The Yugo and its Merits

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The joke goes: How do you double the value of a Yugo?

Fill up the gas tank!

True enough.

And yet, nearly 800,000 of them were made – all the way through 2008, a fact not many are aware of. The Yugo was last sold here – in the U.S. – back in 1992. But it continued to be sold in Europe for another 16 years. And even though it was only offered in the U.S. for seven years (1985-1992) some 141,651 of them were sold to Americans. To put that in context, GM found only 119,692 people willing to part with their money in exchange for a Pontiac Aztek over the course of its seven-year run (2000-2007).    

Perhaps because the Yugo was easier on the eyes. It wasn’t a beauty. But it wasn’t an aesthetic atrocity.

It also wasn’t trying to look like something more than it was, as so many current cars desperately try to – with their puff adder/angry samurai facial styling, gaping grilles and preposterously over-sized “rims.”

It was without question easier on the wallet.

The big sell was its small price – just $3,990 in ’85. That equates to about $9,700 in today’s worth-much-less fiat currency (one could make a Yugo-esque joke about that, too).

An ’85 Yugo thus cost about 40 percent less than the least expensive new cars one can buy today, models like the $14,295 Mitsubishi Eclipse and the $15,395 Nissan Versa. Those cars do come standard with air conditioning, power windows and a not-bad stereo – all of which cost you extra in the Yugo.

If they were even available.

But that was just the point. You didn’t have to pay extra – if you couldn’t afford to. That option is no longer offered with new cars. What good is AC if you can’t afford it?

Yugo’s ad copy read: Everybody Needs a Yugo Sometime. Another,  Introducing the Same Old Idea  . . . with an accompanying threesome picture of a Yugo, an old VW Beetle and a Model T Ford.

And so it was.

Like them, the Yugo was a new car almost anyone could afford to buy, which it was precisely because there wasn’t much to it. A small, simple engine. A manual transmission. Windows, rolled down by hand – and the breeze, to keep you cool. For free!

It had no air bags or computers.

It barely had tires.

And the Yugo was quicker (and faster) than both the old Beetle and the Model T. It could reach 60 in about 16 seconds and it had a top speed of 86 MPH – about twice as fast as a Model T.

It wasn’t that bad.

And the other two weren’t all that good, either – in terms of their being (unlike modern cars) in need of frequent cajoling in order to keep them running. But all three had the same virtue of being cars you could keep moving, even if meant pushing them at times.

Like its antecedents, the Yugo weighed half as much as most modern cars – about 1,800 lbs. Which meant you could push it, literally. And you could also push-start it, because it had a manual transmission, something very few new cars even offer anymore. They come standard with electronically controlled automatic transmissions that cost more to replace when they fail than a Yugo itself did back in ’85.

It had a carburetor you could shoot ether into to get it started that way. And an engine you could take out without a hoist. You didn’t worry about the air conditioning not working because it didn’t have air condition to worry about.

And the manual roll-down windows usually worked. If they didn’t, a set of vise grips on the stub where the handle was before it fell off would do the trick.

Same for the shifter, which sometimes came off in your hand. At least you could reinstall it, using your hand – rather than a diagnostic computer.

Reviewers then – and now – mock the cheap plastic used for  . . . everything. The extruded dash, the door panels. The trim and switchgear. But that is precisely why it was cheap. Yugo wasn’t trying to make it nice. Just serviceable. And it’s worth pointing out that modern cars that cost 40 percent more than a Yugo are also made of cheap plastic – inside and outside.

Only they aren’t cheap.

They have entirely plastic “bumpers” (technically, bumper covers) that are so flimsy they often tear completely off the car in low-speed impact that would have bent the Yugo’s external (and metal) bumpers. These were painted black, so you could spray paint them black again for the cost of a $3 can of spray paint if they got scraped.

The headlights were made of glass, which never yellowed like the cheap plastic headlights of today’s cars, which do – and which also cost a great deal more than $25 each to replace when they crack, as the Yugo’s did (and didn’t, being made of glass.)

And the Yugo was funny – a quality that isn’t even optional with new cars, which take themselves (and your “safety”) so very seriously that they’re a lot less fun. They are like IRS agents. The Yugo was like a good-natured alcoholic uncle, always getting into trouble – sometimes hitting you up for a $20.

Who would you rather hang out with?

The Yugo didn’t pester you to buckle-up. If you wanted to adjust the radio, you didn’t have to stop first (as you do to hook up your iPod to the Bluetoof in new cars) and while it sometimes stopped running in the middle of the road, it wasn’t designed to stop running at every red light,  as almost all new cars do.

It was the source of many stories, told many years after the fact – which makes it something else almost no new cars are, no matter how much “better” they may be as transportation appliance than the much-mocked Yugo:

Memorable.

I miss that. And cars like that. We had more fun, back then – even if we sometimes did get  stuck by the side of the road.

. . . 

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42 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve actually always wanted a Trabant. What’s not to love about toxic plastic body panels and a 2 stroke mill?

  2. Speaking of cheap vehicles Eric, did you see this?

    https://electrek.co/2021/06/05/awesomely-weird-alibaba-electric-vehicle-of-the-week-changli-electric-pickup-truck/

    A two thousand dollar small electric (yes electric) pickup truck. Of course from China. Range from 45-80 miles. Can go up to about 45 mph. Oh, did I mention the price? two grand! Cheaper than a golf cart.

    Undoubtedly we won’t be able to buy this here in the good old USA. Or if you can, not be able to drive it on a road. But an electric vehicle that could be if Uncle would allow it.

    • Hi Rich,

      Yup. I keep abreast of such things so as to remind myself of the disingenuousness of the “green” agenda. A car such as this works – financially. People can afford it. Therefore, they might actually buy it without being paid to buy it. Therefore, many might buy it. And if they did, less gas would be burned – if that is what is wanted. As well as emitted, since a small EV like this dos not require vast quantities of electricity or raw materials, etc.

      But that is not what’s wanted, either.

    • Exactly Rich! It can be done, but the goons won’t let it happen.

      Did you get a load of (pun intended) the hydraulic dump-truck bed?! That’s positively righteous!

      Unfortunately, it only goes 28 MPH (45 km/h), but that would work for residential roads, and could get you to work it you don’t mind a few red lights. It wouldn’t hurt if you could upgrade it to a 5KW motor, then maybe 45MPH is a possibility.

      I think I love it. That and the other little Chinese truck Eric posted about a while back, with the hinged bed-sides, so you could load it easily.

    • I’m calling BS on this. Even in China, there’s no way they could make that and sell it for $2K. And if they could, even after shipping, they’d be flooding the market with them here to use as UTVs- Hell, I’d buy one myself for that purpose! And notice they don’t show any people or nearby items in the pics for size reference- I think these things are way smaller than what most are imagining. Think: Kiddie-car size. (If they’re the size of a Barbie Jeep, then maybe they can make ’em for $2K)

      • Hi Nunz,

        Compliance costs are enormous, so I think it’s possible. Note the cost of the little truck with fold-down bed walls I wrote about earlier this year. And that one’s for real. But it’s illegal to sell here, because of the myriad ways it is “noncompliant.”

  3. Har, Yugo/FIAT, My brother had a FIAT 600D that he painted black with white doors and found some decals proclaiming “POLIZIA” on the doors. He would “sccop the loop” and pull over girls that were in a good humor about how nuts it was. Back then one could get wheel adapters to fit American Racing Wheels with oversized tires. Every time I saw that thing I laughed except girls were laughing too and were willing to converse.
    He got pulled over in Milwaukee for calling out to girls that were walking down the big street hoping that they would get noticed. The cop threatened to arrest him for Fourth Degree Rape, whatever that was.
    It was a FIAT so it rusted in two.

  4. Wow, a nod to the Yugo without a nod to its movie stardom. Drowning Mona. I thought it was a funny movie. The car was a star in the movie, but I guess since it isn’t a DeLorean that time travels, it wasn’t as famous.

    I remember these becoming “well used” at the same time I was 16 and looking for a cheap ride. I would see ads (plural) in the advertiser for a Yugo for cheap and that it also came with five spare parts cars.

  5. Well, I want one now. I’m tired of not having choices.

    Can’t we have an engineering autonomy sanctuary state? Somewhere wherein you can build whatever you want and to hell with the federal regulations?

  6. Such praise for the Yugo Eric! When will we see one parked in your yard? You can park it next to your chicken coop, and then, one day soon when it doesnt start, you can use it as a spare coop!

    I did have a friend in England in the mid 80’s who had the English version of this. It lasted for his 3 year tour, and I dont remember him bad mouthing it. But who knows? I never knew anyone in the USA who ever owned one of these.

    Its a shame Americans could never enjoy Skodas (Czechoslovakian at the time before they split into 2 countries), or FSO’s (Polish). The FSO’s were known as For Suckers Only. Wonderful communist engineering, lol. Actually, Skodas were quite dependable, inexpensive cars and were exported to Western Europe.

    • Yes, the Bohemians did seem to produce sturdy cars. Saw a Skoda 120 in Central America back in the day, it handled the twisty roads and mountain driving quite well. Put up with poor quality pump gas and indifferent maintenance quite well. And, they (well, in this case the Moravians) gave us the Tatra 603 with an air cooled rear engined V8 (!). Neither was a copy or licensed version of a FIAT, either, like the Zastava or the FSO. Herr Dr. (Ing H.C.) Ferdinand Porsche was Bohemian, after all.

  7. While these cars may have been admirable from the standpoint of simplicity their execution was horrible, which as others have noted is about what one would expect of a recycled Fiat design being built by Communists. It was Malcolm Bricklin who thought it was a “great idea” to bring these cars to the U.S.

    I remember reading at the time that the Yugos imported here were actually of higher quality than those meant for local sale, assembled by Zastava’s top workers (maybe not drunk on vodka 100% of the time), and they were still crap. During the time the Yugo was sold here even a beat-up used Gremlin would have been a better buy, let alone a used Toyota, Honda, or VW bug.

  8. A car, original design by FIAT, redesigned by Soviet-trained engineers, assembled by Serbian reds of COMECON parts. What could go wrong?

    The premise of your article is excellent Eric. Yes, a car redesigned by a communist bureacracy will turn out as the Yugo did. One could argue that buyers of the Zastava Coral (Yugo) got what they expected. However, a car designed to fit in the box drawn by modern-day uniparty bureacrats will price itself out of the lower end of the market, and lose its automotive soul in the process. All cars are affected, and all buyers suffer from the Hobson’s Choice. It is extremely frustrating to no longer have a choice of normally aspirated and bigger, therefore potentially more reliable, versus blown and most likely less reliable. The faceless uniparty bureacrats in numberless buildings in the Imperial Capital, and their sock puppets in Detroit decree it so.

  9. I remember them fondly. Used a sawz all to cut the roof off of a pals back Yugo back in the day.

    My favorite Yugo joke is still: “Yugo, the car doesn’t”.

  10. Also, the Yugo really wasn’t cheap when one considers that they would usually be falling apart by the time they were four years old if they were actually driven. I remember my niece’s friend’s mother had one in 1988- so it couldn’t have been more than 3 years old- and it was just a suburban errand-runner….and the damned thing seemed to be at end-of-life. By comparison, my nephew’s ’68 well-worn beat on Impala seemed like a new Bentley. I asked the Yugo-owner about her Yugo, and she’d just rant about how terrible it was, and how it was falling apart before her eyes. $4K for a car that lasts 3 years…not such a good deal -especially considering that when that car was purchased in ’85, one could buy a brand new Toyota Corolla DX coupe for $7K….which would easily be good for 250K mikes+. Versus $4K for a Yugo, which falls apart at 25K miles…and is basically worthless when it’s a few years old.

  11. Yugos were depressingly horrible cars. I like basic vehicles….but Yugos weren’t just basic…they were cheesy and very cheap/fragile-feeling. I occasionally pick one up for junk in the 90’s- Ironically, most were perfectly functional…the owners just wanted them gone ’cause they couldn’t sell ’em (No one wanted to buy ’em, for any price).

    I picked one up that was in mint condition- gave the nice lady $35 for it (NOT a typo). I didn’t take it to the scrapper, ’cause it was so mint; I took it to my storage yard….and I couldn’t resist- I just HAD to take it for a ride! It felt like I was driving a toy! The plasticky interior was so crappy and flimsy, that everything I’d touch (the gear shift, steering wheel, dashboard controls) felt like it was going to break if I didn’t treat it like a Faberge Egg. Just going down the rtoad gave me a sense of impending doom, as all of the cheap plastic creaked and clicked as I went down the road- I mean, O-K, even back then, plastic on cars was ubiquitous, but the plastic in the Yugo was on a different level of cheap! It was like one step above cardboard.

    Ened up selling that car to a customer who used to participate in the rollovers at the local raceway (You’d run the car up a small ramp, and the one whose car rolled the most times won. These guys would always be looking for small light easy-to-roll cars.).

    After that sale to that regular customer, I didn’t see the guy for a long time. One day, he finally reappears- I had saved-up a few cars for him. He explained that he wasn’t doing rollovers anymore. Turns out, when he did the rollover in that mint Yugo, he decided not to use his special harness. Instead, he just relied on the seat belt….which BROKE, and resulted in the guy literally almost breaking neck.

    It didn’t surprise me- everything on those cars had the structural integrity of an aluminum soda can. Ironically, that was the last Yugo I’ve ever seen.

    • Great anecdote. Matches my memories of the Yugo. It’s funny that the Hyundai Excel was reviewed contemporaneously in the retro review Eric posted above. Back then they were maybe a notch above a Yugo but still known to be some of the crappiest cars around. I believed this to still be true until recently I learned on this site that Hyundai is now known for quality at a good price and even has a luxury division… times have changed! Anyway, in about 93 or so my buddy blew the transmission in his very crappy early era Excel ( ‘86?) on a highway in NJ and called me to pick him up. There was fluid and gears and parts all over the road for 1000 feet. I’ve never seen anything like that before or since.

      • Oooo, that brings back another memory, Zek!

        My bro-in-law bought a new Excel, c. 89 or 90. While I hated those things too, and was surprised that my BIL would drive one, being someone who always had driven big personal luxury cars; the one thing I had to say was that the Excel seemed like a dream compared to the Yugo -and it cost just a hair more than the Yugo.

        My BIL had the excel for quite a while and put lots of miles on it- with no major issues. Still, a pretty depressing car….but a much better value than the worthless Yugo- just seeing them contemporaneously allowed one to see the night and day difference.

        • Hi Nunz!

          I nominate the Chevy Cavalier for the appellation, Worst Car Ever. It lacked the virtue of being inexpensive, as the Yugo was – and (unlike the Yugo) it was expensive to fix, which it needed often. Also, an ugly and generally loathsome little turd. Second place goes to the Dodge Neon…

          • Hey Eric!

            Oooo! Hard to argue with that. So many crappy cars to choose from though….. The Isuzu I-Mark comes to mind too! Renault (every model!).

            Pretty much all of the small and mid-size Big 3 pieces-of-garbage from the 80’s/90’s….. Ay! Oh…and Suzukis! (They make great bikes though).

            • Amen, Nunz!

              I had a neighbor back in Northern Va.who had a Cavalier. It blew its head gasket three times in five years. I would have used the filthy cockroach for taregt practice after the second time…

              • Eric, it’s telling: When I was hauling junk, I’d pick up cars of every variety…but there was at least one Cavalier or one of it’s corporate twins EVERY. SINGLE. DAY! -And an inordinate amount of Le Cars and Reliants (ironically named) considering the small overall percentage of car sales they represented! The early Escorts were pretty well represented too!

                • Oh, I don’t know. My hand me down Escargot was a pretty good car apart from rust. It still is the best snow car for in town as it never got stuck unless bellied out in the snow and had the best heater of any since.
                  As many of you can tell, my wife dumps all of her cars on me to drive and then rags on me if I buy some used car that costs half of what I pay in cash for her new car.

                • Hey, didnt realise the cavalier was such a POS. I remember we had a cavalier wagon back in the late 80s. The first car I actually wrenched on myself. Was the school run car, mom found the Ford LTD wagon too big, so dad got this for her run around town car. I was about 8 from what I remember, and would do the basics like change plugs, filters, oil, etc…. dont remember much but man it was simple compared to the stuff you get now!!

                  • Hi Nasir,

                    The vile thing – the Cavalier – had an iron block four and an alloy head, with a poorly designed head gasket in between the two differently expanding materials. The first failure was fixed under warranty. The next failure(s) were on you !

            • The interesting thing about Suzukis (particularly from the 80s/90s) is that they run forever. They made them in Pakistan till the 2010s if i remember correct (the suzuki Cultass which was basically the Geo Metro was made till quite recently there). It was a brilliantly simple car which one can throw around as you wish!!… I remember once I had one. I was running late and stuck bad in traffic. There was a dual carriage way, but one side was closed and being re-done (ie dug up and re lined and surfaced). No work was being down – and the road was completley empty of any machinery or workers. I was getting really late, and saw a bus on a raised suspension, then a bedford truck drive over the mound onto the road under construction (they just leave a mound of dirt at the ends of a road under construction in Pakistan – no safety signs or anything) and to go the end – saving about 30 minutes of standstill traffic. I thought screw it – why not. Went over the mound, miscalculated and hit my front end hard. Somehow – all the electrics went, dashboard dead- but the engine kept running!! Im like no problem – ill sort it out after my meeting. Ran the mile or so on the rough road amongst the trucks and busses – and when it came to the mound on the other end – did the same thing, hit the front end when landing again….. this time all the electrics came back !!! Never had that issue again!! The car healed itself…. what more can you ask for…..

  12. ‘It had a carburetor you could shoot ether into to get it started that way.’ — EP

    Then you could hold a lit joint over the open choke plate, making the tiny four twang and thrum in delight.

    Not so for well-heeled EV fashion victims:

    ‘Totem Automobili’s rapturous electric prototype, based on an early-’70s Alfa Romeo Giulia GT, has a party trick that is provocatively on-point: It can mimic, with surprising similitude, the revs, burrs, snores, snaps and wails of a gas-powered Alfa with a dual-cam motor.

    “It can make many different sounds, as you like,” said Mr. Quaggio, including the song of V8s or V10s.’

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-future-of-classic-porsches-and-jaguars-electrification-11622865601

    Impressive: kind of like a well-endowed, honey-voiced life-size doll, urgently commanding ‘Do me, stud … faster, harder!’ … as if it were real.

  13. In 1985 Pittsburgh was contending with the aftermath of loosing its steel industry to China, plus 15 percent auto loan rates courtesy of Paul Volker. Alman Cadillac—long defunct—pulled out all the stops in an attempt to survive as a dealership. A customer could walk into the Alman showroom and see a Yugo parked next to GM’s flagship brand. Got a job? Buy a Caddy….No job? Buy a Yugo. If one opted for the Yugo, that 4g’s of green even covered the cost of a spare lightbulb kit under the driver seat…Something GM never thought to offer with their battle cruisers.

  14. there is much to be said for affordable transportation

    uncle has seen to it that there is practically no such thing – definitely not in the new car market

    and maybe there just isnt a market for a bare bones new car, but it would be nice to have that choice

  15. If you didn’t like the Yugo, you could have opted for the Metro or Fiesta. If you needed cheap transportation with great mpg, you had options. Now the only option is mpg. Not cheap. Not simple.

  16. When the Yugo was on the market, the US Sociopaths In Charge weren’t terribly concerned about how many poor people could manage to drive. Now they are, deeply. They might escape the roundup, the cage they’re in, the tyranny they suffer, etc. if they can afford to drive.
    What I found interesting about the Yugo back when it was on the market was who made it. A rambling wreck of a nation on the verge of escaping communism. A nation that ultimately didn’t survive. Can you imagine how wonderfully successful such a car now made with current though minimal tech could be? Made by the likes of Toyota, for example? Of course with all the restrictions imposed by the Sociopaths In Charge, such could never be built. They prefer their poor remain in their cages.

    • All you need to do is look at the 70 series Land Cruiser Toyota sells in other parts of the world. Rugged, affordable and built for half a million miles.

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