The Yugo episode

June 06, 1995|By Russell Baker

A FRIEND once tried to sell me his Yugo. I am reminded of it by the heavy concentration of armchair generals explaining how to bring order to the Balkans.

The Yugo, you see, was made in the Balkans. It was the Balkan version of the Chevrolet, only smaller.

The owner of this particular Yugo was a friend, but not a close friend. Our friendship was at the stage where you figure it will insult the other party's intelligence if you have to warn him off this Yugo.

By letting me discover the truth for myself, he was honoring my car-buying moxie.

Of course, maybe he was thinking, friend or not, every used-car buyer has to be ready to take his medicine like a man.

I took along my daughter, who could drive with a stick shift. I learned gear-shifting back when the stick was on the steering column. Since then it had gone back to the floor. Somebody said kids liked it on the floor because that's where hot cars which raced in Monte Carlo kept their sticks.

I never drove a hot car at Monte Carlo, or Le Mans either, and since you could no longer find a car with a stick shift where American engineering genius had sensibly placed it soon after Detroit moved up from the Model T -- to wit, on the steering column -- I had become strictly an automatic transmission type.

So my daughter came to test-drive the Yugo. My friend had told me it was stick-on-the-floor style. Naturally I figured, stick on the floor, it must be a hot number. Ergo, my highly skilled daughter. The Yugo was about the size of one of those old Underwood desk-model typewriters: one big son-of-a-gun for a typewriter, but definitely cramped for a car.

We got in, and after several minutes of fighting, the engine turned over, and my daughter tried to put it in gear. It sounded like a galvanized washtub was being attacked with a monkey wrench. I suggested turning it off. She did.

My friend said don't worry, that's how she sounds when she's idling. My daughter started it again. We didn't flinch when the noise mellowed down to the sound of power saws attacking the gear box, and she got it moving out into the street.

It's awfully hard to turn, she said when we seemed due to collide with a curbside tree despite her struggles with the wheel. I put two more hands to the wheel, and it felt the way steering an 18-wheeler must feel when the hydraulics are shot and you're doing it with pure muscle.

We finally traveled a block or two, stalling and re-starting all the way, and I think she felt as lucky as I did to be alive when she got the Yugo back where my friend was waiting.

This outing with a Yugo had been forgotten until the other day when I found myself pondering the many strategies being urged by the armchair generals of press and television for dealing with the intractable political mess in the Balkans. These birds had obviously never taken a Yugo ride.

They were full of sagacity about how to make people see things America's way and quit killing each other despite their obvious delight in killing each other. A lot of wisdom was issued, but it was abstract wisdom, not sound horse-sense wisdom that comes from riding a Yugo.

People capable of building the Yugo are obviously never going to care much for the things Americans consider important, like comfortable upholstery, ease of cornering, anti-lock brakes and not killing all the neighbors just because their grandparents killed yours two or three wars ago.

A culture capable of the Yugo is not a culture Americans will easily understand. It takes only one ride in a Yugo to realize that these are a people who have said, "To hell with the automobile," thus committing perhaps the most unthinkable heresy possible for an American.

These are people not afraid to offend our mighty superpower faith in the glory of gasoline-powered motion. They are people with the reckless courage to look the awesome West in the eye and say, "I spit in the oil of your ultimate driving machines."

They fought occupying Nazis 50 years ago and lived to produce the Yugo. Armchair generals, before ordering the next bombing, take a spin in a Yugo.

Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.

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