An affordable necessity that became a symbol of the Yugoslav tragedyAdriatic Journal 19 June 2020
In late 1970s Igor Mandić, a Yugoslav writer and literary critic, wrote in an essay featured in his Mythology of Everyday Life that each nation gets the car it can have. And that Yugoslavs deserve the Fičo. He was, of course, referring to Zastava 750.
Author: Martin Pogačar, PhD
Fičo was produced by Crvena Zastava (Red Star) factory in Kragujevac, Serbia from 1955 to 1985. It was tiny, but big enough to fit a family of four going camping on the Adriatic shore; it was unreliable, but easily repairable; not least, it was the official policeman vehicle and loved F by postmen and vets alike. For many Yugoslavs it was the first car they ever had and, for a lucky few, it was the very place of origin: where they emerged from the womb. In all, it was a car of the people and for the people.
A promising start
Fičo can be seen as a constant reminder not to look at yugoslav history as a uniform blob of failure and torture.
After the end of the Second World War, Yugoslav leadership decided to motorise the war-torn country and signed a contract with the Italian FIAT to produce licenced FIAT 600 in 1953. As the cars started rolling of the factory two years later, the country – in the interwar period predominantly agrarian with scarce industry, which was reduced to smithereens during the war – was finally on the wheels, ready to embark on a path of industrialisation and modernisation. Along the way, Fičo was becoming the stuff of memory for the generations that grew up in Yugoslavia and witnessed the life of the car unfold in front of their eyes; and who have witnessed the transformation of the country reflected in the rear-view mirror.
The Fičo, a car once barely affordable yet somehow cute, grew over time so obsolete and outdated that it became a laughing stock at best or ended up dumped in a ditch at worst. As Mandić points out, “some believe that Fičo has long since played its role and they turn their backs on it. Just like one might turn their back on poor relatives who made significant sacrifices for our progress, but get in return from us indifference and shame”. In this sense, Fičo can be seen as an allegory of the collapse of the state, but also a constant reminder not to look at Yugoslav history as a uniform blob of failure and torture.
A symbol of hope … and collapse
The car and its cultural lives went through various phases. In the beginning it was considered, Mandić again, as “the first expensive object of modern psychology of consumption, the first magic lantern that served as a road sign showing the way out from years-long backwardness, it was an Ariadne’s thread showing us the way out of the domain of cottages, mud, sandals and village fetes towards the wide asphalt roads, motels, self-service shops, striptease and beat music.” Over time, however, the sentiment transitioned from adoration, hopes and promises of a better future, to a marker of political and economic decline and, finally, collapse. It became a historical burden hidden in sheds and garages with no apparent value other than demolition: my mechanic told me they would cut off the roof and use it as a raft on a nearby river.
. In any case, Yugoslavia sported a rather well-developed automobile industry and a number of car factories, including IMV in Novo mesto (Slovenia) that later became Revoz (producing Renaults) to IDA in Kikinda (Serbia) that produced Opels, while TAS from Sarajevo was making the famous Volkswagen’s Golf. Perhaps most well-known among them was Zastava from Kragujevac bought by Fiat Chrysler just a few years ago. And how could it not have been?
Becoming a Myth
In the period 1955–1985 a total of 923,487 cars was produced of which some 20,000 are allegedly still on the roads of former Yugoslavia – clearly, Fičo was no Mercedes, but for some just as desirable. For nearly 20 years, before the just as famous but less mythic Zastava 101 hit the roads, Fičo was an important product of the Zastava factory that procured parts through a network of over 200 subcontractors around the country. During the 1960s, the time of liberalisation and opening of the country to the West, the production grew significantly and the factory invested in new facilities. By the end of the decade, Fičo became a cult vehicle, a regular appearance on TV shows and in popular films.
In the period 1955-1985 a total of 923,487 cars were produced.
The entrance of the car into the moving picture was the critical moment when the car was no longer just a means of transportation. It was also becoming a myth. Cinema provided a crucial opportunity for the car to become, again in Mandić’s words, “a new medium that ‘shook’ the obsolescence and tininess of city shopping centres, expanded streets and avenues, changed the appearance of travel and traffic arteries, and traffic regulations”. The ascendance to myth, however, hardly exerted a positive influence on the Fičo. Perhaps it was because of it riding the wave of fame that the car, neglecting the developments in the industry, somehow got stuck in time. Having failed to modernise and adjust to the changing driving conditions and the shifting social meaning of a car as status symbol, Fičo was no match for modern cars.
From cult to obsolete
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was a nearly forgotten object of the past and a symbol of a country everybody was hastily trying to forget. It was mostly driven by the poor and youth, but it found an intriguing role as a working vehicle on many Adriatic islands doubling as a car, a tractor and a horse. Regardless, it became a symbol of the Yugoslav wars. It was at the beginning of the war in 1991 in Osijek, Croatia, when the Yugoslav Army tanks rolled into the city and a brave citizen parked his red Fičo in the middle of the street hoping to stop the tanks. The car was crushed and the war raged on. Before long the red Fičo and many others across the country rose out of the debris of their own meagre existence in their former motherland’s nightmarish afterlife.
Fičo became one of the objects of unwanted heritage, along the obvious Tito´s busts and the red star, that somehow retained the appeal across the former yugoslavia.
They slowly and humbly drew out of sheds and garages fuelling the just discovered fascination with everything Yugoslav. This phenomenon soon became known as Yugonostalgia, a specific type of nostalgia that came to life after the collapse of the state in response to the nationalisation of once multinational pasts and the realisation that the promised West looked much more brilliant as an unreachable destination. Fičo became one of the objects of unwanted heritage, along the obvious Tito’s busts and the red star, that somehow retained the appeal across the former Yugoslavia. A material remnant of the past, Fičo was one of nostalgia’s prime vehicles with enough room to fit some rogue memories in the trunk. Or on the roof. Or under passenger’s behinds.
Mending broken friendships
Once Yugoslav past was safely neutralised, both in its emancipatory and totalitarian aspects, and when even musical taste was deemed a political statement, Fičo offered one of the channels of mending broken friendships. Although Zastava and Fičo fan clubs existed already during Yugoslavia, the post-Yugoslav fascination is unprecedented. In the context of denying cultural value to all things Yugoslav, the car provided an object one can work on. Many specimens were in dire need of repair. This forced Fičo-fans to indiscriminately source spare parts. With many cars in the ditches or at the bottom of the sea, spare parts have always been a scarce commodity that necessitated, and legitimated cooperation across the new borders. Soon enough fans would start to organise gatherings attracting Fičo-fans from all over former Yugoslavia. Interestingly, the participants were not just people who had first-hand emotional ties to the “real” thing. Instead, for many younger post-Yugoslavs, taking care of a Fičo was an opportunity not only to gain or improve mending skills but also to engage with the car’s history. This invariably entails at least passing mention of Yugoslavia. Thus perhaps purely technical fascination became a cultural one; and in some cases political. Several Fičo-fans I spoke with talked about their experience of the car also as an opportunity to discuss present-day politics, the precarity of the post-socialist everyday and the flaws of the regime change. In addition to Fičo-fans welding and fiddling with carburettor and tuning ignition, one man I met deems the car a relevant enough artefact to maniacally collect over 300 of them, while another one decided to make and sell half a million new ones. If only 1:43 diecast models. The car is thus an object that stirs the imagination of a number of post-Yugoslavs, but also allegedly untouched foreigners. One brave girl took a little orange Fičo from Ljubljana all the way to London. The journey involved a lost exhaust pipe, getting lost in Milan, and a train ride from Nice to the final destination – a West End welder. After an exhilarating farewell rally in Sicily, the car found a new owner somewhere in France. It was sold for one euro.
The countries that emerged in the wake of the socialist Yugoslavia do not appear to share the passion for the car. Although an odd specimen can be found in respective technical museums, private and public, a industrial and technical heritage is barely existent. So, it is down to enthusiasts to preserve heritage. The reasons vary, but it is likely the difficulties in nationalisation of a once relatively common history. Although it was made in the then Republic of Serbia, Fičo was a Yugoslav car. Another reason may be the general neglect or disregard of the historical value of socialist industrial heritage, which is often seen as inherently flawed and irrelevant.
By historical chance Fičo’s birthplace Kragujevac also became its end. Where once there was a Yugoslav factory is now an multinational company, where once there was a factory with its own automobile institute employing engineers who developed and designed new products, there is today an automobile cemetery. Behind one of the factory buildings a fine selection of Zastava cars are rusting and rotting, among them the Zastava’s millionth car, the Zastava 101 from the Tour d’Europe 1973–74 rally, and the last Fičo from 1985. After the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991, these cars were kept by the Institute. But during the 1999 NATO bombings, the cars were moved outside the building, to prevent the potential damage from bombing. Alas, the 20-year sojourn outdoors let the elements do their job. The rain, the snow, the heat, the cold. The time.