My Yugo Affair

The used Ford Fiesta I purchased in Queens, New York in 1989 was a lemon. The previous owner wasn’t trying to cheat me out of $600; neither of us know how worn-out the car really was.

Over several months, I purchased new rotors, brakes, a muffler, radiator, heater core, ignition parts. All my meager disposable earnings were spent in desperation to keep the car running. Why was having a car so important to me? I can’t really say. There were plenty of buses and trains to get me where I needed to go, and with a little planning, most were fairly reliable. Parking was a bit of a chore. Because I didn’t have a driveway at home, I had to hunt for parking spaces on the streets.

Maybe having that car was my trophy, evidence my declaration of  independence from public transportation. Or perhaps it was merely showing off – how I had something above and beyond what most of my peers in Queens had. It made me popular with other LDS singles, especially girls, who asked for rides to church activities.

The last day I drove the Ford Fiesta was on a trip to the LDS Temple in Silver Spring, Maryland – also known as the Washington DC Temple. I had two friends with me. One was a lovely single young lady from the LDS Uniondale Ward; the other, one of her married mentors.

Sure we prayed before we left New York. I hoped that God’s blessings would be sufficient for our needs, but it didn’t seem to turn out that way. I am grateful that there was no collision, and none of us were physically harmed; however, in spite of my tender loving care, that little Ford Fiesta had to die, and didn’t get us back to New York. We had no choice but to ride an Amtrack train, which was quite expensive. I get perturbed to think about that car, even today.

The hassles I experienced with that Ford Fiesta would be sufficient for a different blog. This blog is more about my next car.

It was early 1991. I was relying on my landlord and friend – Albert Tan – to drive me to work from Rosedale every day. I asked him to drive me to a certain Ford/Yugo dealership in Nassau County, to inquire about how I might purchase a new car. I had seen several small cars in their lot, and Yugo was the most affordable car on the market. A kind salesman answered a few questions I had, and said I could purchase a new white Yugo GV for less than $4000. That included a dealer-installed Radio/CD player.

I was already saving a few hundred each month toward a down-payment. The salesman had me fill out an application for an auto loan, which he then faxed to Ford Credit. There was no internet in those days. After about an hour, I was approved for a term loan of no longer than 18 months. If I could find an affordable auto insurance policy, I might be able to drive away with a new Yugo after a month or two when I had more cash on hand. The salesman offered me an additional incentive; if I didn’t need the Radio/CD player, he could reduce the price by about $300.  I liked this scenario, and was emotionally sold that very day.

When my co-workers heard I was looking at Yugos, they tried to dissuade me, saying “they are not good cars”. My idea of a good car was anything with a warranty, at a price I could afford. Yugo certainly seemed like a good car to me.

The annual auto insurance price quoted me, by an Allstate agent in Queens was $1995. She considered me a high risk driver, at the immature age of 28. Even if I managed to save up the money for her ridiculous auto insurance, I would not have any money left to buy a car.

The GEICO company offered me affordable insurance, but it was a phone and mail-order company.  I had to wait for US postal service to deliver my personal check to GEICO, then for GEICO to send me an insurance card, which was my proof of insurance on the exact white Yugo GV that was waiting for me.

After I cashed the critical paycheck from my employer in Little Neck, I returned to the Ford/Yugo dealership to complete my purchase. The salesman who had helped me before passed my contract to a different sales person, a Yugo specialist of sorts.

She was an attractive young caucasian woman with long straight hair, and ugly fake fingernails. I was sitting in front of her desk in a fairly quiet office, listening to her add-on offers. I politely refused them, knowing I could not afford anything more than just the basic car. Suddenly a menacing voice scowled at us from the doorway. I turned to see a buff black haired goonish dude standing there with a smug look on his face. I do not recall exactly what he said, because it didn’t even register to me. He was her main squeeze – I noticed him in a picture frame on the desk, where he was holding or embracing this sales lady – again with a smug look on his face.  Now why was her main squeeze interrupting my purchase experience? Maybe he was just guarding the door; trying to prevent me from escaping.

I was about ready for the part where I laid out my cash on the desk, but at that moment, her main squeeze was making me nervous. The sales lady seemed to ignore him, and asked for my money.

So I laid out the cash, which I had been saving for months. She counted it and decided it wasn’t enough. She said I had to come up with more. I wasn’t expecting this. I explained that my real salesman had already come to an agreement with me, which didn’t include the radio/CD player. The sales lady wasn’t sure about that. She would have to check with the real salesman, and she asked me to wait in the lobby for him to return and explain things to her.

Her main squeeze was still hanging out by the door, but he nodded and smiled at me as I walked past him. After waiting for another 30 minutes or so, the real salesman came back and explained the somewhat messy contract he had drawn up, so that I was allowed to drive away in a new 1990 Yugo GV – without a radio.

Driving a new car, for the first time in my life, was exhilarating. I placed great trust in this Yugo automobile. Great trust. It would take me to church, to work, to anywhere in North America I wanted to go. If it ever broke down, I had towing insurance, and a repair warranty to pay for repairs. Having no stereo radio or CD player was a blessing to me. Car stereos were the most common temptation for thieves to break into cars.

The only annoying problem I had with that Yugo was a faulty heater cable. It came loose from the clamp behind the dash, so I couldn’t control the heater while driving. I brought the car back to the dealership, and had to leave it there to be repaired. I picked up my car after work one day, and it seemed like the problem was fixed, but it really wasn’t. I moved the heater lever a few times, back and forth, and the cable was loose again.

I didn’t have the tools or the knowledge or the time to open up the dash or the console and try to fix it myself. I didn’t want to leave my car at the dealership again, and I didn’t want to have to hire a ride back to Queens. So I drove it home with very hot feet. Eventually I figured out a way to control the heater by opening the hood, and manually moving a lever next to the fresh air intake port.

Aside from the odd way of controlling the heater, I had virtually trouble-free driving with that Yugo for over three years. No unexpected car expenses. No getting stranded without a ride.

The Zastava (Yugo) factory was started with old Fiat tooling, and the cars were actually designed by Fiat in Italy. The Yugo cars were not too difficult to maintain, with the right parts, but the ecomomic design and low price fit more into American throw-away mentality. In other words, drive the car for a few years, then throw it away and buy a new one.

Yugo dealerships in America would soon stop importing Yugos. I’m sure it had something to do with the poor reputation of the brand. Another thing; civil war was brewing in Yugoslavia, which would tear that country apart.



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