Thursday, November 13, 2008

End of the road for Yugo

In Serbia's Zastava car factory, workers can barely contain their emotions — the very last Yugos, the pride of the former Yugoslavia, are coming off the assembly lines after almost 30 years.

Often a laughing stock for its design and lack of reliability, the Yugo's demise is the sad end of an era for workers in the central Serbian town of Kragujevac.

After the sprawling factory was bombed in 1999 Nato air-strikes against Serbia during the Kosovo war, successive governments failed to win an agreement with foreign carmakers to keep production alive.

The fate of the Yugo was sealed earlier this year when the Serbian government signed a €700-million investment accord with Italian auto giant Fiat that ends production of three models, including the Yugo.

It is over

The final car is to come down the assembly line later this week, to the sadness of workers like 54-year-old Janko Jankovic who have grown attached to the box-shaped vehicle.

"I was involved in assembling the fifth ever Yugo when I was doing work experience and here I am, 30 years later, preparing to assemble the last one," he said.

Painters have already covered the final car with a large banner saying: "Farewell to the last Yugo, it is over."

The vehicle will be red, a symbol of the company's original name, "Crvena Zastava" (Red Flag), established during the rule of late communist leader Tito after World War II.

"It's very difficult after all these years with this car to know that it has reached the end of the road," said 50-year-old Mirko Ilic while observing the last vehicle of almost 800 000 produced since 1980.

"Assembled at gunpoint"

An offspring of the Fiat 127, the Yugo was born in 1980, in two versions — three and five doors.

In its heyday, it gained enormous popularity at home due to its low price and fuel consumption, quickly becoming accessible to everyone in the six republics of the former communist federation of Yugoslavia.

Old company catalogues boast that the Yugo was exported to 74 countries in the late 1980s — among them Egypt and India — but also to the United States where it was priced at $3990.

But the Yugo was much-maligned there and remains the butt of many jokes.

"The Yugo had the distinct feeling of something assembled at gunpoint," Time magazine said once in a list it complied of the 'Worst Cars of All Time'.

"In a car where 'carpet' was listed as a standard feature, the Yugo had a rear-window defroster — reportedly to keep your hands warm while you pushed it," Time said in a tongue-in-cheek report.

Although the communist authorities described the US agreement as the "deal of the century", the Yugo had only limited success in America, ending up mostly in Hollywood comedies and even in Bruce Willis' action blockbuster 'Die Hard'.

Despite its record as one of the "worst foreign vehicles ever" sold in the United States, Zastava says more than 100 000 were exported there up to 1991.

Writing on the wall

The early 1990s were the beginning of the end of the Yugo fairy tale.

The bloody break-up of the former Yugoslavia and international sanctions imposed on Slobodan Milosevic dealt a fatal blow to Zastava exports.

Most of the Kragujevac plant was severely damaged during the 1999 Nato bombing campaign launched to end Milosevic's crackdown on Kosovo.

Zastava's management is now considering the possibility of moving car production abroad.

"Together with the Serbian government, we are exploring possibilities to continue with production in, for example, Egypt, were our Zastava 128 model has been very successful," said Zastava manager Radomir Petrovic.

"But this is just an idea for the time being," Petrovic said, reassuring Yugo owners throughout the region they should not fear for lack of spare parts.

"All those who still have a Yugo and even a buyer of the last vehicle, have nothing to fear as our partner factories will produce a sufficient amount of spare parts," Petrovic said.

Thousands of these cars still rumble along roads in former Yugoslav republics Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia more than 16 years after the collapse of the joint federation.

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