But the automotive book industry is something else again. It seems the domestic auto companies’ near-death experience has inspired car writers to park themselves at their keyboards. As a result, the Friends of the Detroit Public Library is now sponsoring an annual Automotive Authors Book Fair.
This year’s takes place tomorrow afternoon, at the library’s Skillman branch behind the massive new Compuware Headquarters.
There will be more than twenty authors there. Paul Ingrassia will show off his excellent “Crash Course,” a new account of the domestic industry’s decline and fall.
There are books on the Model T, Studebaker, Nash, and Hudson, for nostalgia buffs.
There are books on Mustangs and Corvettes, cruising Woodward Avenue, car models and chrome, and even, for the anti-auto contrarian, Robert Gabrick‘s “Going the Greyhound Way.”
But one book in particular caught my eye. A flashy yellow model, with a tow truck on the front, called “The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History.”
I picked it up, started reading, and found it fascinating. So I called the author, Jason Vuic (as in, rhymes with Buick.) He isn’t a car guy at all. He’s a young historian of Eastern Europe who was tired of academic writing, and was fascinated by the Yugo story.
If you are too young to remember, the Yugo was a brief counter-cultural phenomenon that streaked across the conspicuously consuming world of the 1980s. In a time of wretched excess, it promised cheap, no-frills transportation, sort of what the original Volkswagen Beetle had been two decades before.
Buying one even seemed slightly daring; the Cold War hadn’t quite ended, and the Yugo was a communist car from a communist country. Plus, it cost just under four thousand dollars - the cheapest car on the market. Unfortunately, it was a lemon. A no-frills lemon. No glove compartment, no radio, no air-conditioning, no automatic transmission, no air bags and hand-cranked windows.
They broke down; they stalled out, they could be destroyed in a crash going twenty miles an hour. One really did blow off the Mackinac Bridge. Don’t ask what happened to the driver. Promoter Malcolm Bricklin, a carnival barker of a man, managed to sell America on the Yugo, but they didn’t stay sold for long.
Bricklin sold out in time to make a few million, but everyone else took a hit and ran off the road. Even Yugoslavia lost money; they sold the cars to us below cost, mainly to get hard currency.
Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991; Yugo America went bankrupt the next year. But while the fun or agony lasted, nearly one hundred and fifty thousand were sold. They didn’t hold up well. Today, there are seventeen million cars registered in Florida. One is a Yugo.
Actually, Vuic says, the Yugo wasn’t really the worst car ever sold in America. A “motorcycle with doors” called the Subaru 360 was. But the Yugo is firmly ensconced in automotive history as the bad car pop icon of all time. I’m not really sure what all this means.
But it was sure fun to read about.