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What It's Like to Drive a Yugo in a Town Full of Teslas

No fancy car? Driving a rolling punchline is the next best way to get noticed.

 

It takes a lot to turn heads in San Francisco. Bearded dude in a sarong; bearded dude in a sarong pushing a conga drum; bearded dude in a sarong pushing a conga drum into a Tesla—hey, welcome to the city. 

And yet traffic did stop—more specifically, we stopped—at the sight of something banal rendered extraordinary merely via the passage of time. Yes, it’s a tapioca-hued 1986 Yugo GV. 

This rolling punchline, this acme of automotive ineptitude, is now a one-percenter of an unusual sort. By the time Jason Vuic published The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History in 2010, it was estimated that fewer than 1,000 of the 250,000 Yugos sold in America remained on the road. That means 99.7 percent of these cars matriculated to the great junkyard in the sky six years ago. These automobiles tend to fall apart, messily and violently and tragically. Not unlike their defunct country of origin. 

“I’ve only seen one other Yugo in San Francisco in the past decade,” confirms Terry Diner, the proud owner of the above vehicle parked on Mission Street between France and Italy in the Excelsior. “A guy who worked at the airport was driving it. I tried to flag him down, but I think he just thought I was crazy.” 

Diner, for his part, is not crazy. He spent $900 to obtain this car in 2008 (it sold for $3,990 new 30 years ago, so that’s not bad value retention when you think about it). Asked why he’d make such a dubious investment—this Yugo did not, for the record, come with a Beta videotape machine in the trunk—he laughs. “It’s kind of a joke, you know?” he replies. “People smile. They want to have their pictures taken with it.” 

The car, Diner continues, “doesn’t feel very safe”—which sounds about right for the inspiration for this pantheon Saturday Night Live parody ad. Other than dangers induced by “HEY! A YUGO!”–type distracted driving, it’s just fine around the city. “But,” Diner advises, “this is not a car for the highway.” 

It’s also not his only car. We happen to be standing in his small used auto lot across from the Safeway. Now you know what the TD stands for in TD Auto Wholesale. If and when his Yugo fulfills its destiny and implodes, he’ll have no shortage of vehicles to ride home. 

But that day doesn’t appear imminent. Asked what he’s done to maintain the car, Diner says “honestly, nothing.” And how does it run? 

As well as it ever has.  


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