In the late 1950s, the Ford Motor Company introduced the Edsel, a car that failed so spectacularly it became synonymous with a corporate cluelessness. For two decades, the Edsel reigned as one of the most boneheaded blunders in all of automotive manufacturing. But in the mid-80s, the Edsel was usurped by an even more disastrous debut: the Yugo. It was an ugly car made cheaply in a communist country. What could possibly go wrong?
Nearly everything. From sub-par craftsmanship and disastrous safety ratings to gross corporate mismanagement and Cold War distrust, the Yugo is remembered best today not for its brief success but for its dismal failure. But if the Yugo was a lemon, Jason Vuic’s surprising page-turner is the lemonade: even though we know how it’s going to end (watch out for the iceberg, Yugo!), we’re held rapt by Vuic’s careful reconstruction of the peculiar history of a terrible idea.
Meticulously researched (the endnotes top fifty pages), The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History is the biography of the Yugoslavian import from its birth to its death — and the brief period of fame in between. On Vuic’s ride, we meet enterprising automotive entrepreneurs who plucked the car from communist bloc obscurity and imported it to the United States, Yugoslav factory workers who struggled to keep up with the demand for the suddenly hot product, and everyone from enthusiastic owners who believed wholeheartedly in the $3990 car to comedians who made it the butt of their jokes. The Yugo was sold in America for only six years (from 1985 until 1991), but it made a lasting impression on popular culture. Vuic’s book, in the end, more than does the boxy hatchback justice: it’s a fascinating look at the car business, consumer preferences, Cold War politics, fads, and failure.
The Yugo, though one of the most famous, is not the only sensational commercial disaster of the recent past. In the spirit of the little car that couldn’t, we’ve assembled a list of five other doomed creations. But what will be the fantastic failures of tomorrow? The iPad? YouTube movie rentals? Tell us in the comments.