The perspective taken by Jason Vuic in his book about the Yugo is apparent from its subtitle: ‘The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History’. Clearly this is not going to be an attempt to make a defence for the Yugo’s shortcomings, or to claim that it was unfairly maligned. No, the objective here is to determine why the little Yugoslavian car was so bad, and to analyse why it could never succeed in ’80s America.
So of course, there are plentiful anecdotes about Yugos being poorly assembled in a Serbian factory, breaking down on road tests and gradually acquiring the reputation of being barely preferable to walking.Yet there is also a considered investigation into the context of the Yugo’s appearance in the USA.
The central character is an entrepreneur called Malcolm Bricklin, who has made his living importing cars. However, his track record in this business is erratic at best. Bricklin was the first person to sell Subarus in the USA: this venture ended badly, with the vehicles being declared unsafe and unroadworthy, but the more recent successes of the Subaru brand suggest that he may in fact have been onto something. His next project was importing small Italian sports cars; this was also a failure. Undeterred, Bricklin began the search for a more viable import, and found the Yugo.
Of course, there is comedy in this story. In the early ’80s, the Yugo appeared to Bricklin to be a great business prospect; looking back, we laugh, knowing how fraught with problems the Yugo was. What is generally overlooked is the fact that, for a short time, the Yugo was a successful car. Its big selling point was its price: at its launch it cost just $3,990. This convinced thousands to sign up for the car, and for a while demand outstripped supply, with some customers waiting several months to take delivery of their Yugos.
Even after motoring journalists had panned it and comedians had incorporated it into the routine, many owners remained happy with their cars. While the Yugo appealed only to a certain demographic – those who wanted a brand new car for very little money – it filled a niche in the market that few realised existed.
So where did it all go wrong? Several factors and a combination of misjudgement and misfortune brought about the Yugo’s demise. In order to boost slightly flagging sales, Bricklin negotiated a deal with the Malaysian manufacturer Proton to add their cars to his portfolio of imports. This required backing from Mitsubishi, which provided most of Proton’s components, and at the time that Bricklin invested this remained unsecured. Then there was the unstable political climate of Serbia, which was now suffering at the hands of Slobadan Milošević.
An even more immediate problem was the short lifespan of the American market for tiny cars like the Yugo. Once the oil crisis of the ’70s was forgotten, few car buyers cared much about gas mileage. To have a larger car was to feel safer on America’s aggressive roads – if a Yugo collided with an SUV then the Yugo driver came off worse, so it was considered preferable to have a large, sturdy car. Then there was the status that a big, prestigious car afforded its driver, and in the rabidly consumerist environment of the ’80s, this was perhaps the most important factor in the Yugo’s demise.
While not everyone could afford a Mercedes or a Cadillac, there was also an influx of smaller, cheaper cars that were pitched against the Yugo. None of them were quite as reasonably priced but, in a way, this worked in their favour. They were affordable, but they were a step up from the absolute bottom of the heap. In an era obsessed with status and money, to be the cheapest car on the market may have been detrimental to the Yugo.
From my perspective as a European, one of the major things that this book confirms is America’s lacks of enthusiasm for small cars In Britain in the ’80s and ’90s we had the opportunity to buy not only Yugos but also cars from other east European makes that never made it to the USA, such as Lada, FSO and Skoda. While Skoda has now established itself as a manufacturer of quality cars that equal anything sold by Ford or Toyota, the others have admittedly been pushed out of the market. Yet their demure size was never an issue here – it was their inadequate emissions standards and their poor quality compared to more modern Asian rivals that bothered us Europeans.
The state of the car industry in the developing world is an increasingly important contemporary concern, and therefore Vuic’s book is timely, even though it deals with recent history. The economy of South Korea has progressed rapidly, and its car industry has made significant advances; the market share of brands like Hyundai and Kia is testament to this. We can expect this to be followed by the arrival of new and unfamiliar names from India and China, such as Tata and Geely. If these cars are picked up by the American market, then we can only hope they have more enduring success amongst America’s fickle car consumers than the well-intended but ill-fated Yugo.