Cadillacs, Yugos and Van Moofs

Being a member of Generation X, I’m old enough to remember the 1980s and the Sarajevo Olympics.

“Where is Sarajevo?” I asked my father.

(I knew perfectly well where Sarajevo was. I just wanted to hear my father explain it.)

“It’s in Yugoslavia,” he answered.

“Yugoslavia?” I said.

“It’s kind of like Switzerland,” he said, “only with Polacks, Turks and Greeks instead of Frogs, Germans and Italians.”

To translate from my father to English, “Polacks” meant “Slavs,” all Slavs. “Turks” meant “Muslims” and “Greeks” meant “Orthodox Christians.” So he was basically accurate. Yugoslavia was a multicultural Slavic state full of Muslims and Orthodox Christians.

“How is it like Switzerland?” I asked.

“It’s got mountains,” he said, “and it’s neutral.”

“Neutral?” I said. “Isn’t it communist?”

“Yes,” he said. “But they’re neutral commies, not like the Russians. That’s why we let them have the Olympics and didn’t boycott them. Unlike the East Germans or Polacks, they can also travel. That’s why there are so many of them here.”

In addition to being an expert on Yugoslavia and Southeastern Europe, my father was also a devotee of big American cars. In fact, he didn’t consider anything else a real car, just a toy. For years, our primary vehicle was a gigantic 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood. While comfortable on long trips, the 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood wasn’t particularly fuel efficient. Like like a Leopard II or Abrams Tank, you measured fuel consumption in gallons per mile, not miles per gallon.

In other words, the 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood was capitalism before neoliberalism and neoliberal austerity, capitalism at the height of its power, capitalism before the gas lines and the 1973 recession. That a member of the lower-middle-class (well upper-lower-middle-class) like my father could buy and maintain one was a testament to New Deal America, to the enfranchisement of the working class, to freedom and democracy. Who needed communism when anybody in America could afford to keep a 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood? Franklin Roosevelt had already won the Cold War. Marx and Stalin weren’t evil. They were just besides the point.

But what about Joseph Broz Tito? While long dead by 1984, Joseph Broz Tito was the guiding spirit behind the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Long before the bloody civil wars of the 1990s, or the Clinton Administration’s and the ghoulish Madeleine Albright’s use of Al Qaeda and the Kosovo Liberation Army to break up greater Serbia, Sarajevo was the secular capital of a Muslim country, a exotically beautiful “Oriental” city in a communist country which had good relations with the west, a place where people who looked like white Americans bowed towards Mecca five times a day. Not far away was Mostar, home of the famous Ottoman Bridge, that also, according to the nostalgic memories of the Bosnian Serb filmmaker Emir Kusturica, made supersonic jets and Yugoslavia a major power. Yugoslavia might not have been as wealthy as Switzerland. But it was a far more interesting place.

Nobody, however, would confuse the Yugo, the sub-compact communist clunker Yugoslavia attempted to export to the United States with a 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood. The Yugoslavian government’s logic was perfectly sound. By 1984, New Deal American capitalism had given way to neoliberal American capitalism and neoliberal austerity. Gas was now prohibitively expensive. No longer could lower-middle-class (or even upper-lower-middle-class) Americans afford to buy Cadillacs. So the idea of exporting a tiny sub-compact that only cost $3000 was not as ridiculous as a lot of people thought it was at the time. People also forget just how bad the compact cars (that cost at least 3 times as much) coming out of Detroit (incompetently made knockoffs of Japanese made cars) were.

It’s too bad the Simpsons never had the insight to make fun of the 1990 Ford Aspire, which started out at $9860 dollars.

Does anybody in the United States even remember, let along remember fondly, the 1990 Ford Aspire? Unlike the Ford Aspire, the Yugo is in fact remembered fondly by some people, including a Dutch guy named “Ralph” who founded a company dedicated to giving people tours of the monuments of the former Yugoslavia in its most famous, or infamous, export.

YUGO TOUR is a car ride in a vintage Yugoslav Zastava car that gives you a taste of everyday life in Yugoslavia. By driving through the remains of the Yugoslav urban space in Belgrade and Sarajevo, we try to keep everything as authentic as possible and help you experience a day in the life of a typical Yugoslav person. We will play the music from that period, drink “Yugoslav Coca Cola” and tell you about the ideals, architecture, and history of a nation that no longer exists. There is no better way to learn the history of one country than to immerse yourself in it on one of our tours. Experience Belgrade as the booming capital of Yugoslavia in a ride along impressive brutalist architecture, bombed buildings, a concentration camp and Tito’s grave. Or return to the days that Sarajevo was the beating heart of Yugoslav rock music and the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics. Dear comrade, don’t hesitate; book a YUGO TOUR before it’s too late!

Note: According to a Serbian acquaintance of vast knowledge of the history of Yugoslavia, Yugotours is a silly concept ridiculed with historical inaccuracies.

The interesting thing about the Dutch is that they’re not only the best looking people in the world. They’re the tallest. It’s a land of literal giants. Indeed, the Netherlands is just about the only place where I, being about 6 feet tall, or 183cm, would feel short. The idea of the Dutch driving around in subcompact seems just as hilarious as the idea of Kevin McHale and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar flying coach, and NBA teams did indeed fly commercial until 1990. In fact, just about the only other place in the world, where the average height is more or less the same as the Dutch is the former Yugoslavia, where people in Bosnia and Montenegro clock in at an average height of 184cm, just a hair below the Dutch average of 185cm. A Yugo, while perfectly adequate for an American, average height 5’9″ or 175cm, was probably ridiculously small for the descendants of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš.

In addition to being good-looking giants, the Dutch are also avid cyclists. Indeed, Amsterdam is probably the most bike friendly city in the world.

Nowadays the Netherlands boasts 22,000 miles of cycle paths. More than a quarter of all trips are made by bicycle, compared with 2% in the UK – and this rises to 38% in Amsterdam and 59% in the university city of Groningen. All major Dutch cities have designated “bicycle civil servants”, tasked to maintain and improve the network. And the popularity of the bike is still growing, thanks partly to the development of electric bicycles.The Cyclists’ Union has long ceased to be a group of random activists; it is now a respectable organisation with 34,000 paying members whose expertise is in worldwide demand.

Dutch bicycles are famous for being cheap, simple durable, and easy to repair. It was with great dismay, therefore, that I found out about how the Dutch, those giants with bicycles, have not only fallen for the E-bike craze. They’ve purchased large numbers of Van Moofs, a high-end E-bike starting at $2000 but averaging closer to $3000, about the same price as a Yugo, not accounting for inflation. Sadly for the Dutch, the company has gone bankrupt. Good luck getting your $3000 luxury E-bike repaired if it breaks down, or even starting it.

If the 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood represented American capitalism at its height, it’s most egalitarian and prosperous and if the Yugo represented old-school East European communism, then surely the Van Moof represents neoliberal capitalism. I’m of course an old school cyclist who can go over 500 miles on a cheap aluminum road bike. Something about the very concept of an E-bike offends me. But in general it’s not a bad idea for weaker riders. Put a motor powered by a battery on the front wheel and it will help you get up the hill that you can’t quite handle on your own.

But the Van Moof was more than just a bicycle with a motor assist. It was a status symbol for tech bros, a cheap hybrid that you needed an app to start. Like those ubiquitous pepper grinders you find on yuppie tables in Park Slope it was a simple concept with a lot of extra crap added on that did absolutely nothing worth the trouble of the improvement. The Van Moof was above all about making money from suckers who have too much money. It was the essence of neoliberalism. Steal from the poor to give to the rich so you could then steal from the rich.

VanMoof, the Dutch e-bike maker that gained a zealous following, tripled its sales in the pandemic and raised more than $180 million in funding, declared bankruptcy last month, leaving riders in limbo. That’s because the eye-catching e-bikes, which start around $2,000, are built from proprietary parts that only the company makes, available mostly at company-run service centers. And many of the bikes’ functions are linked to VanMoof’s smartphone app.“If I break it, or something else happens, I don’t know where to go,” said Gideon Sutaman, 28, who lives in Amsterdam and has been riding his VanMoof e-bike since December.

At least the 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood gave you something for your extravagance.