Today is Malcolm Bricklin’s 72nd birthday, and to celebrate this jubilant occasion, I am presenting my review of a book written about perhaps the most reviled of his infamous business exploits: the Yugo.
I recently had the pleasure of reading Jason Vuic’s “The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History.” And just so you know, I thought it was a total hoot. It’s been ages since I last found myself transfixed by a book, owing in no small part to the clever prose of Mr. Vuic and his obvious enthusiasm for the Yugo and its hilarious cast of supporting characters
The tale is peppered with anecdotes that will make you cackle gleefully in public and get the side-eye from old ladies on the train. It will inspire you to torture your coworkers with a relentless barrage of Yugo jokes. Your resulting revelry in everything Yugo will have phones hanging up on you, doors closed in your face. But, oh yes, it’s worth it.
Vuic begins by telling a tale of the brave pioneers who first brought the Yugo state-side. The first person to show an interest was a Californian who had originally sold used Fiats in his home country of Czechoslovakia, where it was illegal to run a business selling used cars, and people could only privately sell their cars once their cars hit 5,000 kilometers. So he only bought and sold the same color and model Fiat so as not to arouse suspicions. He purchased the red Fiat 600s new, then drove around like mad, competing in road rallies in his efforts to reach the requisite distance – no small feat as the country only had 10,000 kilometers of paved roads. After he moved to California, he succeeded in importing the Yugo 45; then Malcolm Bricklin purchased from him the California distribution rights to the marque, acquired the rights for the other forty-nine states, and founded Yugo America.
Now, I knew of Bricklin before reading the book. I knew that he was the first person to import a Subaru to the United States, and in his varied career built a strange, gull-winged, fiberglass car called a Bricklin SV-1. And to my delight (and to yours, I guarantee it), the book goes into Bricklin’s entrepreneurial endeavors in great detail, which truly made for entertaining reading. It paints Bricklin as the quintessential dreamer – someone with wild business ideas a logical person would chortle at (for example, Vuic claims that the Bricklin SV-1 cost $50,000 to produce, but sold for $7,500 new). A man in whom reason was entirely absent. A man who was well acquainted with lawsuits and bankruptcy, but who also made millions and had (and perhaps still has) an extravagant and generous life. The book reserves several choice anecdotes for Bricklin and his love of excess. For instance, when he founded Subaru of America, the headquarters in New Jersey had a helipad (he loved helicopters), a collection of bonzai trees, a waterfall, and his desk was a James Bond-inspired contraption with monitors and secret cameras, while his second in command had a desk covered in fur. Bricklin also was portrayed as having a fondness for cowboy boots and turquoise jewelry, which I find somewhat disturbing for a fellow Philadelphian.
Vuic also describes the bleak process of Yugoslavian car-buying in the 1960s. A buyer could only choose one of two cars – the Fiat 1300/1500 or the Fiat 750. Buyers had no ability to choose the car’s color or its features. They had to purchase whatever was allotted to them several months after ordering. Other stories involve the workers at the Zastava manufacturing plant in Yugoslavia (now Serbia) who tossed back sljivovica brandy (truly vicious stuff) at breakfast, lunch and during work, which probably explained why brand new Yugos came out of the factory with rust.
Indeed, the best tales are reserved for the car itself, but I don’t want to give too much away as the book offers a plethora of amusing, and consistently surprising, stories of its tortured existence. I grew up in the eighties and was just old enough then to remember the almost universal contempt for the car; however, I was too young to recall Vuic’s description of Yugo’s initial, seemingly unbelievable appeal when Yugo-mania seized the United States and lines actually formed at dealerships to purchase the car. At one point, Chrysler even offered to buy the company. The Yugo actually became the “fastest-selling first-year European import in US history.” Quite impressive for a car that was sold brand new in the US but was essentially a fifteen year old Fiat 127.
However, as expected, the book inevitably describes (in thorough detail) the precipitous decline in sales and eventual winding down of the company in the United States. An abysmal review in Consumer Reports triggered the downfall, and a fatality that occurred when a Yugo GV was blown off the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan destroyed what little reputation the company had remaining. The breakup of Yugoslavia and the resulting dearth of Yugo parts drove the company further into disrepair. The coup de grace was a NATO bomb that was dropped through the roof of the Zastava plant.
Although we all know what became of Yugo in the United States, I guarantee that you will find yourself quite surprised by the story behind the car and absolutely astounded that anyone with any sense would want to bring it here. At the 50th time I told her a Yugo joke, one of my friends whined, “Why write a book about the Yugo?” Well, to be honest, I don’t think many of us know much about the car - I personally don’t know anyone with a Yugo or anyone who has ever admitted to owning one (any former Yugo owners among you?) – but there’s a hilarious, absolutely bonkers story behind its arrival in the states that deserves to be heard. Vuic is an effective, skillful writer who does a terrific job conveying the Yugo’s story in a way both car enthusiasts and history buffs will enjoy. If you’re looking for a page-turner, pick this one up and laugh loudly – you won’t be disappointed. At the very least, this book will inspire in you a new found appreciation for any car you drive.
What do you call a Yugo with brakes? Customized.
Got any good Yugo jokes? Post ‘em here!