The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History
By Jason Vuic
Hardcover, 272 pages
Hill and Wang
List price: $26
Q: What do you call the passengers in a Yugo?
A: Shock absorbers.
The artist Kevin O'Callaghan builds really big things — really big, really poppy, really visual things, like a giant pair of glasses for the singer Elton John or TV and movie sets for A&E, ABC, and the kids' network Nickelodeon. O'Callaghan is a master of "3-D illustration," and teaches a course on the subject at the prestigious School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Each year he sponsors several student shows. For one, titled "The Next Best ... Ding!," O'Callaghan gave each student a vintage typewriter and asked the class "to reinterpret" the machine in a different way. "I've always been interested in useless items and giving them other uses," said O'Callaghan, whose students turned fi fty decrepit typewriters into beautiful works of art. They were functional too. There was a gumball machine, a meat slicer, a Kleenex dispenser, an aquarium, a blender, a shoe-shine kit, a snow globe, a pay phone, even a Corona-matic-cum- waffl e iron that made keyboard-shaped waffl es. O'Callaghan's other student shows have included chairs, beds, clocks, carousels, chessboards, and versions of the famed "Moon Man" from MTV.
But O'Callaghan's most popular show, bar none, was on the Yugo, the failed car from Yugoslavia. "I was driv ing around one day and saw some kids playing stickball," he said, "and they were using a Yugo as the backstop." O'Callaghan stopped and asked them about it. "'Does your father know you're doing this?' [And the kids] said 'Yeah, it's a piece of junk.'" As O'Callaghan drove away, he had an idea: his next show, scheduled for the main foyer of New York's Grand Central Terminal, would involve the Yugo. "The Yugo was like the little engine that couldn't," said O'Callaghan. "It was the worst-designed product of all time. [So, in holding a show,] we wanted to give the Yugo a new life other than the one [it was designed for]." But for that, O'Callaghan needed Yugos, dozens and dozens of Yugos. He placed an ad in several New York newspapers under the caption "Yugos Wanted Dead or Alive." He received seventy-nine calls in three days, and bought thirty-nine relatively un-dented Yugos for $92 apiece.
Then his students went to work. They transformed the automobiles into truly eye-popping displays that one magazine called "witty, playful, [and] brilliant ... impeccably crafted and technically amazing." Like the Yugo Easter Island head, the Yugo Zippo, and the Yugo baby grand. There was also a Yugo accordion, a Yugo subway car, photo booth, toaster, telephone, diner, shower, movie theater, and a cozy Yugo fi replace complete with a deer head. There was a Yugo barbecue, a Yugo confessional, and a Yugo port-a-potty with the license plate GOT2GO. The crowds loved it. In May 1995, literally thousands of people took in the exhibit, which then traveled to more than twenty cities, including Montreal. It was featured on NPR, CNN, NBC, CBS, and in newspaper and TV reports from as far away as Croatia. The National Enquirer even covered it. "We've gotten a better reception than we ever expected," said Celia Landegger, the creator of the Yugo baby grand. "We're all just blown away. Every day we're amazed [at] how many people have heard of it."
"Squeezing Lemons to Make Art," read a Washington Post headline. "Sad Little Cars Given New Life as Sculpture," said The Dallas Morning News. In all, several dozen newspapers and magazines reviewed the exhibit, giving it high praise for its creativity, sense of humor, and optimism. The reviews also agreed that the Yugo, the tiny, unassuming $3,990 import, was a "hopelessly degenerate hunk of trash." For just a sampling: "The Yugo is to cars what Milli Vanilli is to rock n' roll" (Chicago Tribune); it was "the auto industry's greatest fumble" (St. Louis Post-Dispatch); the "scourge of interstates every where" (Daily News [Los Angeles]); "the Rodney Dangerfield of cars" (People). As The Buffalo News put it: "Nobody has sympathy for the Yugo. Only bad dreams. Junkyards won't take them. Dogs never chased them. No Yugo was reported stolen, because no owner wanted it back. [And when Kevin] O'Callaghan picked up one for his [art exhibit], he got it for nothing plus a spaghetti dinner."
But was the Yugo that bad? Can any car, even a bad car, be a "hopelessly degenerate hunk of trash"? Why was the Yugo so reviled? Even today, a simple Google search of the terms "Yugo" and "worst car" receives more than twenty thousand hits. In 2000, listeners of the popular National Public Radio program Car Talk voted the Yugo "the Worst Car of the Millennium." According to Yahoo! Answers it is "the worst car ever sold in the U.S." Ditto at rateitall.com, bestandworst.com, and automotoportal.com. In 2008, readers of the AAA magazine Via ranked the Yugo the worst car ever and a 2007 Hagerty Insurance poll declared the Yugo the second ugliest car in history. It was second in Richard Porter's book Crap Cars and was named by Time.com and Forbes.com as one of the worst cars of all time. The Yugo appears in Eric Peters's book Automotive Atrocities, in Craig Cheetham's book The World's Worst Cars, and in Giles Chapman's book The Worst Cars Ever Sold. The Yugo even has an entry in the online Urban Dictionary — collector of such useful terms as dope, snap, and dawg — that reads simply: "the world's worst car."
Comedians use the Yugo for their jokes. "President [George H. W.] Bush again denied that the U.S. is in a recession," quipped Jay Leno. "I don't know if people believed him. After his speech [he] returned to the airport in [a] presidential limo [named] Yugo One." Singers sing songs about it. There's "My Bloody Yugo" by the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group (a slick bossa nova ditty), there's "I Drive a Yugo" by the Left Wing Fascists (a kind of alt-punk number), there's "I'll Stay Yugo" by the Belgian electronica group OwlMusik, and then there's Paul Shanklin's satirical ballad "In a Yugo." Writers parody the car in books such as Florida Roadkill by Tim Dorsey; in television shows such as Moonlighting, The Simpsons, and Saturday Night Live; and in movies such as Dragnet, Bowfi nger, Drowning Mona, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, and Die Hard III. Advertisers spoof the Yugo in commercials for Yahoo! and Midas, kids destroy the Yugo in games such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Carmageddon II: Carpocalypse Now, and university professors study the car's importer, Yugo America Inc., in order to show students how not to run a business.
In short, the Yugo is an icon. "People made fun of the Edsel," wrote one author, "Ford's $400 million mistake ... [but] at least the Edsel worked ... The dreadful Yugo, on the other hand, was both hard to view on a full stomach and an out-and-out vile little car that stretched the most generous usage of [the terms] 'shoddy' and 'slapped together.' The car was less reliable than ... a Halliburton financial disclosure ... [and] will likely hold in perpetual ignominy the title of 'Worst Car Ever Sold to the American Public.'" Strong words, but what do we know about the Yugo? Who imported it? Who made it? And why? One would think that such an iconic automobile would have a story behind it, a tale, but what most Americans know are the jokes: How do you make a Yugo go faster? Use a tow truck. How do you double the value of your Yugo? Fill the gas tank. What's included in every Yugo owner's manual? A bus schedule.
But what Americans don't know, for instance, is that it was the fastest-selling first-year European import in U.S. history. Or that when the Yugo went on sale in America, there were lines at some dealerships ten deep. Or that Yugo dealers once sold 1,050 cars in a single day. Or that Chrysler once offered to buy the company, or that its CEO, Malcolm Bricklin, was the first person to bring Subaru to the United States. What Americans do know is that the Yugo was bad, really bad, but relatively few people have ever seen one. The company sold, at most, 150,000 cars between 1985 and 1992. Since then, their numbers have dwindled to perhaps 1,000 working Yugos. (And that's generous: as of 1999 there were more than seventeen million registered vehicles in Florida, but just one registered Yugo.)
So was the Yugo that bad? Yes ... by almost any measure. It was cheap, poorly built, somewhat unsafe in a crash, prone to breakdowns, and dirty emissions-wise, and for such a small automobile its gas mileage was poor. In 1986, Consumer Reports wrote that it was better to buy a good used car than a new Yugo. That same year the Yugo ranked thirty-three out of thirty-three in a J.D. Power and Associates consumer satisfaction survey, and in a series of 5-mile-per-hour crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), it sustained a whopping $2,197 in damage, more than twenty-three other cars. In 1987 it topped both the Massachusetts and New York state Lemon Indexes, and in 1988, in the midst of a Motor Trend magazine road test, the Yugo GVX broke down. The Yugo was also last in a North Carolina emissions test and last in a Car Book survey of resale values, and in a report published by the IIHS the Yugo had the eighth highest death rate of any 1984–88 model-year automobile on the highway between 1985 and 1989. So, yes, the Yugo was bad.
But was it the worst car in history? No. Any ranking is subjective, but as a rule if an automobile passes U.S. safety and emissions tests it is a relatively decent car. Not necessarily a good car or a reliable car, but one that has met certain basic, presale standards that are among the toughest in the world. Said one Peugeot executive, whose company left America in 1991, "There were considerable changes [we had to comply with]. Emissions systems, injection equipment, [and] on-board diagnostics are all different on U.S. vehicles ... and [they] must be reinforced for crash requirements and fuel-system integrity ... It [simply] has to be done." One Mercedes manager estimated "that the company sold 15 percent of its cars in the U.S., [but] had 50 percent of [its] engineers working on U.S. emissions problems." The standards were that tight. Thus, there's a reason why Russian Ladas and Samaras aren't sold here, or why Indian Tatas or Malaysian Protons or Chinese Dongfengs haven't captured the American market (though, in the case of Chinese cars, this may indeed happen).
For my vote, the worst car ever sold in America was the Subaru 360, a car so light it was exempt from federal safety regulations and was considered a covered motorcycle (see Chapter Two). It had forward-opening "suicide doors," burned a quart of outboard motor oil every 260 miles, and had front and rear bumpers that were several inches lower than those of any car on the road. Consumer Reports rated it "not acceptable." Then there was the super-mini BMW Isetta, which in the 1950s was banned from California's freeway system for being too small and too slow, and the three-wheeled Messerschmitt (yes, of German Luftwaffe fame), which sat two passengers in tandem, had a handlebar instead of a steering wheel, had no reverse gear, and started with a pull chord. (You may have seen it in the film The Addams Family, where it was driven, fittingly enough, by Cousin Itt.) So no, the Yugo wasn't the worst car in history, not by a long shot.
What the Yugo was was a dated automobile, even in 1985. The car was based on the Fiat 127 and the Fiat 128, both utilitarian subcompacts conceived in the 1960s. Thus, the Yugo was incredibly spartan: the original GV model came only with a stick shift. It had no radio, no air-conditioning, no air bags, and no tachometer; its windows were hand cranked, of course, and it lacked even a glove compartment. "To understand [the Yugo], you've got to look at it strictly in terms of fundamental transportation," wrote Car and Driver. "[It is a] cheap, no-frills appliance." The Yugo was cheap. At $3,990, it was the least expensive new car in America. (With dealer financing, a new Yugo cost just $99 a month). It was pitched as a generic people's car; a new Volkswagen; in the words of the man principally behind its introduction to America, Malcolm Bricklin, "a nineteen-cent hamburger with meat." In the fall of 1985, people flocked to buy it. Hundreds bought Yugos sight unseen. Though a dull little car built in communist Yugoslavia, the Yugo was a hit — no, a mania, something the Associated Press called a "Yugo-mania." It didn't last. Critics panned the car for its poor quality. Sales dipped, Bricklin sold the company, and Yugo America went bankrupt in 1992.
That should have been it, but by then the Yugo was firmly ensconced as the worst car in history, a car that Americans love to hate. It's true. We hate the Yugo. The Brits hate it too. (In 1996, British TV journalist Jeremy Clarkson called the Yugo "a hateful, hateful car," and destroyed one sorry example with a shell from a Chieftain tank.) The question is: Why? Why are bad cars pop icons, and why is the Yugo the greatest bad-car pop icon of all time? The answer is in this book. The Yugo story is in this book. It is the sad, sometimes funny, and altogether fascinating tale of how entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin brought the Yugo to the United States. It is a short history of the worst car in history.
From The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History by Jason Vuic. Published in March 2010 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2010 by Jason Vuic. All rights reserved.