the simple life of an ordinary Slav includes tooling about in a 10-year-old white Yugo.
In the US, a great art project was inspired by the Yugo, when a professor at the School of Visual Arts assigned his students the Yugo as a medium. The object was to turn the little car into something useful, with results as varied and inventive as a Toaster, a Port-o-Potty, an accordion, a foosball table, and a shower.
So where did it all begin? The name, of course, is a nod to the country, but what a happy coincidence that in English it should be so apt at conveying movement as well. Still this served to work against the product since oftentimes “you no go” as a result of the automotive folly.
But automotive wizardry is a luxury the average Yugo owner cannot afford. The overwhelming reason to buy a Yugo is, of course, price. In Yugoslavia, it is cheap to buy, cheap to maintain, and one can walk into any garage and buy spare parts.
Unfortunately the Yugo is a commodity and like all other commodities, it needs a strong brand to distinguish itself from competition. At best people feel a loyalty rooted in sympathy and at worst the car is merely a necessary evil for mobility. Cheap and sweet are not the hallmarks of a great selling brand, and these qualities can be particularly risky when dealing with low-margin products such as automobiles.
The story of the Yugo begins in 1954, when the first passenger cars rolled off the production line at the Zastava factory in Kragujevac, Yugoslavia. The site was originally a factory for casting cannons and some say the plant never stopped producing weapons even when cars, trucks and tools became the main products to emerge from the factory.
Throughout the years, Yugo did a brisk business locally, in neighboring Italy, and worldwide as a second car for families and a primary car for students and lower income drivers. It was cheap, it was unreliable, but it was loved with a sort of resigned acceptance by owners around the world – and some of the older, rarer models such as the Zastava 750 and the Multipla are actually lovely from a design point of view.
Kept alive by subsidies and cheap labor, the little manufacturer eventually met a huge challenge in the nineties as Yugoslavia fell into a civil war lasting throughout the decade. Then on April 9, 1999, the Zastava factory was the target of a tremendous bombing campaign by NATO. Missiles showered down and totally demolished the assembly line for Yugos. Production slipped from 180,000 off the belt in 1989 to just 13,000 a decade later.
The eventual dissolution of the country, a decade of crippling economic sanctions, and a bombed out plant took their toll on the automaker. But despite all this Yugo is still churning out its plucky little cars. And there is possibly still a local market for a few years to come. The average monthly salary in Yugoslavia is down from US$100 in 1999 to just US$40 in 2001, so with Yugos costing around US$3000 to buy, it’s still the only viable option for most peripatetic locals.
But it can’t last. Now that Yugoslavia is enjoying a new dawn with the end of the wars and the lifting of sanctions, it also has to contend with the open market that forces other automakers around the world to pour billions of dollars into establishing and growing a brand. Competition can be a deadly component in the race to get Yugo back up to speed with manufacturing. Following the democratization of Czechoslovakia, Skoda managed to pull itself up and rise to fill the student and second car niche but can Yugo achieve the same feat?
To put the go back in Yugo, there would need to be a complete overhaul of the brand. The first hurdle would be to overcome issues involving quality control. The name association is probably too great to ever extend the line into luxury cars but a basic car with a quirky look could captivate a younger generation. The new era in Yugoslavia could provide a springboard for reintroducing the car, and maybe to announce the new change, Yugo could dust off its once-perky but sadly outdated Y logo for a modern look.
It may sound like a long shot but remember, when you have lemons, make lemonade.