A lot of you reading this are probably wondering “What the heck is a Yugo?”
Sit down, gentle person, let me give you a little history lesson.
Zastava, the company that made the Yugo (whose actual name was the Koral) started as an arms manufacturer founded in 1853, but in the 1930s the company moved on to automobile manufacturing and provided the Yugoslav army with trucks that were originally designed by Ford. After World War II, Zastava was permitted to produce Willys-Overland jeeps under license until the production was halted in the 1950s.
Eventually, Zastava branched out to passenger vehicles beginning in 1953 with cars built using licensed designs and permission from Italian automotive giants Fiat. Zastava took Fiat’s popular 128 and then started developing several closely related cars on that chassis.
In the late 1980s, Malcolm Bricklin, an American businessman known for importing Fuji Heavy Industries’ Subaru 360, and eventually the Subaru BRAT pick up truck decided to test the Fiat 127-based Zastava Koral for American roads, after which it officially became known as the Yugo.
Yugo America introduced the Yugo to the American market in 1986, with the base model dubbed the GV (Great Value) costing a mere $3,990 (a bit under $9,000 in today’s money). There was also the GVL which had a slightly plusher interior, but the hottest model was the GVX. And when I say “hottest”, that’s subjective, because even though the “hot” GVX came with the 1.3-liter engine from Zastava’s first passenger car, the Milletrecento (1300) and a five-speed manual gearbox, it still took 13.5 seconds to get from 0-60 mph. For the record, my Smart car can get to 60 faster, and that one has a smaller engine. Exports to the US were eventually halted in 1992 because of the Yugoslav Wars.
Speaking of the engine, most Yugos came with a 1.1 liter carbureted 4 cylinder engine that made around 40 horsepower. For the record, my Smart car makes 61, but its engine is 0.4 liters smaller. Not only is the engine in the Yugo famed for being deathly slow, it is also famed for being one of, if not perhaps the most unreliable engine ever made anywhere. In terms of reliability, it makes the Range Rover look like a Toyota Camry. I am banning all Range Rover owners from complaining about how unreliable their car is until they’ve owned a Yugo.
The first Yugo was introduced in 1977, based on the aforementioned Fiat 127 platform. That model was known as the Yugo 45, and it came with a 0.9 liter carbureted 4 cylinder engine with a mighty 45 horsepower. As I’m sure you can guess, it wasn’t all that fast.
Later on in the Yugo’s life, Zastava introduced models with larger engines with more power, the most powerful one (once again, “powerful” is used subjectively here) was the 65efi, which came with the largest capacity 1.3-liter 4 cylinder with electronic fuel injection. Even then, it wasn’t all that fast.
While the Yugo isn’t all that loved elsewhere in the world, in the Balkans and in all former Yugoslav countries, the Yugo is a cultural icon. If you’re a big fan of the Yugo and you want to go somewhere where you’ll see one every few minutes, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia are the countries you want to visit.
What’s more, because the Yugo was manufactured in the region, owners are never short of spare parts. And what’s even better than that, they’re cheap. Like, really cheap. For the price of a small, not highly significant part of the car you own, you can have an entire Yugo that actually runs and drives! Going back to the Range Rover comparison, fixing a Range Rover will drain your bank account to its last leg, but Yugos are not only stupidly simple to repair but spare parts aren’t all that hard to find.
But, in the luxury and creature comfort department, the Range Rover has the edge on the Slav icon. To put things politely, the Yugo wasn’t the best in the creature comforts department.
However, because the Yugo was so easy and cheap to fix, at least in its homeland, people started doing exciting things with them, namely, turning them into race cars. Street races and hill climb races in the Balkans are guaranteed to feature at least several Yugos with loud central or sideways pointing exhaust pipes and race wheels and tires, accompanied by crazy paint schemes. The Yugo is a symbol of the Balkans along with its derivatives, those being the fastback 101 and the 128 sedan. It was so “good” that it soldiered on for 31 years, with the last model rolling off the production line in 2008. That one had altered styling and slightly improved amenities, which took away a bit of the charm, but it was still undoubtedly a Yugo: badly equipped, slow, boxy and cheap.
The no-frills, grassroots nature of the Yugo and how cheap it was to fix and modify was all part of its charm, and even though it is by all technical means a horrid car, driving or even being driven in a Yugo is somewhat of an experience.
The Yugo has also found and earned its place in popular culture, appearing in cult classic films like Die Hard 3 where it was driven by John McClane (played by Bruce Willis), and in Dragnet where it was driven by Friday and Streebek (played by Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks respectively), and of course, in The Nutty Professor where it isn’t driven but rather candidly mentioned by Professor Sherman Klump when he turns up in a Dodge Viper and he responds to a question with “I requested a Yugo, and this is all they had.”
Even though it has earned its reputation as one of the absolute worst cars ever made, the Yugo still remains an icon, and if it’s the worst car in the world according to everyone, then it damn well ought to be the best worst car ever to roll off an assembly line.