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End Of An Era As Last Yugo Car Rolls Off Production Line

Yugo on the production line
The Yugo, the car everyone -- or almost everyone -- loved to hate, is no more.

The last one has rolled of the production line at the Zastava factory in the Serbian town of Kragujevac.

Voted in an American survey as the worst car of the Millennium, the little subcompact was nevertheless well loved by motorists in the old Yugoslavia, where it represented a high point of industrial production in the communist state.

But now, Fiat is the new buzz word in Kragujevac. The Italian carmaker has taken over the Zastava plant and intends to assemble its compact Punto model there, to be marketed in Eastern Europe as a "Zastava."

There is also the possibility that General Motors' Opel subsidiary will produce a model there.

There is a certain poetic irony in Fiat displacing the Yugo, as the Turin-based company from the start was always the parent of Yugo designs.

The Kragujevac factory began producing passenger cars in 1953, making two Fiat models under license. Subsequent models were also based on Fiats to a greater or lesser degree.

Two car workers, Radoslav Simovic and Zarko Niciforovic, grew sentimental as they helped assemble the very last Yugo to leave the production line.

"For us it's hard to part with the Yugo, but I hope that we will start producing some nicer and more comfortable cars. We all have our hopes, but we will have to see what emerges as reality," Simovic said.

"I'm really sorry to see the departure of the Yugo as it is at the same time the end of my working life," Niciforovic said. "It's hard for me to think that the Yugo will not be produced any more."

Butt Of Jokes

With almost 800,000 Yugos built over four decades, the little car obviously found buyers, despite its faults. And its faults were reputed to be many. Owners complained of premature engine failure, an unreliable gear box, and doors coming loose, among other things.

Jokes at the expense of the Yugo abound, such as: Why is the Yugo's rear window heated? To keep your hands warm when you push it.

But there was more to it than that. A former enterprise manager, Branimir Soldatovic, points out how the little car served as a symbol of unity and joint effort for the multiethnic state that was Yugoslavia.

"Zastava [in Serbia] during that time was using parts which were coming from Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. We had Yugoslavia, and we had a car which was the perfect promoter of the whole country," Soldatovic said.

But the Yugo's true moment of fame -- or rather notoriety -- came in 1986, when an American businessman decided to introduce it to the giant North American market. Priced at a sensational $3,990, it cost half as much as the next cheapest vehicle, and aroused a storm of interest.

Orders poured in, with 7,500 bookings made even before the car arrived in the United States.

The advertising campaign was upbeat, suggesting every household should have its Yugo.

With such enthusiasm, disappointment was bound to follow. And follow it did. One influential motoring journal, test-driving the Yugo, called it "hardly a car at all". Owners complained of inadequacies major and minor.

Still, the import and sales of Yugos to North America continued until 1991, but the gathering clouds of war in Yugoslavia eventually led to sanctions against Serbia and blocked any plans for a revitalization of sales.

Disaster struck the company in 1999, when in the course of the conflict over Kosovo, NATO aircraft bombed and severely damaged the Zastava factory, which also manufactured military equipment.

Production resumed in 2000, and planning for new Yugo models continued until the agreement with Fiat made them irrelevant.

So, with the passing of the Yugo, another relic of Yugoslavia disappears.

RFE/RL's South Slavic Service contributed to this report