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In the month of February, with its grey weather, many of us dream of sunny days, 99 Flakes and open-top motoring. Liam Griffin is the proud owner of a highly exclusive convertible even if certain members of the public confuse it with ‘a 3/4 scale Golf Cabriolet!’.

In fact his incredibly rare Yugo Convertible is ‘one of five or six cars commissioned by Zastava Cars (GB) Ltd. through Top Hat conversions of Blackpool. The club owns two others, although none are roadworthy. The other cars were registered in 1988 as an “E” or “F” registration; this languished in the dealership until it was registered in 1991’. In fact the Yugo resided in the showroom for so long that ‘it was rebadged from a Yugo 45 to a Tempo L!’.

Zastava was originally a cannon builder but by the late 1930s they constructed Chevrolet lorries. Then in 1953 the company signed an agreement with Fiat to build the first passenger cars in the former Yugoslavia. The plant manufactured local versions of the 1400, the 1100, the 600, the 1300/1500 and, by 1971, the 128 as the “101 Skala”.

In 1980 Zastava introduced the 45, which used the floorpan of the 127 combined with hatchback body courtesy of Ital Design. It proved highly popular in its home country, and production of the updated Koral version only ceased in 2008. When Liam goes on holiday to Macedonia, he finds that ‘they have many Yugos in everyday use’.

British sales of the 101, as the 311/313/513, commenced in 1981 with Zastava GB establishing a chain of 36 dealerships. Imports of the Yugo 45 commenced two years later and in 1984 What Car regarded the GL version as ‘an excellent car’ by the standards of its forebears.

For just £3,299 you gain a reasonably modern looking small car with alloy wheels and a sunroof as standard, so it is small wonder the hero of this incredibly bad commercial faints at the value represented by a new Yugo -  

Liam’s interest in Eastern European cars began in 1987 when he bought a Skoda Estelle and by the early 2000s ‘nostalgia (like a Vostok watch), championing the underdog, and the attractive simplicity of the mechanics took over’. He is the Yugo’s second owner, and acquired the Convertible in September 2012 after it was ‘discovered in Essex from a house clearance by the Yugo/Zastava club; it had covered a paltry 8,800 miles’.

The perished tyres were the original Tigars, the Yugo had never had a service, and it still bore the number plates from Barry Hathaway of Chelmsford, the original supplying dealer. Liam had to remove the canvas, which had been damaged by vandals but, as he puts it ‘so we are sat with 8955 miles – the only work done was to replace the five tyres, a new alternator, water pump and a good wash!’

The 160-mile journey home to Wiltshire proved to be a memorable one. ‘It had no fuel, so I stopped at the Texaco down the road to fill up - at £40 I wondered at what size tank it might have, then glanced down to see a puddle’. The trip along the M25 to the M3 junction proved to be ‘a scary proposition, as the rear window, fastened with Velcro (by design I might add) kept flapping open when a lorry overtook! So I grew 'ears' and saw that there was a noticeable deceleration as well from the additional drag!’.

The discovery of a spare fuse in the ashtray when Liam stopped at Popham Services meant a working radio but there was now a somewhat more challenging issue. ‘I discovered that the alternator was not working - in fact it was not plugged in. I received a bump-start from a couple of other motorists and a nice AA man who was going to write the Yugo up on their “Board of the Unusual”’.

Names such as Bugatti were included in this exclusive list but although the patrolman had served in the Automobile Association for around two decades ‘he could not recall a Yugo’. Once home, Liam garaged the Yugo ‘in my barn where I set about planning to preserve this one-off. As well as the Top Hat model, the company also offered an “official” drop head with a different design which Zastava originally planned to sell in the UK but all imports ceased in 1992 as a result of the Yugoslavian war.

In terms of the durability, Liam makes the point that ‘most people think it ought to have rotted away by now, but that's not true of Yugos. Marshall Tito did a deal with the Italians, and according to Serbians and Macedonians, the Italians gave blueprints and licence to build old Fiat models, and Yugoslavia was to provide steel.’ He also argues ‘name a 1980s Italian car on the road without tin worm’ and he was most impressed with his Yugo’s build-quality; ‘there was a struggle to lift a door free from the car - and not a patch of rust’.  

As with many an inexpensive car the 45, and its upmarket 55 counterpart, were often regarded as disposable consumer goods and today any of the few Zastava products in the UK are ‘looked after by like-minded people who liaise through a Facebook group. There is still a good supply of spares, and these are good value and interchangeable with some – but not all - Fiats’.  

Under the Yugo’s bonnet is the well-known 903cc 45bhp engine and Liam finds that his Convertible ‘drives as tight as a drum. It has great turn in, the steering weights up on the move, it is agile, and 0-30 is very peppy! The Yugo is a great little “new” car to drive around in, and it surprises all those that I throw the keys at, to help dispel the myth’.

When Liam is out and about in the Convertible he finds that ‘most people recall someone having one, and there is a light in the eyes when they recall all the Yugo jokes!’ And as for the standard Yugo/Lada/Skoda reference that was so often heard on comedy shows of the 1980s – ‘Mine does have a rear window heater switch - but no rear window to warm the hands on!’.








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