What a deal it was! Look, Ma, a new car–they call it a Yugo–for only $3,990. A Chevrolet Chevette, in comparison, sold for about $5650. Even used cars with dubious priors and suspicious sellers could set you back more, and that’s not considering the pig-in-a-poke factor.
But what was a Yugo? Well, to say a Zastava 55, made by Zabodi Grvena Zastava, is correct, though not very helpful. Saying it was built in Kragujevac, Yugoslavia, when the communist country still existed, explains more. The 55 was based mostly on the Fiat 128, but the body was all new. Styled in Italy, the 55 was crisply drawn though no one but its mama could call it pretty.
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It was smaller than the Fiat it was based on—only 137.4 inches long overall—and 3 inches shorter that the Chevy (Suzuki) Sprint. The wheelbase was a meager 84.7 inches. Despite its diminutive size, it could seat four, though the two in the back has to slither through the small front doors. Power was from an SOHC 1116 cc four driving the front wheels through a four-speed transaxle to Tigar 145SR-13 tires on 4.5 x 13-inch wheels. Working hard, a 19.5 second quarter-mile (at 65 mph) was possible, 0-to-60 mph taking the whole of 14 seconds.
The Yugo GV, as the car was named when it went on sale here, found waiting lists as people lined up to buy a car made with 60 cents per hour labor—opposed to $ 23 per hour here or $2 or $3 in Korea. With a mid-year start, only 3,895 Yugos were sold in the United States in 1985, but this soared to 35,959 the next year and hit 48,812 the year after, selling more than Saab and meeting more than half of BMW’s sales. Not bad for its second year on the market.
Alas, the bubble burst. Even as Zastava improved the Yugo GV, buyers soon tired of a 10-year old design with 200-year old quality, Despite bright trim colors, materials weren’t up to ’80s practice, and fit was poor. Additionally, the small number of cars with air conditioning had it as an add-on underdash unit that cooled the diver’s right shin and left the rest of the car tepid. No one wanted to buy a used Yugo and few wanted to buy a new one. Sales slipped to 31,546 in 1988.
Yugo’s importer’s followed procedures right out of the manual, freshening the model line for ’89 with a performance model call the Yugo GVX. It featured 155/SR13 Tigar tires, alloy wheels, a 1301 cc 64-hp four with a five-speed manual transmission, a new front bumper with integral spoiler, fog lights and matching lower bodyside cladding, Quarter-mile time dropped to 19.38 seconds (at 70.8 mph) with 0-to-60 mph clicking off in a mere 13.5 seconds. On the skidpad the GVX squealed to a .71 g. Sales plummeted to 10,576.
Not giving up, for 1990 Yugo America made good on its promise of a convertible. All Yugo Cabrios were wrapped in GVX trim—though that model was dropped—and had electrically-powered tops “with manual capability.” Thad didn’t inspire very much confidence. Worse yet, the Cabrio was priced at $ 8990. Add A/C, AM/FM/Stereo and destination and a Yugo was pushing 10 grand. Even the base Yugo, now with five-speed and 1.3 liter standard, had crept up to $ 4,435. It was still the cheapest car in America but looked cheaper than ever, Sales slid to 6,359, including 74 Cabrios.
Though the Yugo Cabrio was listed for ’91, none were sold. However, an automatic transmission finally joined the option list, with 88 self-shifters actually making it into the country. But sales fell again, down to 3,092. Zastava struggled gamely, with civil war raging just miles from its doors, announcing new seats, larger front brakes, beefier suspension and a modified steering-column angle for ’92. A Yugo five-door hatchback was said to be in the offing, but it was for naught. Though 1,412 cars were sold January through March, a visitor to Yugo America headquarters found locked gates and an empty yard. The American importer filed for bankruptcy and Zastava’s manufacture of automobiles–though later revived–had became a casualty of war.
The Yugo had not been great car or even a good one, but somehow it deserved a better ending than that.
Illustrations: Top, 1990 Yugo GV; bottom, 1990 Yugo Cabrio. Photo credit Yugo of America, author archives.
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