The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History
All Americans above a certain age remembers the introduction of the Yugo to this country, the initial giddy excitement, and then the growing realization that it was the worst car ever built!
So whose bright idea was it to import this turkey? And was it really as bad as its reputation?
This book relates the story of Malcolm Bricklin, the entrepreneur who gave the Yugo its major U.S. debut. Bricklin was the sort of fellow who could always talk someone into his next great venture, while leaving a trail of failures behind him: The chain of hardware stores he sold franchises for, but never built the central warehouse. The disastrous initial launch of Subaru of America, selling models only technically safe enough to meet requirements. To launch Yugo of America, he gutted another failing company that imported cars from Italy.
What was the appeal of the Yugo?
First, there was a shortage of inexpensive cars on the U.S. market, as U.S. manufacturers couldn't keep costs down for the business to be profitable, and Japanese manufacturers ran under a quota system for imports to America that made higher-end cars more profitable for them (if you can only sell a limited number of cars, sell higher-priced models and make more money). The Yugo, manufactured in Communist Yugoslavia, seemed a perfect fit for someone who needed inexpensive, basic transportation.
Second, the Yugo (on paper, at least) looked like a great deal - it was a Fiat design, built by a Yugoslavian factory with an overabundance of cheap labor and years of practice building the same car (year after year after year...). The ads would promise a car built with Yugoslavian craftsmanship.
And so the book goes on to tell the story of how Bricklin's firm arranged for the Yugo to be upgraded to American requirements and imported to the U.S., where it was so successful initially that people stood in line to place pre-orders.
But then public sentiment changed, and the Yugo became the target of the late-night comedians. Yes, the car was poorly built by undisciplined workers. But the car was also a victim of rushed reporting from incomplete safety reports - it actually wasn't the least safe car of its time, and much of the reason for its low score was due to the fact that the car was an older design and lightweight. (It's physics - lighter cars always do poorly compared to larger cars.) When a Yugo drove off a bridge, the initial claims were that the Yugo was so light, it had been blown off by high winds - which is what the public remembered, despite later conclusions that the accident had nothing to do with wind or car weight, but the design of the bridge's railings.
And what is the wargaming angle of this story? The factory complex where the Yugo was built was originally a 19th Century armament factory. The Yugo might have survived on the U.S. market, but the outbreak of the Yugoslav Civil War doomed production (under the Communists, the parts suppliers were deliberately located in different parts of the country - the civil war made shipping impossible). Then a few years later, during NATO's campaign to protect Kosovo from Serbian aggression, the factory was bombed by NATO - not to wipe out car production, but because the complex also manufactured small arms!
And surprisingly, after all the turmoil, Fiat eventually would build a new factory on the old site, dedicating it to production of the Fiat 500L - which is entering the U.S. market in 2013...
This is an interesting book that touches on business, automobile manufacturing, imports, communism, and some remarkable people.
Reviewed by Editor in Chief Bill .