By Andy Bannister
This week sees the end of an era as the very last Zastava-badged car drives off the production line in Kragujevac, Serbia, finally killing off the often-ridiculed marque responsible for the unlikely survival of the infamous Yugo.
The move comes as something of a shock. Earlier this year, at the Belgrade Motor Show, state-owned Zastava Automobili seemed to have renewed confidence, with exports resuming to eastern Europe. With some desperately-needed development of its elderly models it was showing a new-found determination to compete at the ultra low-budget end of the market against rivals like Lada and Dacia.
Despite the jokes that have dogged it, Zastava has always been a proud concern. Its boast is that not even modern NATO jets armed to the teeth could finish off the factory during the Kosovo campaign, when it was a prime bombing target.
Where the military commanders failed, Fiat of Italy has succeeded by other means. Its deal with the government of Serbia, which will see a range of budget Fiats made in the Kragujevac factory, has brought about the abrupt termination of all current Zastava production.
Two of the company’s longest-serving models died unceremoniously on 11 November, when the curtain was brought down on the Florida, the company’s five-door “flagship” model, originally introduced in 1988. The same day, tearful workers built the last Koral hatchback – the tiny three-door known as the Yugo during its relatively brief time on the American market in the late 1980s.
Remarkably, no less than 145,511 Yugos were sold in the USA, just a small part of the 4.2 million cars built over the years by Zastava. The most fondly remembered to this day is one of the company’s earlier offerings, the rear-engined Fico. A locally-built Fiat 600, this was a design that remained in production in Serbia until the early 1980s and is now being cherished as a Balkan classic
The Koral, the Fico’s successor, remains of the most frequently found cars on every street corner in all the nations of the former Yugoslavia. Loved by some, hated and ridiculed by others, it was in production for well over 25 years.
In the absence of any formal proceedings, Zastava workers last week attached a small piece of paper to the tailgate of the last Koral down the line, reading simply (in translation) “goodbye, no more”. That final example is destined for the factory’s museum.
Even the company’s newest model, the Zastava 10, a rebadged Fiat Punto II, has not been spared from this drastic cull. It has already ceased production, but will return soon with its Fiat badges reinstated.
The final Zastava of all to die will, appropriately, be the company’s oldest design, the Fiat 128-derived Skala 55, launched in 1971. The last of these will be built on Thursday (20 November) after which all Zastava’s lines will be cleared out to make way for Fiat’s purposes.
In a bittersweet final press release looking back on its history since being founded 55 years ago, Zastava’s redoubtable PR department commented strirringly that even the disintegration of once-proud Yugoslavia and the coming of war to Kragujevac itself could not destroy the company and the spirit of its staff:
“As their world imploded in the ‘90s, Zastava’s workers continued to come to work each morning. When in 1999 NATO used the factory for target practice, they dutifully cleaned up the damage and, seemingly without need for dollars or euros, managed again to turn out their budget cars…
“In 1945, Toyota could make no more than fish paste. BMW built pots and pans. Volkswagen produced nothing. Yet bombs could not stop Zastava. Even without the foreign investment enjoyed by Toyota and Volkswagen, a Zastava Skala 101 rolled off the line just six months after the factory had been ripped apart.”
Throughout Zastava’s history, Fiat has been its key partner, so if foreign investment has finally put paid to the company’s independent existence, it is fitting that the Italians should be the ones to open a new chapter.
All being well, in addition to assembly of some existing Fiat models, the deal will see a brand new entry-level car – dubbed by some the new Fiat Topolino – built in Kragujevac for export around the world, hopefully safeguarding many of the 100,000 jobs the company says directly or indirectly rely on the current factory’s continued prosperity. Who knows, optimists believe that Serbia, for so long on the margins of society, may even in the longer term be admitted into the European Union.
For the old cars themselves, the story is not quite over. The possibility remains of a new future for the antique Zastava designs in Africa.
Egypt’s Nasco already builds a version of the Skala, popular as a Cairo taxi, and there are more ambitious negotiations underway with the authorities in the Congo which could ultimately see the Serbian lines transplanted there.
Zastava Automobili, 1953-2008, RIP.
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