How Do You Make A Yugo Cool? Turn It Into A Book The tiny, no-frills automobile imported from communist Yugoslavia during the 1980s is known to most Americans as the butt of many car jokes. Author Jason Vuic's book The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History reveals why it's the most famous lemon in automotive history.

How Do You Make A Yugo Cool? Turn It Into A Book

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

As cars go, Yugoslavia's Yugo became a punch line, a car that people said doubled in value when you filled the gas tank. In short, it was declared barely road worthy by Consumer Reports. But there was a time when Yugo-mania swept across America.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man: You're looking at the fastest selling European import in its introductory years. You're looking at a car that costs 3990. You're looking at a Yugo.

RAZ: Between 1984 and 1992, Americans bought 150,000 Yugos. It was, far and away, the cheapest car on the market. Now, a quarter century after its launch in the U.S., the Yugo is being celebrated in a new book by Jason Vuic. It's called "The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History." And as he explains in the book, the timing of the launch of the Yugo in America couldn't have been better.

The man behind it was an entrepreneur named Malcolm Bricklin. And when he introduced the car to America, the country was in love with Yugoslavia. It was right after the 1984 L.A. Olympics when a Cold War dispute prompted the Warsaw Pact countries to boycott those games.

Mr. JASON VUIC (Author, "The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History): When all the other communist countries boycotted, China, Romania and Yugoslavia did not. And Yugoslavia received the greatest ovation as they walked into the L.A. Coliseum at the opening ceremonies. Yugoslavia had left the Soviet orbit in 1948, and through the Cold War, we had supported Yugoslavia. You could enter and exit Yugoslavia freely.

So, there was a great deal of positive feeling towards the Yugoslavs.

RAZ: So, it was like a perfect storm, precisely the time to introduce a Yugoslav product.

Mr. VUIC: And it was precisely the time, too, because - this is probably unknown to most American consumers - at this moment, both Detroit and the Japanese manufacturers had really vacated the very low end of the market. There were various reasons for this, but one was the Japanese were capturing a larger market share and Detroit was pushing the Reagan administration for some sort of sanctions.

The Japanese jumped in and said, wait a minute. We'll put a quota on ourselves. But what the Japanese did very smartly was instead of selling Spartan Civics or Tercels, they went upscale. And this leads, of course, to Acura, to Infiniti, to Lexus. So, right when they left the market, the Yugo was the only game in town.

RAZ: It was a vacuum at that point.

Mr. VUIC: Huge vacuum that the Yugo filled that very moment.

RAZ: So, before Bricklin brings the car to the U.S. he goes to their factory in Serbia. This is an - actually originally a munitions plant. They're now building cars. I guess it's an understatement to say they were taken aback when they arrived to this factory?

Mr. VUIC: Yes. Several car men went with him and they walked into this plant and they couldn't believe it. The floors were unbelievably dirty. They actually had a machine with chains that would whip across the floor to take all the oil and scum off the floors. The first Yugos that they actually viewed, they found rust in the trunk.

One of the men who went with Bricklin actually saw freshly painted fenders - if I remember - with dents on them.

RAZ: Ready for the showroom.

Mr. VUIC: Or ready to be assembled to be sent out.

RAZ: They were also surprised, you write about, how the workers during their breaks would just take shots of Slivovitz, this plum brandy.

Mr. VUIC: Mm-hmm. Oh yes. They smoked while on the assembly line, while working in the cars. They were stepping on these dirty floors and stepping into the new cars. Just a lot of simple practices that they never observed, which meant that the Yugo never really was catastrophically bad, it just had a huge number of quality issues that added up to a bad car.

They gave them a four-meter fax, a list of over 400 changes that needed to be done to the car. And they really did do it, to their credit. For how famous the Yugo is for being a bad car, these Yugo America men who went over there really did what I found to be a Herculean job of prepping this car for America.

RAZ: Before we go on with this conversation, I understand that you have helped to bring us a working Yugo, which is waiting for us downstairs in front of the lobby here at NPR. There are - I think you write, there are fewer than a thousand of them left on the road today. Shall we go?

Mr. VUIC: Yes, absolutely.

(Soundbite of cars moving)

RAZ: Oh my gosh. Nice one. That's a nice car.

Unidentified Man: Wow, look at that beauty.

RAZ: So, this was the car that Americans could buy for under $4,000.

Mr. VUIC: Yeah.

RAZ: It doesn't look bad. I mean, it looks pretty good.

Mr. VUIC: Yeah. It's just thin. You know, when you look at the parts and you look at the door handles and the thing. But it was a $3,990 car. You know, people expected so much more, and that was part of the problem.

RAZ: All right. Well, let's meet the owner of the car. Arnold Campanile(ph) is here with me.

Arnold, thank you so much. Where did you - where are you from?

Mr. ARNOLD CAMPANILE: I'm from outside Philadelphia.

RAZ: So, you drove this car down from outside Philadelphia?


RAZ: Did it break down on the way?


RAZ: No problems? What year is this Yugo?

Mr. CAMPANILE: It's a 1991, and I purchased it brand new. I initially used it as a daily drive for a little while, decided I was going to put it away 'cause that was original intent that hopefully some day, you know, someone would appreciate it down the road. This is not my first Yugo. I've had about eight or nine of them.

RAZ: You've got eight or nine Yugos?

Mr. CAMPANILE: I just loved it.

RAZ: Well, Arnold, you agreed to drive us around in the Yugo for a little bit, so shall we go?

Mr. CAMPANILE: Yup. Yup.

RAZ: All right. Now, Arnold, before we get going, I've got a cassette here. Can you pop that into the cassette player, side A here? You can't drive without some good tunes.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: All right. Okay. We've got our Serbian version of "Born to Be Wild" cranking. Arnold, let's go. Let's roll.


(Soundbite of engine running)

RAZ: All right. So, now we're driving down Massachusetts Avenue here in Washington, D.C. A nifty, little car actually, not bad. Handles pretty well, right?

Mr. VUIC: Absolutely.

RAZ: So, Jason Vuic, the subtitle of your book is "The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History." But is there something redeeming about this car, about the Yugo?

Mr. VUIC: Oh, absolutely. I really do not think that the Yugo is the worst car in history. The fact that it was sold here means it wasn't one of the worst cars in history. It passed safety tests and emissions tests, but for whatever reason, on CAR TALK, on NPR's CAR TALK, they actually voted, listeners voted the Yugo the worst car of the millennium.

RAZ: Consumer Reports magazine really sunk the fortunes of this car in 1986, just a few months after it was officially launched in the U.S., basically recommending that people should buy a used car rather than a brand-new Yugo. Was that sort of the beginning of the end for the car?

Mr. VUIC: Oh, absolutely. Consumer Reports panned the car - that's really the end for that car. It's a big deal. I actually interviewed the Consumer Reports person who tested the car and he said the Yugo really wasn't that bad. It was just, for his buyers, wasn't the best quality. But he said the engine was a tried and true Fiat engine that people had used for years and years in Europe and also in the United States. He just said it wasn't put together very well.

RAZ: If you're just joining us, I am sitting inside of a Yugo with Jason Vuic. He is the author of the new book, "The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History." Arnold Campanile is the driver and owner of this Yugo, and he's very kindly agreed to drive us through the streets of Washington.

And I should just mention that we're idling at a light right now and a guy, looks to be in his mid-60s, has just walked by across the street and given us a thumbs up. So, clearly, Arnold, you're a popular guy when you drive this car. Do you get that a lot?

Mr. CAMPANILE: Yes, I do. I've actually been at stoplights where people roll down their windows and ask if it's for sale. And I tell them, no, at least not at the moment.

RAZ: Jason Vuic, Yugo America basically called it quits in 1992. They went bankrupt. Obviously, that was due in part to a poor design and bad reviews. But there were other factors too. I mean, 1989 happened. I mean, history really sort of begins to unfold. The Yugoslav wars begin. What happens?

Mr. VUIC: Well, one of the problems was that Yugo America really brought over the same Yugo five or six years in a row, the same model car, and Americans expect new models every year. And then one problem was sales were tanking and then Yugoslavia started to fall apart. And the seats were made in Kosovo, the plastic came from Croatia, other parts came from Slovenia and Serbia and pretty soon you couldn't put the car together just like you couldn't put the country back together.

RAZ: Well, I've got to say, Arnold, I'm pretty impressed with this car. For 4,000 bucks, it handles pretty well, drives nicely. We just passed the White House, but I don't want to press our luck, so I think we ought to head back to NPR.


(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: All right. Man, that was a wild ride.

Mr. VUIC: That was fun.

RAZ: Well, Jason Vuic and Arnold Campanile, thank you so much for coming by and talking to us about the book, Jason.

Mr. VUIC: Yeah, thank you.

RAZ: And Arnold for driving down here and letting us take a ride in your car.

Mr. CAMPANILE: You're very welcome.

RAZ: Jason Vuic is the author of "The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History." And Arnold Campanile is the owner of one of the last Yugos on the road today in the United States.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.