directly. I think I was very fair, and I certainly rely on what’s public record (for the information in the book).
Wired.com: How did the Communist versus capitalist angle play into the Yugo’s downfall?
Vuic: I think [Yugo America was] overextended and undercapitalized from day one. I think that was the big problem. They had to sell a lot of cars to break even (and) sales dried up because the product wasn’t that good.
In Yugoslavia, that was a problem too. It wasn’t a war, it wasn’t ethnic infighting, none of that. The Communist factory couldn’t afford new models, they were also very slow to change their quality issues, very slow to do what Yugo [America] wanted. They did a lot of things like (that). When they were building this new car, a “Hyundai-fighter,” they called it the “Florida” without even asking Yugo America what they thought of the name. There were some talented car men at Zastava [the Yugoslav factory that produced the Yugo], but they were always limited by these political people at the top of the factory who knew nothing about cars.
It was very poor quality control because they had no domestic competitors. What Bricklin was asking for wasn’t an appliance, it was a consumer good. They weren’t able to make it sexy, they weren’t able to make it sleek or neat or into a status symbol or something that young people wanted. And if you think about the ’80s, maybe it was asking a lot. The Big Three were having trouble making things young people wanted.
Wired.com: Will there ever be another Yugo?
Vuic: I wonder if we’re going to see another Yugo again. Can people distribute cars like that? I doubt it. If the Tata Nano comes, its not the Yugo. It’s with Tata’s money. It might have some of the same issues, with the initial Nano-mania, but I don’t think there’s any room anymore for you and me to get together and get together $20 million, or $40 million, and bring over a car. People ask, “Is the Chevy Aveo the new Yugo? Is the Toyota Yaris the new Yugo?” There are no more Yugos.”
Wired.com: What’s your favorite Yugo joke?
Vuic: I love, “Yo mama drives a Yugo.” It’s just so conclusive, like, “Your mom wears army boots.” I find that hilarious. I find it amazing there are so many Yugo jokes out there. What’s interesting to me is why was this car so wildly reviled? Most Americans never saw one, never drove one, never knew someone who owned one. But it’s something that shows the best practices and worst practices. Obviously the Yugo did something right because the press was amazing.