Shelf Life

A history of the world’s worst car

Marketplace Staff Mar 12, 2010
Shelf Life

A history of the world’s worst car

Marketplace Staff Mar 12, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: You know, for all the troubles the American automobile industry is having, Detroit can count its lucky stars for at least one thing: It never had anything to do with the Yugo. In the long, long history of automotive lemons, nothing was quite as sour.

This 1980’s vintage review gives you just a taste of how bad that car really was.

1980 review of the Yugo: Attention to detail leaves something to be desired. Listen to the sound of this dash-light dimmer.

Squeaky sawing noise

And yet, Americans loved it. At least, for a while. Historian Jason Vuic has a new book out about the Yugo, subtitled, “The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History.” Jason, welcome to the program.

Jason Vuic: Thank you.

Ryssdal: How did it come to pass that this car wound up in the United States? It’s not your V8, gas-guzzling muscle car, that’s for sure.

Vuic: Well, there were really three factors that brought the Yugo to the United States. One was that in the 1980s, Japanese and American manufacturers completely vacated the very low end of the market. Low-cost cars were simply not profitable.

The second thing was Yugoslavia itself. It was an independent communist country that the United States wanted to support. It deprived the Soviets of the Mediterranean Sea and Mediterranean ports, so we tried to bring over Yugoslav goods and aid the government in any way. I mean, the Yugo wasn’t paid with taxes, but our ambassador drove around Belgrade in a yellow Yugo with little American flags on the hoods.

And then third, there was Malcolm Bricklin. He’s this phenomenal entrepreneur — he’s great at starting businesses, getting people excited, getting the press excited. He founded Subaru of America and then moved onto a Canadian car, which failed miserably. So he’s known for these great early successes, and then, catastrophic failures. And that was one of the reasons the Yugo came over; it was the next Brooklyn venture.

Ryssdal: What was it, as that car got here, I mean, people went bananas for this thing.

Vuic: Absolutely. It opened in about 50 dealers and about 1,050 cars were sold in a single day. There were lines at some dealerships 10 deep. People were buying cars sight unseen. And they called it “Yugo mania,” believe it or not.

Ryssdal: And the sticker price was how much?

Vuic: $3,990.

Ryssdal: And you got for that what? You got something that had wheels, a motor and not too much else.

Vuic: It didn’t even have a glove box. It was just a basic car. It was designed in the 70s, and then brought to the United States in ’85. So the day it came here, it was already dated technology trying to compete with Japanese cars.

Ryssdal: The car comes, it sells bunches and bunches that first year. And then Consumer Reports gets its hands on one.

Vuic: It was in February 1986 that Consumer Reports came out, and they put the car through a wringer. And those were the days when it was the car-buying bible. They panned the Yugo. They put it on the cover, a big Peterbilt tractor was bearing down on it, the driver was cringing in fear. And then at the very end of the article, it said it was better to buy a good used car than a new Yugo.

Ryssdal: Was it actually, as your title says, “the worst car ever”?

Vuic: No, no. And what I examine is the myth of the Yugo. I think it was probably the worst car of the 80s, certainly. But if it passed safety and emissions tests, it was a relatively decent car. There are many cars in developing countries that used to be sold around the world, but they certainly couldn’t be sold in the United States. They couldn’t pass these very expensive and rigorous emission and safety tests. So the fact that the Yugo was sold here, means that it was a relatively decent car.

Ryssdal: And those cars from some of the developing economies — like I’m thinking of Tata in India and the Dongfeng from China — did this pave the way, did the Yugo pave the way at all?

Vuic: I don’t know. And I really hope people from Tata will look at my book and will look at the Yugo lessons. Because I really don’t want Tata to go down the same road and I see a lot of those same things developing — you know, dated technology, cheapest car in America. A lot of things that happened with Yugo could happen with Nano, and I really don’t want to see that happen. I’d like to see small cars make it in America and spartan cars really carve out a niche.

Ryssdal: Jason Vuic is an assistant professor of modern European history at Bridgewater College. That’s in Virginia. He writes books too. His most recent is call “The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History.” Jason, thanks a lot.

Vuic: Thank you very much.

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