Nonfiction: "The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History," by Jason Vuic.

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The subtitle's a tease, a catchy one. The Yugo is the butt of more automotive jokes than any other marque and the synonym for a terrible car, but Jason Vuic says the Subaru 360, entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin's debut in the automotive import field, was worse.

Subaru's initial entry to the U.S. market doesn't deserve a book, but the Yugo's is a story indeed: Everybody knows of it, although most of us never drove or even rode in one.

In his entertaining drive through the 1980s, Mr. Vuic uses the fatally well-publicized Yugo as the hook for a funny, tightly written book traversing politics, economics, marketing, communications, consumer safety (and dread) -- and lots of spin.

His saga of the little car that couldn't, a warmed-over Fiat of a certain age, suggests that Mr. Bricklin, a disaster in operations but a promoter of genius, deserves a biography of his own. He was a key architect in the flash success of the Yugo and its long, long demise.

Mr. Vuic hints at what's to come by putting us on the factory floor at the Zastava plant in the former Yugoslavia, where far too many workers "equalized" under socialism assembled the rebadged, tweaked Fiat known as the Yugo.

By Jason Vuic
Hill and Wang. ($29.95)

"The place was humongous," Tony Ciminera, Mr. Bricklin's quality-control watchdog, told the author. "But it was also filthy. I mean, the floor was two inches thick with grease in the press shop! It was just black filth. And it was dimly lit but no one was wearing any safety goggles or gloves."

Mr. Bricklin dismissed these concerns, telling Mr. Ciminera a "quality issue" could be fixed. Yugo executives proceeded to retrofit the cars with expensive add-on parts, delivering them to U.S. consumers eager for econo-boxes for the singularly attractive price of $3,990.

Mr. Bricklin got massive free publicity, the Yugos sold well out of the boxes of numerous dealers who'd paid stiff fees to finance his franchise empire -- and competitors like Hyundai and Subaru joined the fray.

Then the reviews came in to start the Yugo's downward spiral, particularly one in the January 1986 Consumer Reports telling people they'd do better with a used car. The Yugo began its climb to the punch line despite great initial success and intervention by such heavyweights as Reagan administration official Lawrence Eagleburger and Henry Kissinger.

Other figures in the Yugo melodrama and Mr. Bricklin's garish career include:

Financier Armand Hammer; Richard Hatfield, a premier of New Brunswick who gambled his future in Canadian politics on financing Mr. Bricklin's own car brand, the SV-1; and Mahathir Bin Mohamad, a Malaysian prime minister who helped form an industrial conglomerate that would be the platform for a car manufactured in Malaysia.

Like Micheline Maynard's 2003 polemic, "The End of Detroit," Mr. Vuic's book is a cautionary tale and a key addition to the car culture shelf. Where Ms. Maynard's prescient inquiry into the Big Three suggested a Big Two, Mr. Vuic's deals in personality more than corporate culture.

It's a disarmingly fizzy book about ego, creativity, political systems so out of sync they spawn economic black holes, gullibility and a disdain for the consumer no amount of marketing can mask.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland. First Published March 14, 2010 5:00 AM


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