November 21, 2008 / 6:27 PM / 11 years ago

Serbia's Yugo hatchback car fades into history

KRAGUJEVAC, Serbia, Nov 21 (Reuters Life!) - One of the most enduring symbols of the old Yugoslavia will bow out this week when the Zastava car plant shuts down its assembly line.

The maker of the Yugo car will stop production on Friday after sending the equally loved and hated symbol of Yugoslav socialism to the graveyard earlier this month alongside its East German cousin the Trabant.

Tomislav Novicic spent nearly 40 years at the Serbian car producer assembling the Yugo, Zastava 101 and other models. Now he is preparing to retire after the assembly line shuts down.

“I am sorry to see that Serbia is not going to have a local made car anymore,” Novicic said. “We were so proud to be able to produce the Yugo. We managed to conquer international markets with it.”

Soon, the buildings of the Zastava company in the central town of Kragujevac will be renovated to house a new company that Serbia has established with Italy’s Fiat.

The old car assembly lines will be sold and the management has said in the past that companies from Russia and Africa have expressed interest.

Zastava established its car company in 1953 to service a domestic market of nearly 20 million people. The Serbian government had hoped to make the region the Detroit of European car production.

The country began falling apart in 1991, the same year that Zastava’s downfall began. Heavily damaged by NATO bombing in 1991, Zastava currently employs around 4,000 workers and produced nearly 11,000 vehicles in 2007, far below its top production of 220,000 vehicles in 1989.

The plant’s best known product was the Yugo hatchback that was designed in late 1970s with the help of Fiat designers and marketed for young people.

Unlike many Eastern European cars at the time, the Zastava factory had major ambitions to sell to Western markets.

In the 1980s, it even took on the U.S. car market with its exports, offering bargain prices of less than $5,000 a car. Since Yugo mass production started in 1980, nearly 800,000 were produced and 142,000 were exported to the U.S.

Car reviewers often gave the Yugo poor ratings, but it was widely advertised and known for its thrifty price. It even gained a bit of Hollywood fame in 1988 when actor Bruce Willis drove one in “Die Hard”.

YUGO JOKES

The auto inspired many jokes, including, what do you call a Yugo on the top of the hill? A miracle. In Belgrade, one often saw people pushing Yugos or leaving them on the side of the road when it rained or snowed.

“It breaks down often, but fixing it is so cheap that in the end it pays off,” said Belgrade radio B92 host Dragan Ilic, whose morning show was dedicated to the Yugo.

“It is a car with nostalgia inside, nostalgia for one big state, the state of Yugoslavia.”

Still to this day, in former Yugoslav republics Croatia and Bosnia, the Yugo is a symbol of the common socialist past.

In Croatia it was driven a lot, but as living standards improved citizens switched to Western-made cars.

Bosnian band “Zabranjeno Pusenje” recorded a nostalgic song after 1992-95 war named after the first model, the Yugo 45. “These were good times, when we lived on credits and for friends,” the song said.

The last red Yugo is still in the Zastava plant, signed by all the employees who worked on it. It is slated for exhibition in a museum.

They even wrote a poem to their last creation, which is attached to the rear window. “The time has come to say goodbye,” it read. “We’ll love you Yugo until we die.” (Additional reporting Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo and Igor Ilic in Zagreb, editing by Paul Casciato)

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