Over the years, we have been one of the few outlets to give Serbian automaker Zastava a fair shake. This fact did not go unnoticed by the Zastava PR staff, who never saw it in their hearts to give us a press car to flog, but they did have frequent contact with our former (and missed) writer, Andy Bannister.
For Americans who may not be familiar with the Zastava name, does “Yugo” mean anything to you? That’s right – Zastava built the Yugo for Americans, and the annals of cheap-car comedy have never been the same since then. Following the withdrawal of Yugo from the US market, there was the complicated war that split up Yugoslavia, and NATO even bombed the Zastava factory that used to build Yugos. Post-war, Zastava recovered, and was Serbia’s largest automaker until the Serbian government gave 70 percent of the company to Fiat in 2008 in return for a €700 million investment. (Does Fiat’s M.O. here sound familiar or what?)
Production of Zastava-branded automobiles ended in November 2008 with the last car simply having a piece of paper taped to its back that said, “goodbye, no more.”
Between then and today, there was a global recession (and virtually a depression in the global auto market), but Fiat eventually made good on its investment commitments in the form of upgrading the plant in Kragujevac to become the most modern, up-to-date in the Fiat kingdom. And it should be, considering the €1 billion price tag. Upgrades included landscaping, a new roof, production tooling, and new machinery.
By the end of 2012, the former Zastava facility in Kragujevac will employ 2,400 auto workers to assemble the odd-looking Fiat 500L, an upsized four-door variant of the 500 that’s sold in the US and elsewhere in the world.
The Yugo was based on the Fiat 127, so in a way, this plant and its history of integration with Fiat production and engineering will continue long after the cessation of Zastava production three and a half years ago. Will we again have Yugo-branded Fiats sometime in the future? Let’s hope not.