New Lease of Life for Europe’s Longest-Serving Veteran Family Car
By Andy Bannister
Regular readers may by now be wondering if I’m becoming obsessed with Zastava, the Serbian manufacturer of the half-forgotten Yugo and a clutch of other cars that time forgot.
After my piece last week on the latest diesel-engine Zastava Florida, however, the company sent a message pointing out their oldest-serving model, the Skala, a design dating back almost 40 years, has been given a new lease of life and is itself winning new customers. That in turn reminded me of a long-ago car buying dilemma of mine.
The Skala (formerly also known as the 101) is a hatchback version of the 1969 Fiat 128, one of the most successful Italian cars of the 1970s and Fiat’s First volume front-wheel-drive car. With lively performance and great handling, it was European Car Of The Year on its introduction and sold three million units, including a fair few in the USA in those halcyon days when Fiat had a presence on the other side of the pond.
Back then, Fiat made a veritable industry out of selling off its models to factories in Eastern Europe, with Russia getting a version of the Fiat 124 (the Lada) and Poland the Fiat 125 (the Polski-Fiat, later FSO). Yugoslavia (as it then was) was already building older Fiats including the 600 minicar, but it was the 128 which put them on the car-building map.
By designing a decent-looking hatchback tail, quite reminiscent of the Simca 1100, a European best-seller way back then, the 1971 Zastava managed to be a pioneer in its field, offering much more versatility than the Italian original, which it competed with in a number of markets, with the Yugoslav product significantly undercutting it on price.
Fiat stopped selling the 128 in the West way back in 1981 but, like many Eastern European products, the Zastava version was not to be got rid of that easily. It survived the arrival of its newer brother, the Koral (the model exported briefly to America as the Yugo GV) and remarkably has remained in production until the current day through some very tough times for the factory.
I have a strange connection with this particular Zastava. Years ago, as an impoverished student looking to buy a very cheap but roomy used car, it was one of the vehicles I considered, alongside other quirky utility vehicles like the Citroën Dyane and Renault 4. I can still remember the Zastava I went to look at – it was a five door 1100cc model in a strange blue-green shade and had an immaculate interior on account of it being owned by a fastidious older driver who’d never even taken the plastic covers off the seats.
As in 1980s Britain Zastavas did not hold their value at all well, it was in the same price range as far more clapped-out western European rivals. It was yelling out “buy me”. Somehow, though, I knew it wasn’t right, and I ended up investing my pennies in a bright red Fiat Panda which had amazing deckchair seats and body roll, as well as doors which rotted away from the inside, dodgy electrics and a very laid-back attitude to starting, hot or cold, which made any journey something of a lottery.
Back then buying a Yugoslavian car was quite a left-field, even left-wing choice. Zastava GB’s innovative approach to advertising was apparently aimed at buyers who wanted a cheap new East European car but thought opting for a Russian Lada or Czech Skoda was taking things a bit too far in those Cold War days.
In its literature, Zastava made much of the country’s non-aligned status between east and west, stressing it was not politically aligned to the Soviet Union. It even referred to wartime alliances, nothing that at one particularly dark point in the Second World War Yugoslavia was Britain’s only combatant ally, though whether anyone chose a Zastava purely on that score is debatable.
Yugoslavia as a political entity has vanished from the map now, but the Skala itself has carried on regardless and still has low price as its unique selling point. More than a million have been built and at a current price of 4,200 Euros ($6,600) it is once again tempting buyers at the current Belgrade Motors Show, where it is the event’s most affordable car.
In its own publicity Zastava adds: “Behind the wheel, drivers will find a new instrument cluster, complete with tachometer, glowing in tasteful blue and red nuances behind its newly curvaceous housing. There are redesigned seats, too – now noticeably softer.”
As far as I know, it is only on sale in Serbia, which may be just as well in case second-time-round temptation got the better of me…
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