The Yugo car headlined the inaugural episode of Remembering Yugoslavia. A part of the little Yugoslav car’s story remained unexplored, the part that made the Yugo one of the best known automobiles in history—and turned it into a legend.

Out of the 794,428 Yugos made between 1980 and 2008 in Kragujevac, 141,651 were sold in the U.S. In America, the Yugo went from fad to farce in just a few years.

How did Zastava manage to sell the Yugo in the U.S.? Why was the Yugo both “the worst car in history” and a legend? And what of the Yugo car in America today?

With Jason Vuic, Al Staggs, Jim Ruiz, and Valerie Hansen. Songs by Leftwing Fascists and The Legendary Jim Ruiz Group.

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Episode Transcript (and More)

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[SOUNDBITE – Yugo car commercial]

[JINGLE]

PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your driver Peter Korchnak.

The Yugo car starred in the very first episode of this podcast. Back in July 2020, I talked to Antonija Buntak, founder of Yugocar Adventure, a company in Zagreb that uses Yugos for its tours.

[AMBIENT SOUND – driving a Yugo]

[01:08]

ANTONIJA BUNTAK: The first one was produced in 1978 and presented to Tito, who was the leader of Yugoslavia. Allegedly, Tito didn’t like it that much. However, after he died, in the 80s the mass production of this car started. In total there were 800,000 Yugos produced between the beginning of 80s and 2008, when the last Yugo was produced in a factory in Serbia.

[01:33]

PETER KORCHNAK: 794,428 to be exact, between November 28, 1980 and November 11, 2008. Though it was named after a southern wind, the Yugo was truly a Yugoslav car. For example, most of the car’s electrical parts were produced in Nova Gorica, Slovenia; the interior fittings were made in Split and brakes in Varaždin, Croatia; the engine’s electrical parts were produced in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina; seat belts, locks, and mirrors were made in Ohrid, Macedonia; a bunch of other parts and of course the car’s assembly was done in Kragujevac, Serbia.

An early idea for the Remembering Yugoslavia project had me drive a Yugo around the former country. I’d stop at town squares, set a 1980s-era Made-in-Yugoslavia Unis typewriter on a folding table, and invite passersby to type their answer to the question, “What does Yugoslavia mean to you?” I would end the tour at the abandoned Zastava car factory in Kragujevac where I would set up in the middle of a former assembly hall and write my own answer to the question. If I were lucky, the yellow Yugo I saw on my visit there in 2019 would still be parked at the gate of the destroyed production complex. I still might do it someday, albeit with a documentary filmmaker in tow.

For now, I live in the United States. And a storyline in that inaugural podcast episode that remained unexplored has been on my mind ever since.

[02:49]

ANTONIJA BUNTAK: Out of those almost 800,000, 145,000 were sold in the U.S. It turned out to be [a] funny and failed idea to sell the Yugo car to the U.S. However, this is what brought Yugo to its fame and glory and now it’s one of the best known cars in history.

I think the biggest problem is that Yugoslavia didn’t understand the U.S. mentality of the 80s and tried to sell this tiny little car that has no power steering, no automatic shift and no AC to the country that had Ford from the 50s—that had AC, automatic, and power steering. So the country that has rode these huge cars with all those advanced technologies, then 30 years later we thought that country and those people would enjoy Yugo. Of course, it was set to fail. However, as I said, if we didn’t have that idea of selling the cars to Americans, Yugo probably would be forgotten and this way it will never be forgotten, it became a legend.

[04:01]

PETER KORCHNAK: So what happened? How exactly did a little car from Yugoslavia become a legend? And what of the Yugo now?

In this, the 50th episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: Yugo goes to America.

But before we get on the road, a word about the sponsors of this journey: you. Yes, it’s you who makes this show go. Thank you and welcome new Patreon sustainers, David and Noah.

If you like what you hear, chip in for the proverbial gas with a donation. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate and contribute today.

[SOUNDBITE – Yugo car commercial, 1986]

The Yugo: Worst Car in History or Decent Appliance?

[04:57]

PETER KORCHNAK: Nothing popularized, or re-popularized, the Yugo better than the book The Yugo: Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History by Jason Vuic. Published in 2010, it’s the story of how the Yugo car came to the United States, how it shone bright and burned even brighter, and how it endures in American pop culture. I heartily recommend it, it’s a great read, very informative, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry… Kind of like listening to this episode.

If the name Vuic sounds Balkan, it’s because it is. His grandparents, surname Vuić, came to the U.S. in 1911 from the Krajina region, near Karlovac, in then Austria-Hungary, now Croatia. Vuic grew up in Florida, his family would travel to their ancestral country, and his relatives from various parts of the former Yugoslavia live up and down the Eastern seaboard.

[05:39]

JASON VUIC: And so for us, Yugoslavia was this broad homeland, you know, it was the old country, and it was just a very positive thing.

[05:46]

PETER KORCHNAK: In the 1990s, during the Milošević era, Vuic lived off and on in Serbia, and later, in the early 2000s, in Croatia. He got a PhD in history from Indiana University. He spoke to me from Fort Worth, Texas.

In the early 2000s, he faced the same conundrum as I did studying the former Yugoslavia: the piles of books about that country in the late 1990s, early 2000s mostly dealt with the country’s violent dissolution. There was very little out there at the time that dealt with Yugoslavia’s popular culture. So he wrote down a list of possible topics—

[06:16]

JASON VUIC: —and then it hit me: the Yugo. Every American over the age of 40, 45 remembers this car. And so I began looking into it and the story was too good to be true.

[SOUNDBITE – Yugo car commercial, 1986]

[06:57]

PETER KORCHNAK: So what is the story? How did the Yugo end up in the United States of America?

[07:52]

JASON VUIC: When Yugoslavia broke from the Soviet Union in ‘48, the United States immediately moved in with most favored nation status, with anything it could do, with low interest loans, with deals with Coca Cola and Boeing and Dow and Westinghouse, you know, anyone that can help keep Tito afloat, do whatever we can do to help the Yugoslavs stay independent of the Soviet Union. So Tito went from being a commie to being a maverick.

The problem was Yugoslavia ran up about $20 billion in debt. They were a little bit profligate. In general, they wasted a lot of the money.

Yugoslavia was desperately in need of hard currency throughout its history. It needed to import computers, it needed to import tools, it needed to import the technology for all of its factories that Tito was so desperate to build to get this communist experiment off the ground, that cost a lot of money. And so you would have to sell your raw goods, your coal from Serbia or anything else that anything would buy in the West in order to pay for these items.

Now, what was Zastava? Zastava was an armaments factory, it was a big industrial concern in Kragujevac.

[08:12]

PETER KORCHNAK: While it no longer produces automobiles, Zastava continues to manufacture weapons to this day. Some of their production, like rifles and machine guns, have been spotted in recent years in Syria, Iraq, and the Sahel region of Africa.

[08:23]

JASON VUIC: And so concerns like Zastava, big industrial concerns employing thousands, desperately needed hard currency. Zastava has to buy rubber, it has to import the rubber, but it’s not going to pay for that rubber in dinars, it’s got to pay in dollars, it’s gotta pay in marks. And so companies like Zastava, many companies, were trying to sell their goods on the world market. And so Zastava was looking to sell its cars. Really, no one at Zastava thought America was possible. 1984, 1985, right, Tito’s gone, things are not getting better, things are getting worse. You start to see national problems popping up. So this is a bad time.

You have to think about communist countries and developing countries, that don’t make cars and that don’t have oil. Imagine what just one car means in terms of hard currency leaving the country. And so these communist countries were desperate to produce their own cars. And it’s very expensive. And so one way to do that was to import dated technology from countries that were producing cars, companies that were producing cars that no longer needed the older cars. And so Fiat began making deals with East European countries, giving them the stamping machines, the printing presses, you know, all the things you need to produce the Fića, for example, or the Yugo, in exchange for future orders of parts, or for other items that could then be given to Fiat—Fiat was a huge conglomerate—that can then be sold and it might not even be car parts. Bartering was very, very important in the communist world, and very, very important in the developing world. The first Yugos were shipped to Central America for bananas.

Besides the fact that your citizenry wants to be mobile, that a developing country needs to start building roads, better roads. And so the automobile was central to the rise of communist Yugoslavia, the mobility of Yugoslavs.

And so that’s where the Yugo comes from: from this desire of the Yugoslavia to be mobile, but to produce a car and not lose the hard currency to the west.

It’s interesting, too, that unlike in the United States, you didn’t have competitors. So when Zastava made a car there was no one else making a car that would compete with the Fića, with the Yugo, and various other cars, the 101. And so the Yugo and those cars were simple appliances that you would learn how to fix yourself. And so from the very beginning, these cars weren’t very good. They were poor copies, poorer copies of not very good cars from Italy. I mean, they weren’t bad cars. They were appliances. The Yugo didn’t have a stereo, it didn’t even have a glove box. And so, this was the type of car that was made by Zastava. There was no sense that we have to be in tune with the market and market needs. The idea is to make as many of these cars as people need and hopefully then we can start exporting these things, to again make hard currency.

At that same time, you had this great industrialist, Armand Hammer. Armand Hammer was the owner of Occidental Petroleum. And Occidental was famous for going around the Eastern Bloc making deals, usually deals that didn’t come of anything. Armand Hammer saw himself as this big international friend of East and West. And he first came together with Zastava and Genex, about possibly drilling for oil in the Adriatic and in exchange for his expenditures being given thousands of Yugos, thousands of Yugos which he would have to sell. He realized that was a losing effort.

Then it went on to another small time, actually a Czech car guy in Los Angeles, who had a small agreement with Zastava to maybe bring over a few cars to see if that would work.

And then finally, it fell to a man named Malcolm Bricklin. And this is where communism and crazy entrepreneurial capitalism meet and form the basis of this wild story. Malcolm Bricklin.

[12:31]

PETER KORCHNAK: Born in 1939, Malcolm Bricklin is an American serial entrepreneur. He has started over 30 companies, mostly in the automotive industry. By all accounts, including Vuic’s in the book, he has boundless energy. Morgan Spurlock has noted Bricklin “goes nonstop” and that he’s “testosterone unleashed, a brilliant negotiator, and an incredible character.” The Rolling Stone magazine has described him as “brash, bombastic, and pathologically prone to betting the farm on pie-in-the-sky automotive endeavors.” And according to the Autoweek magazine, Bricklin’s mind “works like a machine gun.”

[13:03]

JASON VUIC: Bricklin was a wheeler dealer. He’s been studied in business schools in the United States as a serial entrepreneur.

I never saw him as someone who was trying to rip anyone off. I saw him as so utterly invested in his idea that he would move mountains to do it. But the moment that idea failed, he was gone to the next idea.

Bricklin sold jukeboxes in the 60s and he sold scooters and those scooters led to Fuji in Japan and those scooters led to Subaru. And so he was the founder of Subaru of America, he brought over these really dinky little cars called the Subaru 360s. I made fun of them in the book. I got hate mail from Subaru 360 owners. Car owners are as loyal as Balkan nationalists are loyal to flags.

Anyway, the Super 360 came over. It was a failure. Bricklin, though, was forced out. He was given a little bit of money, he was given some cars, and he moved on to the next thing. And that was a gullwing door sports car, and it was called the Bricklin, a funky seventies disco car, it’s really cool. And it really wasn’t a good car. It didn’t work. And Bricklin never had the money and he went out of business again. And so he founded, in the early 80s, an import company to bring over Pininfarinas and Bertone cars, and they were failing.

So he’s had this global experience of bringing over cars and he’s running out of money, and he is in England, he’s got about a month left, 90 days, to bring over a car and he’s trying to bring over the Aston, one of the Aston Minis or Rovers, and that fails and he and his crew were walking down a London street and they see a Yugo, J-U-G-O. And Bricklin was like, What is this Jugo? And they look at it like, “It’s clearly a Fiat, maybe we could bring this car over.”

Part of the Yugo exploding was Malcolm Bricklin making an arrangement, getting some investors, he has a dealer network already set up, but he doesn’t have a lot of money. And he gets the Yugo for about $2,000 a car.

[15:07]

PETER KORCHNAK: In his book, Vuic extensively covers how the Americans worked with the Yugoslavs at Zastava to alter the Yugo for the American market. It was truly a clash of cultures, capitalism versus self-managing socialism. As Bricklin allegedly put it, “We took this piece-of-crap car and within 14 months had made 528 changes to the car and set up 400 U.S. dealers.” (AP reported the high was 340 dealers.)

[15:31]

JASON VUIC: The cars come over.

[15:32]

PETER KORCHNAK: –marketed under the name Yugo GV, which stood for Great Value, with a range of lettered trims, two different engines, and three different transmissions. There was also a cabrio convertible.

[15:41]

JASON VUIC: And Bricklin is now selling the Yugo and he’s got great ads–

[SOUNDBITE – Yugo car commercial 1986]

[16:16]

JASON VUIC: –and he’s got great guys working with him. And he just talks and talks and talks and sells and sells and all three major networks in America—in those days, we only had three big networks—all three covered the arrival of the Yugo I mean, did long stories. They were waiting lists for Yugos, there were lines at Yugo dealerships.

[SOUNDBITE – news item]

[16:46

JASON VUIC: My parents and I, we didn’t really want one, we didn’t need a little economy car, but we drove a hundred miles to go look at one.

So the country was taken over by Yugomania. And that’s what they called it, CNN they called it Yugomania, Car and Driver, Road and Track, the biggest publications covered it, Automotive News, it was the biggest story of the day, the Yugo coming to the United States.

[17:13]

PETER KORCHNAK: “Remember this date,” Mark Knepper of Motor Trend wrote on August 16, 1985. “That was the day scores of otherwise rational consumers went into a feeding frenzy at dealerships in the Northeast, attacking at first light, waving…fistfuls of money and first-born children in a fury that cowed even veteran salesmen.”

What was fascinating to me was how the Yugo, the arrival of the Yugo, basically established or maybe re-established the small economic car market, at the very bottom of the market. And so then, these carmakers realize there is a market here and then pile on and then of course spells doom for the Yugo in the end.

[SOUNDBITE – news item]

[18:02]

JASON VUIC: When I was a kid in the 70s, there were a lot of little dinky Toyotas and Hondas and Datsuns, cars that would literally fall apart but the engines would last and last and last.

Reagan did a really stupid thing, Ford and the in the Big Three automotive makers did a really stupid thing. They were angry that the Japanese were cutting into their profits, they were angry that the small end of the market, which wasn’t profitable for Detroit, was getting eaten up by the Japanese. And so they wanted to limit the number of Japanese cars that came to the United States. Well, the Japanese aren’t stupid, they’re phenomenal businessmen. They thought to themselves, why are we sending over a Civic when we could send over a far better car, a bigger car? Why don’t we compete in the mid-market where the money is. And so from the time I was a kid to the time I was in high school Japanese cars became really nice. And they became the cars that middle class people wanted to own. And then they moved even further upmarket, with Acura, Infinity, these things. And so once the Japanese were forced to move upmarket, there were no cheap cars at the bottom.

And so the Yugo arrived in a vacuum. There was a period there when you could not buy a new car for, I don’t know what, under eight, nine, ten thousand dollars. The Yugo was $3,990 when it got off the boat, $3,990.

[19:21]

PETER KORCHNAK: That’s about $10,300 today. The cheapest new car you can buy today is Chevrolet Spark for $13,600.

[SOUNDBITE – news item, customers appreciating price in a Yugo showroom]

[20:06]

JASON VUIC: The Yugo wasn’t sold in every American state. It wasn’t sold in California until ‘86. The car came out in August ‘85 in the East. Most Americans had never seen the Yugo. Most Americans to this day have never seen or driven or sat in a Yugo.

There were only 150,000 sold–

[20:25]

PETER KORCHNAK: 141,651 to be exact. Sales peaked in 1987, at 48,812 Yugos, the low came in the car’s final year in the U.S., 1992, at 1,412.

[20:38]

JASON VUIC: This was a tiny percentage of the American market.

[20:41]

PETER KORCHNAK: Between 1985 and 1992, 115 million light vehicles were sold in the U.S. Hyundai sold 169,000 units of its Yugo competitor Excel in 1986 alone.

[20:53]

JASON VUIC: So what Americans knew was on the news and in the media.

[SOUNDBITE – Yugo car commercial, 1986]

[21:26]

JASON VUIC: Americans love bargains, Americans love to show that they’ve got a bargain. They love bargain shopping, they love Walmart, they love second hand shopping, right? They’re proud of it. But they don’t want things that are cheap, cheaply made. They want things that are cheap in terms of cost and price but not cheap in terms of quality. And so the Yugo just was a 60s era design built in the 70s. So this is a late 70s car that’s now competing with Americans’ expectations for what imports look like in Civics and Preludes and Accords. These were some of the nicest cars in the world. And so once people saw the quality of the Yugo, you know, cheap plastic, door handles breaking in your hands, loud, it was a very loud car, one of the loudest cars sold in America. Even as a kid, I remember at 13 years old getting in the car going, “Wow, this is cheap.” It was as Spartan and utilitarian a car as Americans had seen in decades.

[SOUNDBITE – news item, Yugo car review]

[22:46]

JASON VUIC: I’ve been all over former Yugoslavia in a Yugo, it never bothered me in the slightest. It was a car. I was happy to not be on a bus for once. But at the same time, Americans don’t want that. It was just not understood by Zastava.

[23:00]

PETER KORCHNAK: The other thing that was fascinating to me, from just again pop culture standpoint, is how quickly the Yugo went from being object of a mania to being basically the worst car in the world.

[23:11]

JASON VUIC: The turning point to the car was that in ‘86 Consumer Reports magazine reviewed the Yugo. In the old days, 70s and 80s, three and a half million subscribers a month would read Consumer Reports. And whole companies would collapse when Consumer Reports gave them bad reviews. When I was 16, my dad said, “We’re gonna go look for a used car for you, go get Consumer Reports.”

I actually found the man in charge of car reviews for Consumer Reports and I spoke with him. And he said, it was an old Fiat, there was nothing wrong with it. They said it’s not a very good car. It’s not put together very well. But the question is, is it worth $3,990? Is it better to buy a good used car or a new Yugo? And they said, “No, it’s better to buy a good used car.” Meaning a Honda Civic, a Toyota Tercel.

That was it. And once that hit, the sales collapsed.

[24:04]

PETER KORCHNAK: The Consumer Reports review noted the Yugo’s acceleration from 0 to 60 miles per hour at 18.5 seconds (by the way, 1986 Hyundai Excel did the same in 13.5 seconds, and the 2021 Chevy Spark in 15 seconds). The engine “struggled and strained to climb highway grades in high gear;” the transmission was “easily the worst” the reviewing team “encountered in years;” and the interior was “covered with cloth that resembles towel material.”

Other reviews weren’t that much more generous.

[SOUNDBITES – Yugo reviews]

[25:46]

JASON VUIC: It had nothing to do with the politics of it. That’s the odd thing. It had nothing to do with communism or Yugoslavia, the average person had no idea where Yugoslavia was. When it went down, it had nothing to do with the fact that it was produced by a communist country.

I assumed before I started the book that it had something to do with the CIA pushing a Yugoslav product or the State Department. I mean, they were all there in the background. But they were pushing other things. It was Bricklin and Zastava, once they met, they wanted to bring this car to the U.S. and they tried incredibly hard to do it.

You know, it hit me one day that I was telling the story of a communist-made car sold in Ronald Reagan’s America. How was that possible? And when I looked it up, it was completely possible because no one cared. No one cared, they cared about the car and the quality of the car. And it was a consumer fad.

[SOUNDBITE – Yugo car commercial, 1987]

[27:08]

JASON VUIC: And then the late night hosts got involved. Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, David Letterman, and then that led to other comedians…

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Through the Doors of the Circus” by Ergo Phizmiz]

[27:16]

PETER KORCHNAK: There were jokes about Yugo’s speed:

How do you make a Yugo faster? Use a tow truck.

[SOUND EFFECT – joke drum]

How do you make a Yugo go from 0 to 60 in less than 15 seconds? Push it off a cliff.

[SOUND EFFECT – joke drum]

Jokes about its safety:

The Yugo comes with an airbag. You also need a bicycle pump so if you see an accident coming, you better start pumping!

[SOUND EFFECT – joke drum]

Why are Yugo drivers like corned beef? They both come in tin cans.

[SOUND EFFECT – joke drum]

Jokes about its reliability:

What comes with every Yugo user’s manual? The bus schedule.

[SOUND EFFECT – joke drum]

What’s the difference between a Yugo and a golf ball? You can drive a golf ball 200 yards.

[SOUND EFFECT – joke drum]

What do you call a Yugo that breaks down after 100 miles? An overachiever.

[SOUND EFFECT – joke drum]

Jokes about its features:

Yugo has come out with a very clever anti-theft device. They made their name bigger.

[SOUND EFFECT – joke drum]

What do you call passengers in a Yugo? Shock absorbers.

[SOUND EFFECT – joke drum]

How do you double the value of your Yugo? Fill the gas tank.

[SOUND EFFECT – joke drum]

What do you call a Yugo with brakes? Customized.

[SOUND EFFECT – joke drum]

[SOUNDBITE – Midas commercial]

[28:33]

JASON VUIC: And pretty soon the Yugo works its way into television, into movies.

[28:37]

PETER KORCHNAK: The Yugo makes a semi-serious appearance in the 1987 film Dragnet, starring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks.

[SOUNDBITE – clip from Dragnet, 1987]

In Episode 6 of Season 5 of the TV show Moonlighting, Bruce Willis’s character gets a Yugo as a present from his business partner and employees.

[SOUNDBITE – clip 1 from Moonlighting Season 5 episode 6, 1989]

A chase scene is what Bruce Willis gets later on in the episode, when a suspect steals the Yugo at a funeral and ends up swerving into an open grave. Bruce Willis then tosses a red rose on the car in mock grief and delivers the punch line.

[SOUNDBITE – clip 2 from Moonlighting, Season 5 episode 6, 1989]

It was actually just a week before this episode of Moonlighting aired in February 1989 that Yugo America Incorporated filed for bankruptcy.

And later that year, on September 22nd, 1989 Leslie Ann Pluhar, a 31-year-old waitress from Royal Oak, Michigan, drove her Yugo off the Mackinac Bridge, which connects that state’s mainland and the Upper Peninsula, and fell to her death 170 feet, or 52 meters, below. It took 8 days to find the mangled car in the 100-foot deep waters of the Straits of Mackinac.

Rather than Pluhar speeding, over four times the recommended limit, and losing control of the car, maybe with the help of a gust, the incident lives in memory as that of a lightweight Yugo getting swept off the bridge by high winds. It didn’t help the car’s reputation.

The Yugo, again unnamed, makes an appearance in another chase scene, in the 1994 film The Crow, where again a baddie steals it and has something to say when the car breaks down.

[SOUNDBITE – clip from The Crow, 1994]

Bruce Willis took a spin in a Yugo the following year, in Die Hard with a Vengeance, along with Samuel L. Jackson. The duo is chasing bad guys around New York and they commandeer a Yugo to do so.

[SOUNDBITE – clip from Die Hard with a Vengeance, 1995]

The Yugo got its biggest role in 2000, in Drowning Mona, starring Casey Affleck, Neve Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Danny DeVito, and Bette Midler, with Will Farrell making a delightful cameo.

[SOUNDBITE – clip from Drowning Mona trailer, 2000]

Every car in the movie, save for the police vehicle and a main character’s landscaping pickup, is a Yugo. The Yugo actually goes unnamed in the fun little flick.

[SOUNDBITE – clip from Drowning Mona trailer, 2000]

And in 2011, Disney’s holiday film Good Luck Charlie: It’s Christmas, features a Yugo as a classic punchline when two characters on their way to a Christmas reunion get stranded in the middle of nowhere.

[SOUNDBITE – clip from Good Luck Charlie: It’s Christmas, 2011]

The mother-daughter duo wake up in the car, which promptly falls apart before their eyes.

[SOUNDBITE – clip from Good Luck Charlie: It’s Christmas, 2011]

Long story short, since its arrival in the U.S. in 1985 the Yugo has been a pop culture phenomenon, albeit one that went from fad to farce in the proverbial 18.5 seconds.

[SOUNDBITE – clip from Good Luck Charlie: It’s Christmas, 2011]

[33:55]

JASON VUIC: In America in the 80s you were what you wore and you were what you drove. This is Tommy Hilfiger and Guess and Gucci and Mercedes. And this is the era of shop til drop and flaunt it if you got it and no one wanted to be caught dead— no young person–and those are the buyers of economy cars in America–no young person when I was in high school wanted to be caught dead in a Yugo. I would have walked 10 miles to prom rather than drive in a Yugo. There’s nothing wrong with the car, it’s just the marketing of the car and the buyers of the car.

Other little dinky cars came. The Yugo was Fiat 127 and the Fiat 128 put together. Those cars came to America and no one made fun of them. No one laughed at Fiat. I mean, you know, they say Fix It Again, Tony as a joke, but no one really cared when Daewoo and Daihatsu and all these companies failed. These little cars just don’t work in America, it’s American pop culture.

[SOUNDBITE – Yugo car commercial, 1987]

[35:21]

PETER KORCHNAK: Not until the late 1990s did Jay Leno find another automobile make to pan: Hyundai.

They’re like the Olympic luge: three-foot-long vehicles that have to be pushed to get started and only go downhill.

[SOUND EFFECT – joke drum]

After Korean automakers entered the US market in the 1980s, they soon acquired a reputation for bad quality. My wife still remembers her first car, the erstwhile Yugo competitor Hyundai Excel, as the worst car that she and anyone she knows ever had.

A 2001 survey of 95,000 “Car Talk” fans—this is the famous National Public Radio show hosted by Click and Clack, the Tappett Brothers—gave Korean cars three of the top four spots on its list of the worst cars in America. “For now Korean is still America’s favorite synonym for lemon,” commented the Newsweek.

Just a year earlier “Car Talk” listeners made a different sort of statement in a poll.

[SOUNDBITE – Clip from “Car Talk” radio show]

[37:01]

PETER KORCHNAK: Vuic’s book came out a decade later, so the verdict had already been cast.

The big huge question is: was the Yugo really the worst car in history?

[37:10]

JASON VUIC: In the United States, the Yugo, in the 1980s, was uniformly widely known as the worst car in the world. Okay, now, was that fair? When I started the book, I didn’t know. But when I wrote this, it came out in Serbia, I got hate mail. I got nasty letters, written letters, not emails. And I’m like, read the book, man.

The bottom line is that the Yugo was sold in the United States, which means it was absolutely not one of the worst cars in history. The fact that it passed US emission standards, the fact that it passed crash standards, means that the Yugo was better than a huge number of cars produced around the world. Peugeot left the American market century, Citroen didn’t try, Fiat left the American market, the Yugo came. So that alone shows that it was a decent appliance.

The Yugo was not the worst car in history. It was sold in the United States. Even Mercedes would design these cars first and foremost for Germany and then they would want to sell them in the United States and they would have to have enormous expenditures of money and know-how and engineering to get the cars up to our emission standards. The Yugo made it on the American market. No other communist car made it, and the Yugo figured out how to do it.

[38:30]

PETER KORCHNAK: Which aroused some feelings in Yugoslavia.

[38:32]

JASON VUIC: I find it fascinating how Yugoslavia briefly inserted itself into the world automotive conversation with this Yugo car and how people in Yugoslavia were really excited. I have a number of old Yugoslav car magazines from all over the country. And they were just incredibly excited. They were so proud, so proud that they could enter the American market because many countries could never do it. Many countries with cars could never do it. Fiat had left the American market, now the Yugoslavs are gonna try? Good luck with that.

And there was an optimism there that I hadn’t seen since the optimism of the 60s and the 70s. There was some hope that Yugoslavia can make it, that look at us, Tito’s gone but look at us.

[39:21]

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “I Drive a Yugo” by Leftwing Fascists]

Driving a Yugo Car in Norfolk, Virginia

[41:37]

AL STAGGS: My name is Big Al Staggs. And about 33 years ago–it was the summer of 1987 to be exact–I had written a song called “I Drive a Yugo.”

It was really the second song that I ever really wrote in my life. At the time, I was in college, in Norfolk, Virginia, and there was a punk rock club called The Corner. And they had an open mic night, and I had a roommate, and we had written a song and we went up there to improv it. And at the end of that, the sound engineer–he turned out to be the my sound engineer that toured when we went on the road with the Ramones many years later–ran up to me and says, “If you come back, we’ll record you.” So that following week, we came back and we were on the stage and we only knew a couple of songs. You know, we were making stuff up as we go.

And one of my college buddies for whatever reason, he said and this was his quote, “Write about that piece of shit car Yugo,” is what he said. That’s exactly what he said. That was the exact quote, his name was Leo, I’ll never forget him.

And I said okay. And the guitar player busted out three chords and I proceeded to tell a story and I have all kinds of exciting adventures in the song. It was completely improved that night.

We went in the studio and actually recorded it and then we sent it out to the local radio station. They were like, “This is a great song,” and they put it in rotation. So I was on the radio three to four times a day with this song and I have to be honest with you, it’s really hard to believe that the song did as well as it did over the years. And then next thing you know, the Yugo was intertwined in my life.

So the song actually got me signed to a record deal about a year later.

[43:20]

PETER KORCHNAK: The band is Leftwing Fascists, the album is Mother’s Nightmare, and it can be yours, along with its first track, “I Drive a Yugo.” If you live in the U.S. and own a Yugo car with a tape player, Staggs will give you a cassette of Mother’s Nightmare. You only have to cover the mailing costs. Simply email a photo of your Yugo to yugo@rememberingyugoslavia.com, and we’ll take it from there.

[43:41]

AL STAGGS: The record company decided to buy us a Yugo when we did our record release. A friend of mine had one that was on its last leg, I remember it was white. And they bought– the record company bought it for $100. So they bought us this Yugo and they decided that they were going to put it in the middle of the concert venue. The concert venue was a good concert venue back then, it’s no longer there, it was called the Boathouse. And it was out on the water. They put this car in the middle of the Boathouse entrance inside and we got to spray paint it, you know, with all this fluorescent spray paint, you know, looked like a bunch of skateboarders had ridden ride across it, and it was totally insane. And there it was. The show did great. You know, we sold a lot of units that night. It was a successful concert. And after we left, we left the car there.

So the rumor has it is that the stage guys and the bouncers got tired of it being in there. And this was on the Elizabeth River. So one day they decided to pick up the car and they threw it right off the pier into the Elizabeth River.

[44:47]

PETER KORCHNAK: Where it rests, till today.

[44:49]

AL STAGGS: Well, I thought it rested today until when they tore the building down, they had to go in and completely dredge around the actual boathouse, you know, with the piering and they did find it and they dug it up and they pulled it out of the water.

It’s no longer around now. But you know, there was all kinds of crabs and stuff in it, barnacles all over the seats.

[45:14]

PETER KORCHNAK: “I Drive a Yugo” remains the Leftwing Fascists’ best known song.

[45:18]

AL STAGGS: The song did some notoriety and we started doing some traveling. It’s really another crazy quick story. Is we were driving on our way to play a big show and in a town about seven hours away and my truck broke down and the police came and gave some of us a ride but it just so happens that our friend Eleanor was in a Yugo and she came pulling up on the interstate behind us. We actually got saved by that red Yugo, I’ll never forget it. She gave us rides to the hotel because we never made the show. So I’ve been saved by a Yugo and I’ve watched a Yugo get sunk [LAUGHS].

What’s really interesting to me is the amount of people that reach out to me and say, Hey, I drove one of those.

[SOUNDBITE – Yugo car commercial, 1987]

[46:33]

PETER KORCHNAK: I learned about the song from Vuic’s book.

[46:35]

AL STAGGS: I was in a Goodwill or Salvation Army, you know, one of these secondhand goods stores. I looked and I saw that book. And I was like, “What in the world?” And just out of curiosity, I bought it for $1 because I thought, “Wow, this is really cool.” And I don’t know, but I just happened to flip through it and I believe it was like that eighth or ninth page in, he’s talking about Leftwing Fascists. And I was just so taken aback that we made this book, you know. You know, it’s just crazy how the group is associated with the car.

It’s amazing to be a part of this subculture and to still have legs so many years later, this song. You know to give an example, I wrote a song called about Kmart, you know, when Kmart went out of business and no one no one talks about Kmart or brings my song up the way that they do with the Yugo. So that tells you something right there that the Yugo is way more important than Kmart was in our history here in the States.

I still get a pretty good royalty check for that song. It averages and averages a few 100 plays a week or a month on Spotify and Apple. People continue to play the song constantly.

[47:47]

PETER KORCHNAK: Staggs still performs, in fact he has a new album coming out soon, so check it and the past releases out on Apple or YouTube (I’ve included the links in the episode’s transcript at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast).

For his day job nowadays, Staggs is a high school economics and personal finance teacher.

[48:03]

AL STAGGS: What I used to do–this was terrible—but when I would see it in parking lots I would put Leftwing Fascists stickers on them, on the bumper. I thought it was cool.

[48:11]

PETER KORCHNAK: Some high level vandalism right there.

[48:14]

AL STAGGS: Yeah, unfortunately I have not seen any in the parking lots in quite some time, you know, which is sad but I haven’t seen one on the road, no sir. I would like that very much.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – “I Drive a Yugo” (Part II) by Leftwing Fascists]

[50:14]

PETER KORCHNAK: In 1995 the artist Kevin O’Callaghan asked his students and alumni at the New York School of Visual Arts to make artworks out of defunct Yugo cars.

“Take a Yugo and turn it into something useful,” went the brief. “Give it a new life other than the one it was intended to have.”

All in all, twenty-nine Yugos purchased for a total of $3,600 dollars became art pieces.

A cinema. A shower stall. A confessional. A fireplace. A foosball table. A cigarette lighter. A post office box. A shooting range. A telephone. A slot machine. A submarine. A subway car. A toaster. The artists transformed the Yugo into all of these things…and more.

[SOUNDBITE – Celia Landegger, “Yugo Next” Coordinator, Interview on C-SPAN, 1995]

After the vernissage at New York’s Grand Central Terminal, the show “Yugo Next” went on a 28-city tour around the U.S. and Canada. The National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, DC described “Yugo Next” as “one of the greatest ever examples of public art.”

Driving a Yugo Car in Minneapolis, Minnesota

The same year, the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group released their debut album, Oh Brother Where Art Thou? Track number two: “My Bloody Yugo.”

[51:38]

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – Excerpt of “My Bloody Yugo” Legendary Jim Ruiz Group]

[51:55]

PETER KORCHNAK: I tracked Jim Ruiz down in Minneapolis where he works as a librarian.

You wrote, performed, recorded a song about a Yugo. So tell me about the song, how the song come about, why did it come about, where did it come from?

[52:07]

JIM RUIZ: I had a Yugo. And I was thinking about death and and how this Yugo could live longer than I would. And I just thought it was kind of funny.

A lot about that first record is about death.

[52:22]

PETER KORCHNAK: This sprang from a personal experience of a loved one’s death, not from driving his Yugo, Ruiz clarified.

[52:27]

JIM RUIZ: It did have that reputation as being a death trap. It wasn’t considered that safe, but I was just in love with it. So I didn’t care about that. I drove that Yugo across the United States, you know, so it was a great car. I drove from Minnesota to San Diego on that thing. I think I drove back and forth from to the west coast a couple times in it. And it was just a great car. I loved driving it.

Yeah, and I nearly died in that Yugo actually yeah, I was driving, it was on one of these cross country trips, and I don’t know if I was in the mountains or near the mountains, but it was just pouring rain. And I could barely see and then I saw this a large deer jump over the front of my car. I couldn’t believe that happened. It was like, Did that just happen? I mean, that thing would have gone right through the windshield if I hit that thing, you know? So it was a close call. That was a close call.

[53:19]

PETER KORCHNAK: Why did you buy it?

[53:20]

JIM RUIZ: Probably 90, 91, I bought it. First, I looked in the Blue Book, just find out what car had the absolute lowest resale value. Then I’ll get it for cheap. And so it came down to– there are two cars. One was the Chrysler K car. And then there was the Yugo. I went to see Yugo first. And I remember the moment I opened the hood. And I saw the full-size spare. And I saw the size of the radiator. And I thought, this is insane. I love this. I was just sold. I was like, Oh my God, I’ve never seen anything like this. And it was so cool.

I thought I was just getting a cheap car, but I was getting a really good car. I didn’t realize it. It just handled really good. I mean, it was just light. It was so simple.

I guess it got a lot of reactions when you’re driving a Yugo, like a lot of people reacted to you.

[54:12]

PETER KORCHNAK: This one time in the mountains of Idaho–

[54:14]

JIM RUIZ: I pulled in a gas station. And I got out of the car and this guy comes tearing out of the gas station. He’s like, “What is that?” He’d never seen anything like this.

Yeah, it was kind of a statement to own one of those things. It was, yeah, he got it. He got some grief about it sometimes. But I didn’t care.

It was probably the most un-American car you could drive. I remember I was considering becoming a house painter. And the teacher didn’t like it. He didn’t like that I had a Yugo, he didn’t like that I had a foreign car. But I was willing to entertain in my mind that maybe an auto worker and Yugoslavia had a better life than an auto worker in Detroit.

[54:53]

PETER KORCHNAK: You speak in the past tense, so I’m guessing you don’t have the Yugo. When did you get rid of the Yugo or what happened with the Yugo?

[54:59]

JIM RUIZ: I didn’t want to get rid of the Yugo. What happened was it threw a rod. One of the rods failed and it the piston smashed the top of the cylinder, so it was totaled.

Cars in Minnesota rust, so it wasn’t gonna last forever, that’s for sure. I probably had a good three, four years before that happened.

[55:17]

PETER KORCHNAK: Is it the snow?

[55:19]

JIM RUIZ: It’s the salt on the snow.

[55:21]

PETER KORCHNAK: A car from a southeast European country wasn’t equipped for Minnesota winters.

[55:25]

JIM RUIZ: But it did have just these great tiny tires, which meant that I could get really cheap tires. So I was just in heaven when I got new tires.

I did have another Yugo. A friend of mine was also into Yugos and he sold me a red Yugo but that one had a sad short life. I didn’t attach to that one.

[55:46]

PETER KORCHNAK: Like Staggs, Ruiz is quite amazed at the endurance of his Yugo song.

[55:50]

JIM RUIZ: It’s funny how that song has probably been used more than any of my other songs, like they played it at a Twins baseball game, they used the horn part. It was on Click and Clack on NPR radio.

It’s so weird what happens when you write a song like 25 years later I’m talking to someone about it, it’s just insane.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – Excerpt from “My Bloody Yugo” by Legendary Jim Ruiz Group]

Driving the Yugo Car in Columbus, Ohio

[56:25]

PETER KORCHNAK: What also endures is the Yugo itself.

In Columbus, Ohio, Valerie Hansen is on her fourth Yugo. Previously she had an ‘86, an ‘87, and a ‘91 Yugo, all of which she had to sell because she ran out of space in her garage. At least one of those Yugos still roams the roads of Ohio, in the hands of a Serbian immigrant, Hansen told me. The Yugo she has now is a yellow 1984 Yugo 45. Hansen bought her Yugo in 2019 from a car parts supplier friend when she was looking for parts for another car.

[56:55]

VALERIE HANSEN: This may possibly be the only real Zastava Yugo in the United States. Mine was imported from Serbia in 2012.

I spent way too much money rebuilding the engine, it’s a 903 cc engine. But anyway, money is no object. It’s all about bringing him back.

In rebuilding the engine for my Zastava, parts were coming from Serbia. I swear to god, my carburetor was stuck on that boat that got wedged in the Suez Canal. No, I’m not kidding you. Six months. Six months, Peter. This is dedication.

[57:44]

PETER KORCHNAK: Hansen owns a number of other vehicles, an ex-ice racing ‘97 Honda Civic, two 2nd generation VW Beetles, an ‘82 VW Rabbit pickup, and a ‘96 Toyota Previa minivan. But none of them inspires more passion than the Yugo. In fact she’s looking into buying another specimen right now. “They’re like Pringles,” she says, “you can’t have just one.”

Hansen sees her Yugomania, which she funds from her pet-grooming business, as a logical progression of her upbringing in a family of gearheads with Balkan roots. And it has a simple yet profound explanation.

[58:16]

VALERIE HANSEN: The Yugos were misunderstood. They were underdogs. They were the ones that everyone counted against, and I identified with that. At the time that the Yugo came about, it just made me feel at home. I’ve had Renaults, Citroens, but it’s more than a car, it’s an idealism, it’s the will to survive.

Americans never got it. In the era that the Yugo came out, it was big horsepower, it was V8s, it was Shelby GT 350s. The Yugo came out, it was cheap, it was affordable, and it was a workhorse. But I feel like the American people never embraced it. They never gave it the care that it needed.

Come the apocalypse, what do you want to get stuck in, a Yugo that you can self serv[ic]e or a Tesla that you need 16 pages of schematics to work on and where’s the grid gonna be when you need to charge?

[59:32]

PETER KORCHNAK: “You can fix a Yugo with a butter knife and a rubber band,” Hansen told the New York Times back in June.

[59:38]

VALERIE HANSEN: Compared to the Pinto, the Yugo is a Ferrari. Now I’ve had a Pinto. I’ve had a Yugo. Trust me, the Yugo is way safer.

Comparable to the cars of that era, I think that Yugo outperformed them. All you had to do was basic maintenance. They were so cheap that the Americans thought they were disposable cars and they never did the maintenance.

And then they got the bad name. They’re unreliable. You know, you don’t want to be seen, you don’t want to pick up your prom date in one. It’s just not right.

Peter, here’s what I want to know: Why does Jay Leno hate on the Yugo so much?

PETER KORCHNAK: You should ask him.

VALERIE HANSEN: Jay if you hear me, we’re coming for you, like me and two of my friends are gonna drive out there, we’re going to do a run off with the Tatra.

[01:00:47]

PETER KORCHNAK: What do people say who don’t have any connections to Yugoslavia or to the Yugo? Do they just say oh this is this piece of crap car that you restored or they look down on you, do they admire you for your fortitude?

[01:00:59]

VALERIE HANSEN: Basically they’re like, why did you spend so much money on this? If you have to ask, you don’t understand. It’s a symbol of, we will survive regardless.

They’re amazing cars. You take care of the Yugo, they take care of you.

[01:01:19]

PETER KORCHNAK: “The most important reason I love the Yugo,” Hansen later wrote me in a direct message, “is that it’s a survivor. The Yugo has survived more than I will ever encounter. It’s as much about the enduring spirit of the people as the car itself.” In other words, Yugo has survived even though Yugoslavia is gone. She continued, “When I drive the Yugo, as I look through the windshield I try to imagine what all the people before me witnessed through the same windshield.”

[01:01:42]

PETER KORCHNAK: Did you name your Yugo?

VALERIE HANSEN: Of course.

PETER KORCHNAK: What’s his name?

VALERIE HANSEN: Peter, come on now. It’s Tito. Tito!

[LAUGHTER]

PETER KORCHNAK: That’s fantastic.

Here in the U.S., I’ve never seen a Yugo in real life, only in the digital space, for example in the Yugo America Chat/Talk/Buy/Sell group. Recent posts there include photos of a restored ‘88 GV driving again for the first time since 1989. A damaged red Yugo for sale in Indianapolis and an overpriced fixer in Evansville, Kentucky. Quite a few postings of parts for sale. Some requests for advice on how to fix things. It’s quite a lively space where I would go if I indeed bought myself a Yugo as I jokingly suggested to my wife. Alas, I am the last thing from a gearhead, so I’d need a mint preserved or restored vehicle to consider it.

[01:02:32]

PETER KORCHNAK: We chatted on Facebook that there’s somewhat of a community online at least that centered around Yugos, buying, selling parts, talking about this. What about in your immediate vicinity? Do you know other people with Yugos? Do you hang out? Do you race them, do you do doughnuts with them?

[01:02:49]

VALERIE HANSEN: Well, being front wheel drive, you need a good e brake to drift. But yes, I have quite a few friends. There are quite a few Yugos in my area.

If you are a person that is obsessed with Yugos, drives Yugos, it’s a cult.

The Columbus Cars and Coffees we make a presence there. One of the great things that we did earlier this season, because the Yugos are so special to the Serbian, Yugoslavian, Macedonian culture, we went to the Macedonian festival. And the people when they seen the Yugo pull up, they are proud of it. This is something that they did. And they flocked to the car and the old people were bringing their children like the grandparents to point it out. It was beautiful. And I opened the doors and the little kids were sitting in the Yugo.

I was coming home from work–yes, I daily my Yugo–and I was super light, and this guy pulls up in this BMW, and he rolls down his window, and he was clearly an older gentleman. He’s like, Yugoslavia, in my country. It makes them smile. That’s why we do it.

[01:04:21]

PETER KORCHNAK: Hansen estimates there are about 9 other Yugos in Columbus today.

[01:04:24]

VALERIE HANSEN: In Columbus, Ohio, it’s ridiculous. They’re like secret pockets of Yugo owners. And we go out and we terrorize Subarus that get stuck in the snow, we drive past them. No, I’m not kidding. It’s a real thing.

PETER KORCHNAK: That’s great.

VALERIE HANSEN: But no, they are amazing in the snow.

I have to tell you this. Literally, Columbus Ohio is a crime central of the United States right now. I’m driving home from work and I’ve got this hot rod Honda behind me. I’m driving by a crack house and gun shots break out. I’m not making this up. The Honda’s behind me, I’m in this ‘84 Zastava Yugo, 903ccs raw power. And this guy that got shot in the shoulder pulls out in my lane, and with the swiftness of a hawk we averted tragedy and death. Do that in a Pinto. Tito saved my life.

PETER KORCHNAK: So it’s also bulletproof is what you’re saying?

VALERIE HANSEN: Well, it survived NATO. You have to understand, my car survived the NATO bombings.

[LAUGHTER]

Peter compose yourself, you’re a professional. You need to come to Ohio, I will take you for [a] drive.

PETER KORCHNAK: Alright, it’s a date. So, I am now composed.

VALERIE HANSEN: Okay. I’m going to leave you with this. If the Yugo can survive, our country can survive.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Boli me kurac” by Darien Campo]

[01:06:51]

PETER KORCHNAK: Sean Feichtenbinder takes care of a blue ‘87 Yugo GV in Detroit, Michigan. At his website, YugoAmerica.com, he writes, “The Yugo is similar to a lit-up Waffle House sign in the distance when you’re riding a desolate highway late at night… it doesn’t promise to fulfill all your hopes and dreams, but it does promise to be there for you and nourish you. It’s not a five-star restaurant, but it’ll help you on your journey. It doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not.” Feichtenbinder plans to keep his Yugo running as long as he can drive.

It is thanks to enthusiasts like Hansen and Feichtenbinder and the active members of the Yugo America Facebook group that the legend of the Yugo lives on in the United States. They are the gearhead heroes preserving the legacy of an automobile that helped define and, in a way, preserve a country that no longer exists.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]

[01:08:00]

PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:

WENDY BRACEWEL: There’s a lot of travel writing from the region.

PETER KORCHNAK: Travel writing related to the Balkans tends to originate in the West, with the region as the destination and object. But travel writing by authors from the Balkans is just as plentiful, if not as visible. Who are these Balkan travel writers? What do they write about?

On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, travel writing by Balkan authors.

Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.

[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]

[01:08:40]

PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for riding along. Find additional information, video embeds, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.

Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Ergo Phizmiz, Darien Campo, and Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons.

I am Peter Korchňak.

Ćao!

[SOUNDBITE – Yugo car commercial, 1989]