They Love the Yugo, the Car Others Love to Hate

In the pantheon of vehicles thought-about irredeemable lemons — assume Edsel, Aztek, Pacer — one stands above all of them, or perhaps under. The Yugo.

Arguably no automotive has been extra maligned than the utilitarian Yugo. It has been known as “hard to view on a full stomach” and “the Mona Lisa of bad cars,” and it was mentioned to seem like “something assembled at gunpoint” — significantly becoming as a result of the Yugoslav firm that constructed the automotive, Zastava, additionally made firearms.

You may go as far as to say it was “an out-and-out vile little car,” as Eric Peters did in his e book “Automotive Atrocities,” however don’t let Jay Pierce, whose yugoparts.com retains the little vehicles operating, hear you say it.

“This attack ‘comedy’ started with ‘The Tonight Show’ and is a sick way to make the networks money damaging people,” he mentioned with unbridled disgust. “We really need tougher slander laws in this country.”

Mr. Pierce is one the Yugo’s extra assertive followers, who defend the automotive’s status with the overprotective affection normally reserved for pet cats that go blind and three-legged canines.

“You will find people who like it for the obscurity, just for the novelty of owning the unloved,” mentioned Valerie Hansen of Columbus, Ohio, who’s restoring her fourth Yugo, a uncommon 1984 mannequin introduced over by a Yugoslav expatriate. Its engine is even smaller than the 54-horsepower model imported by Yugo America.

Ms. Hansen mentioned she was attracted to the Yugo for 2 causes. First, it speaks to her ancestral Balkan roots. Second, its mechanical simplicity means she will be able to do her personal repairs. “You can fix a Yugo with a butter knife and a rubber band,” she mentioned.

Ms. Hansen’s present mission is a uncommon 1984 mannequin introduced to the U.S. by a Yugoslav expatriate.Credit…Brian Kaiser for The New York Times

The Yugo was not at all times seen so favorably, though its $three,990 value ($9,900 in in the present day’s ) grabbed headlines on its introduction in 1985. Competing econoboxes included the Chevy Chevette, which listed for $5,645; the Ford Escort L for $6,327; and a Volkswagen Golf for $7,190.

The overview from the ordinarily staid Consumer Reports verged on cruelty. The engine “struggled and strained to climb highway grades in high gear.” On acceleration, “Our 0-60-m.p.h. run took 18.5 seconds.” The transmission? “Easily the worst we’ve encountered in years.” The inside was “covered with cloth that resembles towel material.”

On the different hand, “it’s easy to turn on the high beams when you’re trying to signal a left turn.”

Yet initially the Yugo didn’t lack patrons. “We did well,” mentioned Steve Moskowitz, who was a vendor and is now chief government of the Antique Automobile Club of America. “A little too well at the beginning.”

Too effectively as a result of the legions of latest homeowners found issues earlier than sellers did. For one, the vehicles had been shipped with spark plugs unsuited for America’s unleaded gas.

“We had little small bugaboos — it wasn’t engines failing,” Mr. Moskowitz mentioned. “It was a decent idea, and a good purchase for someone looking for basic transportation.”

Other issues would emerge. “It required specific maintenance,” mentioned Daniel Tohill, who runs the Yugo America Chat/Talk/Buy/Sell Facebook web page. “It wasn’t like other cars.” Most prominently, if the timing belt wasn’t serviced at 30,000 miles, the engine’s pistons might ram into the valves and destroy them.

It’s arduous to perceive why anybody anticipated greater than mere adequacy from the Yugo. It used components from Fiat, a marque whose status for unreliability had led the model to abandon America in 1983. Fiat, from Italy, was mentioned to stand for “Fix it again, Tony.”

A Subaru 360 prototype at an auto present in Tokyo in 1961.Credit…The Asahi Shimbun, through Getty Images

In Fiat’s exit, the automotive entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin noticed a possibility. Mr. Bricklin had launched the Subaru 360 “Ladybug” to America, which, in 1969, Consumer Reports rated “not acceptable.” The Ladybug failed, however Subaru of America survived. In the mid-70s he created the Bricklin SV-1, a gull-wing sports activities automotive whose design presaged the DeLorean. It failed, too. This time, he imported Fiat’s two sports activities vehicles, the X1/9 and 124 Spider, rebadging them the Bertone X1/9 and the Pininfarina 124 Spider. That didn’t resolve the rust issues.

In Mr. Bricklin’s telling, Pininfarina ended its contract with him as a part of a deal to make the Allanté Pininfarina for Cadillac, leaving him one automotive in need of what he promised sellers. “So I put somebody in charge of finding the cheapest car in the world,” he mentioned in a 2013 panel dialogue.

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It was present in Yugoslavia. Mr. Bricklin went there and encountered “that piece of crap factory with 50,000 people that should have 2,000 people, 127 Communist unions,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, isn’t this fun?’”

But the Yugo would face a way more formidable nemesis than Communism: Jay Leno.

“I will always have the feeling that Jay Leno personally killed the car,” Mr. Moskowitz mentioned. “Nobody likes owning a car that is a joke.”

It is a tenet of the trustworthy that the automotive would have made it if not for these jokes, a staple of Mr. Leno’s “Tonight Show” routines as a frequent visitor host beginning in the late ’80s. “Leno did incalculable damage to my business and Yugo owners,” Mr. Pierce mentioned.

“Yugo has come out with a very clever anti-theft device,” went one Leno gag. “They made their name bigger.”

But it wasn’t simply Mr. Leno (who didn’t reply to emails in search of remark). Even now automotive fanatics can summon gibes like: “You know why the Yugo has a standard rear window defogger? To keep your hands warm while you push it.” Or: “How do you double the value of a Yugo? Fill the gas tank … if it will hold gas.” It has been made sport of in motion pictures like “Drowning Mona,” and in songs like “In a Yugo.”

Few Yugo drivers take offense. “We’ll make jokes at our own expense,” Ms. Hansen mentioned, however the humor will be macabre.

When David Lang purchased a Yugo GVX in 2018, considered one of his objectives was to drive it throughout Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge, infamous for a Yugo that went uncontrolled and over the facet in 1989, killing the driver.

“People are like, ‘Don’t take it over the Mackinac Bridge!’” mentioned Mr. Lang, who lives in Brown City, Mich. “That was the first thing I did with it.”

It was coincidentally on an anniversary of the accident. People reacted as if he had been leaping the automotive over 19 flaming buses, he mentioned. “I’ve done it twice now.”

Nick Bygrave of Midwest-Bayless in Ohio, which provides Yugo components, spent $500 for his personal Yugo.Credit…Brian Kaiser for The New York Times

“People are buying these cars as jokes now, and to win awards in car shows,” mentioned Nick Bygrave, an worker at Midwest-Bayless Italian Auto, an Ohio Yugo components provider in Columbus. He discovered a moss-covered 1987 GVS that had sat in a discipline for 20 years, however it ran. Once the moss died, it appeared like a matte paint job.

“I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but it won Cars and Coffee every time,” Mr. Bygrave mentioned of standard meets.

His technique is to put his Yugo subsequent to the costliest automotive in a present, as he did in a Midwest Motor Vice present in 2018. “My car was parked a few feet away from a Countach, and I won an award for best survivor car,” he mentioned.

As prizewinning vehicles go, Mr. Bygrave’s $500 Yugo was a cut price, however they’ve been offered cheaper. In 1986, Noce Cadillac in Chicago provided a free Yugo with a purchase order of choose Caddies. According to a newspaper account, nobody took a Yugo.

When Kevin O’Callaghan purchased 39 Yugos for his college students at the School of Visual Arts in New York to flip into sculptures, the highest value paid was $80. “One guy drove it to my house,” he recalled. “I asked him what he wanted for it. He said: ‘I don’t want anything for this piece of crap. I just want a ride home, and not in that car.’”

Yugo isn’t in the NADA or Kelly Blue Book on-line value information, however the automotive public sale web site Bring a Trailer offered a Yugo for $2,200 in 2016 and one other for $7,500 in April. Long Island’s Hollywood Motors just lately provided a 1998 GV for $6,450.

“This … this is a very, very bad idea,” reads the description. “The thing about bad ideas, though, is that more often than not, they are a lot more fun than ‘good’ or ‘safe” concepts.’” Buying the Yugo, it suggests, is equal to consuming flaming tequila pictures. The automotive is now listed as offered.

A decal on Ms. Hansen’s 1984 Yugo.Credit…Brian Kaiser for The New York TimesMs. Hansen’s rebuilt Yugo motor at Midwest-Bayless.Credit…Brian Kaiser for The New York Times

For all of its faults — its many, many, many faults — homeowners say the Yugo is much less troublesome and extra charming than generally thought. When Mr. Bygrave deliberate a visit from Ohio to New York, his boss — who owns a Yugo components retailer, keep in mind — informed him, “I don’t think this is a good idea.” Mr. Bygrave wrote “NYC OR BUST” on the rear window with a craft retailer marker and headed out in a blizzard.

After 11 hours, “when I pulled into New York, people were honking, a cop car ran the siren, a guy in a dump truck was filming us with a phone,” he mentioned. “My cheeks hurt from smiling.”

In 1992, the Yugo succumbed to compound wounds from reviewers, comedians, declining gross sales, a recall due to emissions requirements and chapter. But till 1999, some argued that the automotive would make a comeback when Yugoslav civil unrest settled. “And then NATO put five missiles into the factory,” Mr. Bricklin mentioned, “but other than that ….”