Zastava Yugo Koral 60

It's that time of year when conversations drift towards summer holiday plans, and my office is no different. A colleague of mine was trying to tell me about her road trip plans around southern Europe, but she couldn't explain the destinations.
As she searched for the name of the first country, her eyes rolled up and to the left, and her mouth hung open. It was there on the tip of her tongue, but no amount of umms and ahhhs could pull it into action. "Chorwacja? What is that in English?" she finally asked, with a typical Polish roll of the central 'r'.

It's a constant problem. So many countries with so many languages making so many names for us, the poor tourist, to remember. And while some countries make it easy for the international community, such as France or America, other countries have to suffer the ignominy of having their names stammered, butchered or worse, confused. I deeply pity the poor Netherlanders for the number of times they've been called Deutsch instead of Dutch.  And poor Chorwacja, whose Polish pronunciation to the English ear, has a certain connotation to the first syllable, and an unfortunate one considering how pretty Croatia really is.

Croatia is just one of the Adriatic nations whose name and location is, to many, confusing. Its equally pretty sibling states such as Bosnia and Slovenia create a family as complex as a Shakespearean drama, with a plot equally bloody. The name of this modern tragedy? Yugoslavia.

Of course, Yugoslavia is long gone; but relics remain. In this case, a cobalt blue hatchback adorned with the "Yugo" name, sitting abandoned in a Warsaw car park.

To the untrained eye, a Yugo is just another Eighties car, folded out of steel plate somewhere behind the Iron Curtain and sold cheaply to the masses. And that's a fair assessment to some degree; there's nothing from the outside that would distinguish the car from contemporaries like the Ukrainian ZAZ Tavria or the Lada Samara. The only distinguishing feature is the split-Y logo on the bonnet, which we would hope no-one recognises.

Because "Yugo" carries the unfortunate honours of being both one of the automotive world's most recognised and also most reviled brands. The little car that couldn't, as the reputation goes, which led to the car being classed as one of the worst of all time, by TIME magazine no less. Its reputation is so bad that the word "Yugo" now represents all that is wrong about poverty motoring, and Communist products in general.

But was it all that bad? After a production run of nearly 800,000 units over four decades, the consensus seems to be "yes", with complaints ranging from the minor (loose door handles and rattly trim) to fairly serious (engines exploding, doors falling off).  Which seems odd, considering the car's parentage.

Half Serbian, half Italian, the little Yugo was yet another licensing project whereby an old Fiat was produced by factory behind the Iron Curtain. In this case, the Fiat 127 formed the base of the vehicle  that would enter production at Serbia's Red Flag Factory, or as the rest of the world knows it, Zastava.

The Fiat underpinnings were tried and trusted. A simple 903cc engine was slotted under the bonnet, with a rudimentary 4-speed gearbox sending power to the front wheels. Around it, an Italian-penned body shell offered an unpretentious hatchback design, with no-fuss straight edges and flat surfaces to simplify the production process. To keep things efficient, parts were brought in from all over Yugoslavia, with Slovenian alternators and Croation upholstery all making their way to the Serbian assembly line. The design was signed off for production in 1978, with serial manufacture starting in late 1980.
On paper, the car seems no different from other period hatchbacks; the Ford Fiesta and the British Metro employed the same no-frills principle in a similarly angular bodyshell, and the Citroen Visa even shared the same mechanicals. But Zastava's insistence on simplicity went that little bit further. Most early versions didn't even have a petrol flap, for fear of over-complicating the production process with unnecessary extra curves in the body shell. Other price-cuts included a single front wiper, until you get to the point where the price brochure includes features such as "carpet" - one of the deciding factors when you're buying a new car, obviously.

But the real key to the Yugo's bargain price was the labour. Where American cars cost their manufacturers up to $23 in labour per man hour, Zastava only needed to charge $0.60, such were the wage levels in Yugoslavia at that time. Add that to the already frugal design, and you get a fully-fledged vehicle that can fly off the production line and into the showroom for the bare minimum price, and still turn a profit. This turned out to be both Yugo's strength and its downfall.

Taking full advantage of the Yugo's bargain price was one Malcom Bricklin; an entrepreneur who not only imported foreign cars to the US but also produced his own. Both his own sports car, the Bricklin SV-1, and his imported Fiat X1/9 flew in the face of American consumer tastes of that time, and the Yugo was no exception. But like the X1/9, the Yugo had passed rigorous safety and emissions tests in order to get past America's stringent quality controls; safety tests that had to be watered down because America's own manufacturers couldn't pass them. Safety tests that no other communist manufacturer had even dared to pass, which is why the Skoda 135 or the Lada were never exported to the States. That's a factor worth bearing in mind. If this little car managed to pass those quality controls, it can't have been that bad. It certainly didn't deserve the moniker World's Worst; it shouldn't even be in the Top Ten.

The Yugo also had more to offer than the other Communist brands. While the initial offerings only gasped out 45hp from their sub-litre engines, later models got bigger and better motors, allowing the Yugo to be marketed as models 45, 50, 55 or even 60, depending on the power output. It's a Yugo 60 that we have here, and you can tell that not just by the comedy bonnet vent that feeds the 1.3 litre engine, but by having not one but two windscreen wipers. The Yugoslavians probably believed that with so much extra power under the bonnet, you'd need twice as many blades to blat the rain away from the windscreen at such massively increased speeds.

While hardly blistering, these Yugos offered enough performance to seriously tempt overseas buyers. Combined with a retail price thousands of dollars lower than any domestic sub-compact, the Yugo immediately found itself a niche market, notching up 141,000 sales in the US among price-concious buyers.

But that price proved to be all important. Cheap products lead to cheap buyers, and in the unfortunate hands of owners who considered the car "disposable", Yugos were quickly driven into the ground. With owners skimping on much-needed oil and belt changes, the little cars quickly built up a reputation for terminal engine failure. Couple that with the sort of panel fitment you get when your assembly line are paid 60 cents an hour, and the little car from Serbia rapidly went from forecourt to junkyard, without going through any second-hand market in between. A used Yugo? You couldn't even give it away.

The Yugo name became toxic, in more than one way. As a brand its name was mud, but as a nation state it was tearing itself apart, and by the 1990s the Yugoslavian Wars were in full swing, with the whole world watching the continuing series of civilian bombings and wholesale massacres.

Despite the war, Zastava still kept up production. Desperate to rid the car of its tainted moniker, they dropped the Yugo name and relaunched it as the Zastava Koral, hoping that the successful reputation of their Zastava 101 model would be carried across to its smaller sibling. Along with a new name, new models with new options were released; bigger engines with fuel injection, alloy wheels, air conditioning and even a full cabriolet were all released to the market, as and when the international sanctions allowed them to.

But it wasn't to be. With the reputation in tatters, international exports trickled to nothing, and by 1992 the American market had all dried up. By the time the southern Slavs had worked out the borders of their new post-Yugoslav states (to a greater or lesser degree), people were tired of the flimsy little machine, and were looking for more upmarket and reliable models.

And yet, as the smoke cleared, Zastava found itself in a unique position. With each ex-Yugoslav nation licking its wounds, its populations needed to quickly and cheaply mobilise to rebuild the ravaged economies. Zastava cranked up production, reforging its ties with its sister factories in the new neighbouring states to keep production going. Thanks to that, thousands of Korals continued to roll off the assembly line each year to a grateful and desperate domestic market. So iconic was the soldiering little car, it remained in production all the way up until 2008. And while one may lie dormant and disposed of here in Warsaw, there are still thousands of these little machines still rattling their way along the Adriatic coastline today thanks to the continued efforts of the pan-Slavic production line. So maybe our tragic drama has a happy ending after all.