The California car peddler and the auto industry wheeler-dealer hatched a plan: They'd meet in New York to discuss introducing a cheap Eastern European car into the American market.
But instead of getting on plane that day in 1984, Miroslav Kefurt decided he'd drive across the country, from West Coast to East. Might as well put his product, the Yugo 45, to the test. It was an eventful journey. "En route," Jason Vuic writes in "The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History," "Kefurt's blue Yugo broke down three times."
The story of the Yugo, the low-horsepower, low-priced and perennially troubled subcompact named for its country of origin (Yugoslavia), is told in Vuic's meticulous and wide-ranging social history of a troubled car.
Though the carmaker sold a relatively small number of cars here during its mid-1980s heyday -- it occupied "a tiny .35 percent of the U.S. market," Vuic writes -- the Yugo's many mechanical problems and safety issues made it a national joke. It was, Vuic reminds us, a comedic prop in movies and an easy laugh for comedians. "It was a bad car for the ages," Vuic writes.
But American car buyers liked the idea of the Yugo, at least initially. It surely wasn't a luxury car, but at that price -- $3,990 in 1985 -- its limitations were tolerable. They sold quickly in that summer of '85 -- so fast, Vuic notes, that major newspapers, TV networks and car magazines made "Yugomania" a regular staple of their coverage.
Other carmakers tried to mimic the early success enjoyed by Yugo, which "had demonstrated that ... U.S. consumers would buy even the obscurest of automobiles as long as they were cheap," Vuic writes. Before long, Hyundai, from Korea, was offering its Excel for less than $5,000, and Volkswagen, Chrysler, GM and Ford were also selling similarly priced models.
The glory, Vuic explains, was over quickly. In 1986 Consumer Reports said the car was essentially a pile of junk with a paint job, and federal auto safety officials forced Yugo to recall the nearly 10,000 cars it had sold in order to fix the car's flawed seat belts. Yugos were also losers in a round of crash tests mandated by the feds. Though sales didn't immediately plummet, the company couldn't sustain itself in the face of so many blows to its image, and the car soon began vanishing from the nation's roads.
But the Yugo isn't forgotten. Ten years ago, Vuic writes, the listeners of NPR's "Car Talk" were asked to pick "the Worst Car of the Millennium." Any guesses as to which affordably priced automobile topped the list?
Kevin Canfield's book reviews have appeared in the New York Times, Bookforum and elsewhere.