Ethos

Sputtering from Bavaria to Serbia in a 1984 Yugo

Encountered today, the Yugo is endearingly charismatic—and still tremendously awful.

The color was nicknamed “non-metallic pus” by the toothless gas station attendant with the red Partizan Belgrade cap. The turgid upholstery could have been cut from a wizened hermit’s bathrobe. The mocha brown all-plastic dashboard epitomized the fine Yugoslav art of brittle discoloring. So how come this frail-looking econobox on tricycle-like 13-inch tires got more thumbs-up, more video clips on Instagram, and more friendly pats on the roof during our 780-mile journey from Bavaria to Serbia than a gold-plated McLaren P1? Because for every Eastern Bloc truck driver and every Serbian expat, the Yugo brought back memories of Josip Broz Tito’s protracted effort to keep the multiethnic Yugoslavia together.

On the far side of the heavily guarded border between Hungary and Serbia, our pale two-plus-folding-rear-bench-seater awaited, an apparition that long ago earned its reputation for breaking down at random or rotting away at warp speed. Built by the former arms manufacturer Zastava, which only added cars to its portfolio of cannons and howitzers in the early 1950s, the Yugo was, shortly after its 1981 launch, almost unanimously rated as the world’s worst automobile, inferior even to that uncrowned king of four-wheeled craptacularity, the plastic-bodied Sachsenring Trabant. After a week at the helm, we came to fervently disagree with this gross misjudgment. True, the baby Zastava is not a quality piece of work, but it oozes affability, simplicity, and approachability. This car wants to be your friend, even if the odd specimen was, without a doubt, a habitual troublemaker.

Victor Hugo (our Yugo) was delivered new to Belgium, where a steadfast Serbian-born pensioner kept it for 32 years before selling it to me for 2,000 euros, or about $2,350. A couple of weeks later, I had collected additional bills running to roughly $3,350 for mandatory repair work, licensing, and third-party insurance. Although the retro-funky 55L arrived in Germany with a European Union declaration of roadworthiness, roadworthy it certainly was not. For a start, it needed new tires and fresh brakes—and a Saint Christopher plaque on the dashboard to protect us from evil, both within and without. When it tiptoed off the flatbed in the middle of the night in a bright yellow sheen and covered in ADAC (Germany’s AAA) stickers, it reeked of gasoline and soon misfired to a puffing halt.

Initially, the fuel gauge showed empty when the tank was full, and consumption worked out to a Porsche-like 23.5 mpg. But to be fair, things did get better by the mile.

Two hours later, the engine started. Three hours later, it actually ran, firing order 3-1-4-2 counting down. Four hours later, it even idled without stalling the instant you attempted to put it into gear. The first leg of this epic journey from Munich to Vienna was thus, kind of, OK. Initially, the top speed leveled off at an indicated 65 mph, the fuel gauge showed empty when the tank was full, wind noise challenged road noise for lead vocals, and fuel consumption worked out to a Porsche-like 23.5 mpg. But to be fair, things did get better by the mile.

As Vienna’s trademark Ferris wheel rotated into sight, top speed climbed to 80 mph, and with the engine having cleaned itself out a bit, the entire 59 lb-ft of pulling power was now on call to twist the driveshafts with something resembling mild urgency. Having said that, smoking was out of the question due to low-octane fumes that filled the cabin (and which took three washing cycles to clear from our clothes). As for the rest, the battery light warned of impending electrical doom, the aftermarket radio’s loose wiring sizzled the speakers to stubborn silence, aero drag kept flattening the door mirror, and the driver’s seat backrest adjuster had seized in an excessively laid-back position. Everything else worked spot-on, though, absolutely spot-on.

Other than the broken radio, balky seat back, battery warning light, and noxious gas fumes, all was well in the cabin. The fire extinguisher was a good call.

Austrians love to go shopping in Hungary, where salami is half price, a fresh hairdo costs as much as an iced coffee back home, and dentists charge market price for new teeth. On the A1 autobahn infested by bargain sharks, eastbound traffic eventually came to a halt, and the Yugo’s engine felt first inclined to overheat and then reluctant to restart. To avoid embarrassment, we fled the highway and followed Google maps on bumpy but mostly arrow-straight B-roads last surfaced when Hungary was still a monarchy. With a meager 54 hp at the disposal of a foot used to several times that, overtaking semis was an equation with multiple unknowns, including suicidal stray dogs, deep potholes, enormous speed bumps, and packs of motorbikes driven by MotoGP wannabes approaching from behind.

Contrary to the propaganda, we were actually rather impressed by Victor’s mile-munching abilities. Although the dodgy thermometer suggested cabin temperatures in excess of 104 degrees Fahrenheit, opening the quarter panes had almost the same effect as switching on an only mildly dysfunctional A/C. Despite their dilapidated appearance, the seats were upholstered with horsehair and real springs for what turned out to be acceptable long-distance comfort. Likewise, although aero efficiency was evidently not part of the design brief, the upright Pocky-like roof pillars barely cluttered the good all-around visibility. Lack of performance is only a problem if you ignore what’s happening in the rearview mirror. Keep your eyes peeled in both directions, and the narrow-track econobox displays an unexpected swiftness not unlike the original Mini.

Why the look of concern, Georg? Victor Hugo made the trip, um, interesting.

Stuck in a nerve-wracking three-hour traffic jam at the Serbian border, the featherweight Yugo preferred being pushed to the roadside as opposed to creeping along with the pack. When we finally headed for Belgrade a couple of heart attacks later, a monsoon put the wipers to the test. This should have been a piece of cake for the brand-new Uniroyal rain tires; unfortunately, the communist crate started hydroplaning at just 40 mph, a disconcerting trait encouraged by the bonsai wheelbase, which is closer to the Smart Fortwo’s than, say, the Toyota Yaris’. While it rained, the brakes were on strike, too, juddering and droning in protest.

But who cares? At the end of the 10-hour day, no more than 20 cars had passed our econobox en route to its birthplace. We had spotted about the same number of Zastavas stranded on the hard shoulder, waiting for DIY talent, professional help, or last rites. The Serbian Yugo population increases with poverty; there are precious few Zastavas to be seen in big cities, but they still splutter in droves through rural areas, ranking fourth in the mobility hierarchy, after donkeys, prewar tractors, and scooters.

The display near the welcome monument at the northern entrance to Kragujevac read 10:47 p.m. and 77 degrees when we finally arrived. Hot, exhausted, and a little wounded, the Yugo would now stall at every set of traffic lights, limping home on two or three cylinders to the bed and breakfast across the railway track from the Fiat factory located on the site where Zastavas were built. The morning after, the engine didn’t start, and that’s when local wrench Rocky and his team took over.

The stout Serbian spanner wrestler welcomed Victor like a long-lost son. Chewing consonants with an impatient mutter, Rocky held one ear close to the engine while fumbling with greasy fingers on the carburetor until the idle speed dropped from 2,000 to 750 rpm. While he was at it, he caulked the fuel tank, fixed some wiring, and adjusted the handbrake’s travel. In the meantime, his son had dashed to a nearby accessory store for an air filter and a distributor cap. Probably lured by the German patient’s charismatic pinging noises, other Zastavas started to creep out of their holes. Their owners marveled with emphatic gestures at our car, praising its original paint job, ultra-rare L specification, and the slickness of the notoriously balky transmission. This impromptu gathering stimulated the national pride to the effect that we agreed to meet again at 7 p.m. for food and drinks.

When things started to go south, former Zastava racer Rocky and friends all pitched in to help.

That evening we were introduced to Slato and his bespoilered one-off 600 (Fico) convertible, Aleksandar in a barely street-legal stealth 120-hp Yugo 55, and Vladan at the wheel of a Zastava 600 on steroids with bordello-red velour upholstery and a roof trimmed in black leather. Before everyone started hitting the sauce, the three Yugoista offered to give their newly found brother a thorough checkup. The next day at 8 a.m. sharp, the timing belt, distributor rotor, spark plugs, head gasket, and oil and filter had been changed in less than two hours. The charge? Around 100 euros, including parts. The labor rate came to 18 euros, which compares favorably to the average Serbian hourly wage of 7 to 10 euros.

When the Yugo plant thrived, some 30,000 employees worked three shifts, and in its best-ever year, Zastava built roughly 230,000 cars. But in April 1999, NATO troops attacked Kragujevac and almost completely destroyed the factory. Although the last Yugo rolled off the makeshift assembly line in 2008, the company never recovered from the aftermath of the war.

Fiat eventually bought the ailing carmaker, razed the old buildings, and erected a bespoke new assembly site where 5,000 workers put together the 500L microvan. Ten years later, Fiat pays workers 250 to 300 euros per month, and because the average pension barely comes to 200 euros per month, DIY is the name of almost every game.

When we told them that the original plan was to donate this mint piece of Serbian motor history to a local charity for auction, awkward silence spread. “Don’t take it personal, but in Kragujevac we have more than enough Yugos, and even the best ones are worth almost nothing,” said Slato Bataveljic, the chairman of the Zastava owners club. “I value your car at approximately 600 euros. After all, it is still possible to buy brand-new models for 4,000 euros or less. In terms of street cred, a Yugo ranks right at the bottom. Everyone who can afford it drives an import.”

Unloved, unwanted, and underrated in its hometown, Victor Hugo retained its German plates, made a U-turn with considerable steering effort, and headed back north to photographer Tom Salt’s Old Car Nursing Home in Ratzeburg, near Hamburg. Even though the actual mileage may after all be closer to 113,000 than the claimed 13,000 kilometers, and despite full-throttle emissions capable of knocking birds directly from the sky, the world’s worst car is still good enough to spend its second life as an economical, practical urban runabout.

There are plenty of better cars in the market than this oddball Zastava, but in the course of the pending paradigm shift from big engines to electrification, this light, compact, and nimble underdog doesn’t stray as far from the new road to the future as its banjaxed image suggests.