HISTORY

Book review: 'The Yugo,' by Jason Vuic

Sunday, March 7, 2010

THE YUGO

The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History

By Jason Vuic

Hill and Wang. 262 pp. $26

The Yugo went on sale in the United States on August 26, 1985. The jokes quickly followed. What's included in every Yugo owner's manual? A bus schedule. What do you call a Yugo with breaks? Customized. Jason Vuic, a professor of modern European history at Virginia's Bridgewater College, chronicles this econo-box car's transformation into a national punch line. Appropriately, then, every chapter in "The Yugo" opens with a quip at his subject's expense. But the teasing is clearly a sign of love because Vuic has written a wonderfully sunny -- and thoroughly researched -- study of this iconic failure.

American automotive entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin is at the center of the story. Vuic portrays him as an often foolish but always tenacious businessman. He is a captivating figure. Bricklin first glimpsed the cheap compact car on a London street in April 1984. The Zastava Group, a state-owned corporation in Yugoslavia mainly known for manufacturing weapons, had built the Yugo since 1980 and found limited success exporting it to other European countries. Bricklin was looking to get back into the low-cost auto market after two previous attempts ended in high-profile failures; he smelled success with the Yugo when others were holding their noses. He believed he could tap into an under-served market of first-time buyers and families seeking to purchase a second or third car -- those needing basic transportation at an affordable price.

The $3,990 price tag was exceptionally low. While today the Yugo may be remembered as a dud, it was actually the fastest selling first-year European import in U.S. automotive history. "People went crazy for the Yugo," writes Vuic. Once consumers and auto reviewers got their hands on the car, however, a massive U-turn in public opinion followed. That's the Yugo we are familiar with. But in this Cold War and pop-culture history lesson, Vuic is here to tell us the Yugo was far more than the sum of its (shoddily constructed) parts.

-- Stephen Lowman


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