A new book is forcing me to reëxamine a dark period in my life. No, the book is not about federal prison or heroin addiction — those are Dark Pasts I’ve missed so far. I’m talking about the time I owned a Yugo. To admit this fact in the presence of any group of normally car-oriented American males is enough to merit gales of laughter and derision. I’ve yet to try this in the company of non-Americans who might’ve owned a Skoda or certain Renault or Citroen models, which can still easily compete for the title Worst Ever.
The book is “The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History.” You can find it at Powell’s Books, HERE.
Slate.com has a more in-depth review of the book and a precis of the Yugo’s history HERE, without having to read the book. It’s obviously a look at a very different time in the auto business, in the world economy, and in attitudes to manufactured goods.
Why a Yugo? 1985 was the first year of my first corporate job following 22 months of unemployment (unless one can consider a graduate teaching position “employment.” There WERE paychecks, but they didn’t amount to much). Our existing second car failed, and I needed transportation of some sort for the 50 miles of driving required for the commute to and from the job (this was in Ohio). Without much ready cash and not much net earning power, it was all about the sticker price. It was NOT about fuel economy, which actually drove a lot of the introduction of the Yugo into America, this being the period of a big rise in gasoline prices.
I can sum up some of the reasoning that led to this decision, but it’s not pretty: Owning is better than leasing (probably not in this case). New is better than used (not necessarily). I didn’t take the time to a)consider other options b)seek anyone’s advice.
The book mentioned above goes into the reasons that a unit such as the Yugo could ever get imported at all. True, the nature of compact imports was different in those days, but there WERE Toyotas, and we knew about them, although a new one was well over the $4,000 we spent for the Yugo.
So much for the decision. How was the experience?
It did drive, day in and day out. It was noisy. The ride was harsh. Not a lot of tire, suspension, bodywork or other mass to cushion the blows. It had a tiny engine that was taxed by the add-on air conditioner we purchased (cramming that AC unit into the tiny space was an engineering marvel), and it didn’t have any insulation, so it was cold in the winter. It did run, day in and day out, except for one, terrible, critical problem: it kept burning out catalytic converters. That happened at least three times during the short time we owned it. That meant a lot of damage to the rest of the ignition system, too, so they were major outages. Here, one of my arguments in favor of buying a new car vs. a used one paid off: warranty.
I can’t overstate how stressful these breakdowns were. Much of the 26 miles of driving each way went through countryside and rural interstate, so there were some lonely breakdowns.
Eventually, I completely melted down and managed to get the attention not only of the dealer but the national distributor, and, incredibly, the dealer TOOK THE CAR BACK. In exchange, plus a little cash, we got a used VW Fox (they were also a VW dealer). That car served for many years, brought me to California, and kept working here for a good long while.
It turns out that my difficulties with the Yugo aren’t really another black mark on the car’s record. At the end of the Yugo saga I discovered that the catalytic converter problem resulted from me topping up the tiny gas tank in the car to reduce the number of trips to the pump, I was filling up the feeder tube past some vent that exhausted gas or something from the converter, causing it to burn out. Without that, I might’ve driven the little Yugoslavian import for years!
Life lessons? Too numerous to mention.