Friday, April 23, 2010

A Brief Review of Jason Vuic's The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History

hi folks -- Jason Vuic and Hill and Wang publishers were thoughtful enough to send me a copy of Jason's The Yugo this week, and I quickly devoured it despite the fact that I had papers to grade. Our knowledge of the history of the automobile in general post 1960 is rather meager, and this work greatly adds to a very slim amount of good history on this period and subject. the post 1960 era is clearly a weakness that I perceive is in my book The Automobile and American Life, although my work does a better job than most surveys regarding the recent past, especially culturally.
What I found most interesting in this book was how Vuic set the broad historical context for a study that is primarily about a car. He does an excellent job in placing this story in Eastern Europe -- with accompanying tales concerning both America and Italy as need be -- into the narrative. Until I read the book, I really knew nothing about Malcolm Bricklin and his various schemes associated with the auto industry that led up to the importation of the Yugo into the United States by the mid-1980s. Bricklin was a car guy, entrepreneur, projector, snake oil salesman, and fraud all rolled into one. But he was also a visionary and idealist, who was one of a number of automobile industry outliers who attempted to break into a U.S. market that was dominant ed by the Big Three and a handful of foreign manufacturers after 1970. Bricklin seemingly never quite got it that "the devil is in the details," and that positive thinking can take you only so far.
The Yugo is at times remarkably funny, and I appreciated the humor, although it was at the expense of those sorry consumers who took a chance at a car that was clearly not adequate for the American market and consumer preferences and expectations. But at times, the narrative devolved into a discourse hat you might expect more in an "Introduction the Modern Europe" undergraduate history class, and I found it important to understand this background material.
My criticisms are few. I really wanted for the author to get behind the wheel of one of the surviving cars, and take it for a spin! And that never happened. People in East Germany love the Trabant, but I did not sense that the same emotions are true fore Yugo. Why? And finally, I never had a sense after finishing the book that the question of "was this car the worst ever" not answered to my satisfaction.
What I want to do now is talk to a Yugo owner and drive a Yugo, so that I can make up my mind beyond knowledge gained from a book. Cross country in a Yugo through the desert this summer? I doubt I am that bold!

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