The Yugo has been described as one of the worst cars of all time. It was slow and had a slew of reliability issues, but despite that the Yugo has garnered somewhat of a cult following in places like the U.S. The same isn’t true in its home nations that made up the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia where it’s something of an icon.
Production started on the Yugo in 1980 before it was introduced to the United States in 1985. Essentially, it’s a shortened variant of the Fiat 128 and was a collaborative effort from the various republics that made up Yugoslavia. So you had electrical parts from Slovenia, interior fittings and brakes from Croatia, seatbelts, locks, and mirrors from Macedonia, engine electrics from Bosnia, and everything else in Serbia.
As you can imagine, the collaborative nature of the Yugo’s manufacturing meant that once the Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, it was hard to ensure things kept up at a reasonable level of quality. Though once NATO bombs tore through the Zastava factory in 1999, it spelled the definite end of the Yugo.
The Yugo developed a reputation in the United States as a punch line. One common joke is, “If you want to double the value of your Yugo, fill it up with petrol.” But how did it develop such a dreadful reputation?
For starters, it had a tiny 128 overhead camshaft engine capable of 45bhp (34kW) to a “large capacity” 65bhp (48kW) for a top speed of just 90mph (145km/h) which isn’t much, but the whole car weighed less than 825kg and it was very cheap costing just $3,990 USD (~$10k when adjusted for inflation). So essentially, you got what you paid for which didn’t include air conditioning or a stereo sound system.
In the former Yugoslav republics, the car has achieved icon status thanks to its simplicity, reliability, and overall cheap price point. While they are acknowledged around the world for their simplicity and cheap price, they were not renowned for their reliability in the U.S.
Reliability was a big problem in the U.S. for a few reasons; there were issues with the spark plugs, it wasn’t suited to American unleaded fuel, and it required specific maintenance that if you didn’t perform, could destroy the engine.
In particular was the timing belt that had to be serviced at 30,000 miles (48,280km) or else the engine’s pistons would ram into the valves and destroy them. This is slightly below the recommended time to service a timing belt which varies between 31,000 – 62,000 miles (50,000 – 100,000km).
Yugo enthusiasts claim that Americans had poor servicing habits which exacerbated these problems whereas drivers in the Balkans were very used to maintaining and repairing cars themselves rather than taking them to a mechanic. It should be noted that owners in the former Yugoslavia had the benefit of access to inexpensive spare parts due to the general continuity in the car’s design over the years. Local mechanics were even trained on Yugos and the simplicity of the engine again made it easy for owners to fix the car themselves.
Whether this is true is a matter of debate as is whether this car is ugly or not, another sticking point. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and there is something charming about the Yugo’s simplicity, but when compared to other hatchbacks it does lack a certain level of sophistication.
Regardless of any debate and despite strong initial sales, Americans didn’t like the Yugo and sales by the end of 1980s had fallen off a cliff. By the 1990s, even with its low price point, they couldn’t give Yugo’s away. There were even stories of two-for-one deals that did nothing to improve sales.
Eventually, with poor reviews, jokes, declining sales, a recall due to new emissions standards, and a war all compounded to put an end to Yugo production.