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The Day That Did Come

The End of the Yugo

by BINOY KAMPMARK

Let’s not mince words.  The Zastava Koral, known simply as the Yugo, was an abomination, but an endearing one.  The last car, assembled by car workers Radoslav Simovic and Zarko Niciforovic, rolled off the line in the Serbian town of Kragujevac earlier this week.  The car company is destined for the mechanical mortuary (if not restructuring), with Zastava now taken over, fittingly, by Fiat. 

Created with good, populist intentions (yet another car for the struggling, mobile-hungry Volk), it did achieve a few milestones apart from its otherwise sketchy record.  The company, for instance, got into bed with Ford in the 1930s supplying trucks to the Yugoslavian army.  It did the same with Fiat in 1953, producing two models under license from the Italian giant. 

The car always had a sense of the derivative about it, despite spectacular forays into advertising and publicity.  The Fiat 128 was the main model of copy, but when it came to jeeps in the 1950s, it was Willys-Overland who shaped up to help.  What did not seem so derivative was the flesh that adorned the packages.  Ravishing, scantily-clad Yugo-girls were thrown alongside promoted vehicles, pouting for the products.  Vulgar yet irrepressibly functional, the Yugo seemed set to last. 

In 1985, the Yugo appeared in the United States Tata-like, cheap and at the instigation of the entrepreneurial Malcolm Bricklin.   At $3,990, the GV (‘Great Value’) hatchback seemed like a steal, but the only theft being perpetrated was on gullible buyers.  Somewhere in the order of 140,000 were sold in the US till 1991, with numbers falling sharply in the last year of sale.  All in all, some 800,000 were built over four decades.

Poor performances lent the Yugo to an increasing collection of jokes, many hovering somewhere between the inane and banal.  Notable faults were the doomed gearbox, the shoddy workmanship of loosely assembled doors, and that rather limiting feature of repeated engine failure. ‘Why does a Yugo have a defroster on the rear window?  To keep your hands warm while you push it.’  An American survey condemned it as the worst car of the millennium, and given the dross coming out of the US over the years, that’s saying something. 

Not all have such a negative impression of the products of Zastava.  Fonte Everette of Detroit was happy to admit to owning one when he was interviewed earlier this year.  For him, the Yugo and his father’s wisdom went hand in hand.  ‘If you’ve got a piece of a horse, you’ve got something to work with.’  Everette describes scenes of salivating onlookers hoping to make off with his mechanical beast, but no one was ever willing to offer the right price.

This piece of horse became a ubiquitous fixture of popular culture, and a host of films ran with it.  In the stakes of fame (or infamousness), the car’s brand was guaranteed.  Then there was that little matter of Yugoslavian unity.  Modern governments, from Kuala Lumpur to Belgrade, have rendered cars totemic symbols.  They may cost a fortune, and may not even work, but they at least they have a brand.

The excuses for the demise of this idiosyncratic car are piling up like scrap metal.  The Yugo, precisely because it was advertised as a delectable cheapo, was treated as one (no need for oil checks, thanks).  Abuse yields its predictable outcomes.

Metallica may well have drummed ‘The Day that Never Comes’ in the deadly desert, featuring the ill-fated Yugo (stationary, helplessly inert) which is eventually revived by American soldiers suspicious of its Afghan passengers, one, a demure, chador-clad woman.  But the Marines are hardly likely to be storming to the Yugo’s rescue now.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com