Curbside Classic: ’88-’92 Yugo Florida (Sana) – Miami Is Not Coming To America

Mundane. How else to describe this little lump of Eastern European metal? Had I not been stuck in traffic I would have never sat passively, aimlessly looking around, eventually noticing the Yugo badge on the rear. No, I didn’t double take. I just squinted my eyes, focusing harder, trying to make sure my sunglasses weren’t affecting my vision. The shape was as anonymous as it could be, sort of mid ’80s Hyunday Accent, Isuzu I-Mark, or Fiat Uno. Was it really a Yugo? Hadn’t the company died with the infamous Malcolm Bricklin imported one? You know, the Yugo ‘Yugo’?

At some point on CC’s history the question has come up; is this site’s mission to cover every motoring piece of metal ever assembled? “Every car has a story” is a motto the site stands by, and we believe it to be true. That said, Continentals and Cimarrons stir emotions, good and bad; coming up with 2,000 words is rather easy. On the opposite end, getting enthused with ’80s and ’90s utilitarian vehicles is quite a task; unless personal experience is involved. Even then that might not be enough. In my college days I often rode in a late ’80s Ford Tempo and would be hard pressed to say anything on that forgettable lump of blandness. It had the same color as oatmeal, and offered the same qualities to my senses; it fulfilled its ‘transport’ mission and nothing more.

However, I need no personal experience on the Yugo Florida to feel ‘inspired,’ even if being the mundanest of the mundane. What failed dreams does it contain within its hundrum lines? And how did the Yugo saga managed to encapsulate the Eastern Bloc’s worst traits with those of the West? A marriage of equals, from opposite ends of the spectrum. Everyone in this saga was after something, and the results weren’t pretty for anyone involved. A sad fairy tale if there ever was one.

Last most heard of the brand was with the little Yugo; you know, the Yugo ‘Yugo’? Known as the Zastava Koral in its native Yugoslavia, it was sold in the US from ’85-’92, making quite a splash in the low end market. At least initially, before tanking soon after, with nary a sample to be found in later years. Regardless of its Eastern Bloc origins, the car had a capitalist trait of being as disposable as burger wrappers.

The Yugo history dates back to 1851, when in the Serbian town of Kragujevac a cannon metal foundry was set up, slowly specializing in further endeavors. At the end of WWII the factory grounds were renamed Zavodi Crvena Zastava (“Red Flag Factories”), and were destined to car production by popular demand. Or so the story goes; the now socialist nation of Yugoslavia differed from the USSR’s economic model by creating ’employee managed’ entities, and a factory referendum by Zastava’s workers is claimed behind the car-making clamor.

Either that or the state suggested to Zastava’s workers to ‘clamor’ for the automotive venture. It’s hard to tell history from propaganda under Yugoslavian-strongman Tito’s rule, who kept a tight leash on the fractious nation.

How motivated those workers were could be a matter of debate, as from a Western point of view those mid ’80s Yugos were the epitome of poor assembly. How did those proletariat work ethics performed under close scrutiny?

During his visit to Moscow in the mid ’30s, Salvadorian Communist Party member Miguel Mármol found a communist nation ‘in the works.’ Persecuted in his homeland, lofty expectations swirled in his head about the rising ‘workers-nation,’ and was somewhat disappointed at finding a less than pristine train station boarding area. Much before ‘mansplaining’ became a term, and being a fellow comrade, he took a moment to show a small group of female station laborers how to ‘properly clean’ the area. The laborers good-natured reply? “Well… the work routine you’re suggesting… that’s out of the days of the Tsar! We don’t need to work like that anymore!”

A bit of a gross generalization perhaps. But a sample of the spirit of the times?

Regardless, Zastava entered early talks to assemble Fiat’s 500s and 1300s models. The pragmatic Italians -no strangers to radical political movements- never came across a socialist nation they didn’t mind doing business with, and in due course, Yugoslavia could boast of possessing rather swanky and up-to-date assembly lines.

Car shows in Zagreb became a matter of national attention with coverage by state media. With Fiat’s support, Zastava’s industries could even gloat of being ahead of ‘socialist fella’ Czechoslovakia. At least in regards of their modern assembly lines, since the Czechs had always gone solo in their engineering efforts, even if possessing humbler factories. Designing a vehicle from scratch was a goal Zastava had yet to crack.

Times must have felt good at Kragujevac, as Zastava’s output was increasing steadily. By the early ’70s the socialist venture even released decadent Western-style ads (a Zastava 101, aka Fiat 128 on the image). Was materialism sneaking into Zastava’s proletariat collective conciousness?

By the early ’80s the company’s management (The workers?) must have felt dizzy with excitement as international stardom came a-knocking to their Tito-controlled doors. US entrepreneurs, with their nation still reeling from oil embargos and other late ’70s maladies, expressed their interest into bringing stateside Zastava’s recently launched Koral. If there ever was a time to launch a cheaply assembled foreign subcompact in the US, the late ’70s was the one. And Zastava had just the wrong product at the right time.

State-controlled media must have spun quite a yarn with these developments: The decadent West is ready for socialist austerity! Ethical superiority by automotive decontentment never appeared in Marx’s redactions, but state media must have made enough leaps to make it seem so.

In 1983, Zastava took on their most ambitious undertaking to date with Project 103 (aka Florida), the closest the company would ever get to creating a vehicle of its own. No punches were to be pulled, with Zastava aiming to produce a ‘world class’ model to compete head-to-head with Western offerings. Lofty goals indeed.

Goals aside, awareness of their limitations was still evident. If the Florida resembles an Isuzu I-Mark (concept above), or Fiat Uno, that’s no accident, as its lines were penned by none other than Giugiaro’s Italdesign. The Florida’s uninspired blueprints belonged to a rejected Fiat proposal, probably conceived by some sleep-deprived Italdesign intern. I’ll leave it to you to decide if that was money well spent, but Zastava did seem more than pleased, heavily extolling Italdesign’s involvement in promotional materials.

With the exterior shell secured, work on the internals continued, with most chassis engineering and interior design executed by Zastava’s development department. Meanwhile, engines and specialized parts were still to be Fiat-sourced.

As Project 103 advanced, the Koral’s entry into the US was facing delays. Enter into the tale Malcolm Bricklin, the biggest automotive mogul that never was, and America’s favorite car-making swindler. I can’t imagine the yarn he must have fed Zastava’s working forces, but I’m sure visions of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis must have entered their heads by the time he was finished. I shudder to think Yugoslavians’ impressions on Americans was conditioned by Bricklin’s shenanigans.

Still, those Metropolis fantasies must have seem feasible at first, with Bricklin managing to establish the little Yugo (Koral) rather quickly in the bottom rung of the US market.

US success playing in their socialists’ heads, contamination was inevitable, and the 103 was rechristened ‘Florida.’ Further monikers were used, ‘Miami’ and ‘Sana,’ with the latter being as is most commonly known in Western Europe.

Launched in ’88, the vehicle was to take on Western markets powered either by a 1.4 or 1.3 Fiat mill, with up to 70HP on tap. A number of depraved decadent options were offered; A/C, electric windows, central locking, and an automatic. Layout was standard FWD, offering a commodious cabin in spite of the vehicle’s compact dimensions.

In its native Yugoslavia the model got -not surprisingly- glowing press coverage, and to local populace its lines must have looked like the 21st century had arrived.

Elsewhere, news were far from commendatory. As always Yugo’s trumping card was cost, offering modernity and ‘Giugiaro’ lines for very little; but little else. UK’s Autocar was rather scathing in its review: “The Yugo takes unresponsive steering to a new low in this company… The ride is lively and uncoordinated, larger shocks being heard (and felt) as they are fed through the bodyshell…  Its dynamic responses are a throwback to the dark, early days of front-wheel-drive chassis behaviour.”

Online, images of the car’s interior show that Autocar’s reservations were likely justified, as everything looks very ’80s au courant, but lacking finesse. Panel gaps are rather wide, and I could easily see a few pennies getting lost forever in those. Plastics seem to suffer of some kind of socialist severity, varying in degrees of fit and finish. The tranny lever looks rather rinky-dinky, and the multitude of needles in the control panel’s gauges suggest Zastava’s engineers were thinking more about MiGs than cars.

The peculiar switches, buttons and levers around the steering wheel add to the interior’s quibbles and would likely take some time to master. Their location is odd for the most part, looking haphazard and cobbled together. Probably more a reflection of technical limitations than any ‘unorthodox’ approach to ergonomics.

Regardless, the Florida/Sana/Miami was sold on low price, not refinement. That was the brand’s calling card. As such, sales were directed to the UK, West Germany, Holland, Belgium and France.

Brief consideration by Yugo America was given to importing the Florida, with a few sites claiming US testing took place. Bricklin, who knows a sinking ship when he sees one, was gone by then, cashing his stakes by the late ’80s. Indeed, US interest with the Yugo was derailing by the late ’80s, with the Florida never making it stateside.

So, how did this Florida end up on my end of the woods in tiny El Salvador? I’ve not the slightest idea. It took me a second visit to confirm the model’s provenance, as I was more inclined to believe it was some kind of Hyundai with a ‘badge job,’ or some other oddity. But a Yugo it was, in Florida garb nonetheless.

It probably won’t surprise anyone to hear the car’s lines didn’t impress me. Whatever ’21st century visions’ old Yugoslavia had with the Florida looked very low-rent ’80s to me. Still, it was a Yugo, and any Yugo is worth capturing nowadays. An early ’88-92 sample, when most of the model’s production took place.

As the ’90s began the low-cost-Yugo-shtick was wearing out its welcome in the West. Yet, it was a different set of matters that quashed the whole effort. Life and death matters actually. With war in the Balkans igniting in ’92 and economic sanctions being imposed, car assembly came to a standstill at Zastava. In the interim years only a handful of Floridas were put together from spare parts (what for, Army generals?), with the factory eventually bombed out during the course of hostilities.

The Florida endured after the war ended, even if Yugoslavia was no more. With minor updates performed by France’s Heuliez in the early ’00s, Florida production resumed, now with either a 1.1 Fiat or a 1.6 Peugeout sourced mill. Imports made it mainly to Egypt and Greece.

Activities resumed, a Florida-based concept car was proudly displayed at the 2002 Zagreb Car Show, an in-house Zastava styling effort. Looking rather amateurish, Italdesign’s intern seems to have been nowhere to be found.

Bricklin resurfaced around this time, proving that no villain ever disappears midway in a fairy tale’s telling. Having already shown he was no noble ‘blue prince,’ Zastava was desperate enough to take one more bite of whatever poisoned fruit he was dangling. Talks ensued on a possible new venture, with Bricklin even creating a website for the upcoming enterprise.

None came to pass though, with China’s Chery becoming the chosen partner for America’s most indomitable entrepreneur trickster. This time the joke was on his end though, with Chery and a flock of crooked participants engaged in back alley dealings that kiboshed the whole effort. The baddie finally went down the crevice, in a plot so convoluted it makes The X-Files seem accessible in comparison.

No fairy grandmother came to Zastava’s rescue though. Unable to adapt to a new economy, the company closed its doors for good in 2008. As VW could have forewarned them, wars are really hard on a company’s records keeping, with a number of Zastava’s ex-employees engaged in an ongoing lawsuit claiming for owed wages. Meanwhile, the factory grounds have been refurbished under new FCA ownership.

Regrettably, from first sight, most of us knew how Yugo’s little fairy tale would end. Their cars were unremarkable and hard to take seriously in a West full of shopping options. However, Eastern Europe has quite a body of fairy tales; maybe a happier one will be told next time.

More on Yugos:

Automotive History: The Joke Is On U.S. – The Short, Wild Ride Of The Yugo In America