Wrong time, Wrong Place: The Story of the Yugo

A communist created vehicle comes to America only to have its reputation destroyed by an American late night comedian. It may sound like the description of a new Hollywood Blockbuster, but it is just a preview of this week’s edition of Throwback Thursday.

This week we are talking about the love it or leave it (while, mostly leave it) Yugo. If you didn’t live through the 1980s there is a chance that you haven’t even heard of this car and its unique history. The Yugo was designed and manufactured in Yugoslavia from 1980-2008. During its 28 year production run there were close to 800,000 Yugos created. 

The most interesting part of its life was brought to us by Malcolm Bricklin. Mr. Bricklin had an interesting and varied career in the automotive industry. Early in his career he brought the Subaru Ladybug 360 to America which quickly failed. After this, another failed attempt at creating a vehicle known as the Bricklin SV-1 failed in similar fashion. 

Image of the Yugo GV in red
Image : caranddriver.com

Not be be discouraged with failure, Mr. Bricklin discovered the Yugo and dreamed of importing it into America. During the time a new Chevette which sold for close to $6000 and the VW Golf was selling for just over $7000. The Yugo was bought wholesale for $2000 which allowed Mr. Bricklin and his team of dealers to sell the Yugo for a low price of roughly $4000.

This bargain basement price was the best selling feature of the Yugo and he wanted to bring it to market as soon as possible.

Once they visited the factory they noticed that there were some interesting, shall we say, manufacturing processes at the plant. Where 2,000 employees could have done the work there were an estimated 50,000 employees present at the factory. 

With grease covered floors these employees would enter and exit vehicles on the assembly line with no regard, all the while tracking this grease into the vehicle.

And it didn’t end there. The most alarming technique that Bricklin observed was how they treated newly formed parts. They watched in horror as freshly stamped body parts were removed and tossed into bins directly after forming. You can imagine that this factory would have been a great place for someone to practice their body repair skills. 

This however didn’t stop the gears from turning. Soon after, Bricklin started importing the Yugo into America. It was an instant success. Possibly too large of a success. At one point in time they sold over 1000 Yugos in a single day. There were even dealers that were offering a two for one deal. 

In 1986 a Cadillac Dealership, Noce Cadillac, came up with an excellent marketing idea. When a customer would purchase selected Cadillac vehicles they would receive a free Yugo. It is rumoured however, that there may have been no one that accepted the Yugo even at the great price of free.

The Yugo itself was a budget level vehicle, and with that owners received a budget like experience. The 55 hp engine equipped with a 4 speed manual transmission left owners lacking what we refer to as, power. Heck, even if you lined up beside a Reliant Robin for a drag race, you would probably lose. This was due to its blistering “slow”, 18.5 second 0-60 time. 

The engine required service to prevent major issues which was not a welcome feature for owners. The timing belt for example needed to be replaced at 30,000 miles. If it was not changed, the belt could fail causing the pistons to slam into the engine’s valvetrain. 

The interior resembled a seat that was covered in bath towel like material. This combined with visible bolts and nuts that held the interior components together would start the beginning of the end for Yugo in America.

During the 1980’s a car enthusiast decided that the Yugo would be great material for jokes. This car enthusiast would be no other than late night host, Jay Leno. Many people involved with Yugo would go on to describe that Jay Leno helped kill the Yugo. Maybe being the car guy he is, he deserves an outlet on informing the public about vehicles like this.

No matter the reason for the demise of the Yugo in the US, its production ended in 1992. This would end a 7 year production cycle that saw nearly 140,000 of these vehicles sold in the US. Fast forward to today and the Yugo is receiving a small re-invention. Some are purchasing these vehicles to take to car shows as a joke. While others have been listed online selling for as high as $7000. Close to double their original cost.Maybe this was a joke listing as well. 

Either way, the Yugo finds its way into automotive history and earns its place in Throwback Thursday due to its bare bones mentality. Even price alone will not ensure success in the automotive industry. 

Thanks again for reading this week’s Throwback Thursday. If you like what you read, leave a comment or share with your friends. As always, if you have a vehicle that you would like to use to feature on Throwback Thursday we would love to hear about it.

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