There’s a Yugoslav car that was even more important than the Yugo for the country and for the country’s memory. Better known by its nickname, Fića / Fićo / Fićko, Zastava 750 was the first Yugoslav car. It was and continues to be a Yugoslav icon, a symbol of that disappeared country and an object of nostalgia. In metaphorical terms, Fićo is Yugoslavia…and probably always will be. This is Fića's story.
With Martin Pogačar and Jovana Stojiljković. Featuring the song "Piči Fića" by Sabrija Vulić.
The Remembering Yugoslavia podcast explores the memory of a country that no longer exists. Created, produced, and hosted by Peter Korchnak. New episodes two to three times per month.
PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your driver Peter Korchnak.
There’s a Yugoslav car that was even more important than the Yugo for the country and for the country’s memory.
MARTIN POGAČAR: Fićo is a phenomenal car and it’s got this appeal, it’s kind of small and it’s not ugly, but it’s not beautiful, you can kind of see in it, you know, whatever you want.
PETER KORCHNAK: Better known by its nickname, Fića in Serbian, Fićo in Bosnian, Croatian, and Macedonian, and Fićko or Fićek in Slovenian, Zastava 750 was the first Yugoslav car. And–
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: Fića was the first car for a regular person with a regular job and salary.
PETER KORCHNAK: Fića was and continues to be a Yugoslav icon, a symbol of that disappeared country and an object of nostalgia. In metaphorical terms, Fićo is Yugoslavia…and probably always will be.
So the story of Fića is more than just a story about a little car. It’s a fable of Yugoslavia’s history and memory, a road from fields to freeways, a tale of fame and freedom, a journey that keeps logging new journal entries every day.
In today’s episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: Fića goes back to the future.
Before we get on the road, I want to acknowledge the newest Remembering Yugoslavia supporters, especially Cheryl. Thank you all for your generous contributions! I truly appreciate having you on this ride.
If this podcast brightens your day or brings back memories, if you learn something or if you laugh or cry, be like Cheryl. Navigate to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate, pick your route, and chip in for the gas.
[SOUNDBITE – Fićo engine]
PETER KORCHNAK: The story of Fića begins at the birth of socialist Yugoslavia.
MARTIN POGAČAR: Yugoslavia before the Second World War was predominantly [an] agrarian country and of the industry that was in the country before the Second World War ,quite a bit was destroyed, a lot of infrastructure was destroyed; bridges were torn down; railway was practically inexistent [sic] after the Second World War.
PETER KORCHNAK: You may remember Martin Pogačar from Episode 6, “Yugoslavia as Cultural Subversion.” He is a research fellow at the Ljubljana-based Institute of Culture and Memory Studies. In addition to Yugoslavia’s pop culture and digital afterlives, he’s an expert in all things Fićko and the author of the book, in Slovenian, Fićko Around Yugoslavia: The Star of Domestic Automobilism between Roads and Memories, published in 2016. My Slovenian is quite poor so I used the new Croatian translation of the book as a main source for this episode. An interesting side note: while the subtitle is the same in the Croatian edition as in the original, the title was changed to Fićo the Car for All, that is, it omits mention of Yugoslavia. Anyway, I spoke with the a-Fićo-nado in January 2020 in Ljubljana.
MARTIN POGAČAR: So, this was a country that was kind of trying to become a country, but it had no means. So they had to, in the very early post-war years, rebuild the country. And this is what set in motion the whole industrialization of the country and with that came modernization of the everyday and so on. And Fićo was, in the first years, definitely a symbol of that.
Later on, of course, there was [sic] other cars that were bigger and faster, but none was as cute [both laugh].
[BACKGROUND NOISE – Fića driving]
PETER KORCHNAK: After the war, the long-time armaments and weapons manufacturer based in Kragujevac, in today’s Serbia, Zavodi Crvena Zastava (Red Flag Company), produced military and agricultural vehicles, including Jeeps. This was part of the nascent industrial development and modernization policy Yugoslavia launched in the early 1950s after the split with the Soviet Union.
Beginning in 1954, Yugoslavia signed hundreds of contracts with foreign, predominantly Western, companies to acquire their technology for domestic production. The percentage of contracts related to the automotive and adjacent industries was so significant that that industry became one of the leading sectors in the country.
The settlement of border disputes with Italy in 1954 paved the way for cooperation with that country. Crvena Zastava signed a vehicle production agreement with Fiat, the first big commercial arrangement and enterprise between a Western corporation and a socialist one in the post-war era.
Initially, Crvena Zastava produced Fiat cars: first a jeep-like AP-55 Capagnola, then a couple of sedans. The first Fića, Fiat 600, rolled off the line on October 18th, 1955. It had a 633 cubic centimeter, 22-horsepower, rear-wheel engine. Like its successors, it was two-door, 3.3 meters or 130 inches long and 1.4 meters or 55 inches tall and wide. I’ve compared the car to a fat bubble; it’s compact, cute, and curvaceous.
The car’s nickname was either borrowed from a character in a comic by Milorad Dobrić that ran in the Borba newspaper in the late 1950s called Kurir Fića, or it was a localized diminutive of the word Fiat.
Either way, the car had to accomplish three things: seat four adults, be fuel efficient and affordable, and “have a suspension soft enough for eggs placed on the rear seat to not break while the car drove across a freshly plowed field.”
I’ve found different yearly production figures, but what’s for sure is that Crvena Zastava produced more and more Fićas every year, some 3,600 in 1958 and 11 thousand in 1961.
The next model, the 750, launched in 1962 with some design and technical upgrades, to 767 ccms and 25 horsepower, which enabled maximum speed of 110 kilometers or 68 miles per hour. Subsequent variants boasted even bigger engines.
Some 26 thousand Fićas were produced in 1964. In 1965, a new factory went online with the capacity of 50,000 Fićas; annual capacity increased again to 85,000 in 1968, when new production lines in Macedonia and Kosovo were added to the five in Kragujevac.
In 1969, Fiat ceased production of the 600 model, which is when Zastava 750 began to diverge from the 600 even more. One major change was replacing the rear-hinged doors, which opened from front to back and were nicknamed suicide doors, with regular front-hinged ones. Zastava 850 came out in 1980, with a 843 ccm engine that could get up to 125 kilometers or 78 miles per hour.
In all, 923,487 Zastava 750s were made in the 30 years from 1955. The last Fićo rolled off the assembly line on November 18th, 1985. It was red.
Fićo was used not only as a civilian passenger vehicle but there were also police, military, driving school, and other service Fićos. There were wait lists for the car in the 1960s.
Meanwhile, in 1961 Zastava began producing its own version of Fiat 1300, in 1971 the 101, or Stojadin, which was Fiat 128, and in 1978 the Yugo, i.e. Fiat 127. Zastava also wasn’t the only company in Yugoslavia to make passenger cars. Volkswagen Golfs were assembled in Sarajevo, Citroen and Renault cars in Novo Mesto, Slovenia, and Opels in Kikinda, Vojvodina. The key point here is “assembled.” Rather than assembling cars from imported parts, Crvena Zastava in Kragujevac actually produced them.
The relatively open economy and a great number of Yugoslavs working abroad meant there were plenty of foreign-made cars in the country, imported from both the West and the socialist countries, including my own, Czechoslovakia. I just about fell over a few years ago when I spotted a mint Škoda 110R coupe in Belgrade; I hadn’t seen one back home in ages…or since.
Of the 110,000 new automobiles sold in 1968, 56,000 were domestic and 54,000 imported; given the model production timelines, most Made in Yugoslavia cars sold that year were Fićas. Anecdotally, because I cannot find good figures for this, a photo in Pogačar’s book, perhaps from the late 1960s or early 1970s of a central square in a seaside town, shows Fićas comprising some 14 percent of all the cars parked there. That again is just one make-and-model in a fairly open economy.
Long story short and all the numbers aside, Fićo was an unspoken and undisputed ruler of Yugoslavia’s roads…and hearts.
But Fićo was more than just a car.
MARTIN POGAČAR: It was considered the car that put Yugoslavia on wheels. But it was not a truly Yugoslav car. It was a Fiat. But nevertheless, Fićo is a phenomenal car and it’s got this appeal, it’s kind of small; it’s not ugly, but it’s not beautiful; you can kind of see in it, you know, whatever you want.
You can see in it the incapability of Yugoslavia to make a car. Or you can see in it a car that put Yugoslavia on wheels nevertheless. It’s also a story about industrialization.
When we think about socialist economy or industry we think about, like it’s hugely, you know, immensely centralized system, but on the other hand Zastava, the factory that was making these cars, they had about 200 cooperants [sic] across the country. So it was a huge network that was kind of filling in and also living through this industry. There was also peripheral industries, also, obviously, that developed; from rubber to, you know, canvas, metal, I don’t know, that had to develop, to make [the] whole system work.
PETER KORCHNAK: Zastava was designated to be the sole producer of passenger vehicles in Yugoslavia. The ethnic key policy, which aimed among other things to equalize development in the country, was implemented on the level of component suppliers, with dozens of companies scattered all over the country. About 30 percent of Fićko’s parts were made in Slovenia, for example.
The horizontal integration of production may have satisfied the requirements of brotherhood and unity but it led to problems. Zastava as the end producer could not control the quality of components. And there was competition among the supplier enterprises, most of which manufactured Zastava components in addition to other products. Still, the development of the automotive industry in Yugoslavia spurred the development of other industries, contributing to Yugoslavia achieving by the late 1950s some of the fastest economic growth rates in the world. Yugoslavs learned how to design and manufacture complex products, how to arrange supply chains, how to sell stuff. Gas stations, service companies, car washes, magazines all rode the coattails of the automotive industry.
What’s more, the impact of Yugoslavia’s car industry extended beyond stimulating the industrial sectors that supplied its inputs (and the inputs’ inputs) and the adjacent sectors. It impacted other areas of life as well, from architecture to urban planning to product design to consumption to tourism.
Take New Belgrade, an extension of the capital built on the left bank of the Sava. The first master plan, adopted in 1950, envisaged a city functionally separated into areas, or blocks, where people could fulfill their basic needs and have less need to move around. Residential towers and slabs were placed in some configuration with green spaces and functional buildings, like shops and schools and medical offices in between; blocks were divided by major arterial roads and crisscrossed by additional longitudinal roads. Whatever transportation was needed, among blocks and to other parts of the city, was to be serviced by trams, busses, trolley busses as well as state-owned service vehicles.
As Yugoslavia’s modernization took off, new government policies shifted focus from capital to consumer goods, from heavy to consumer industries. This was in part a reflection of the new economic system of self-management, whereby workers who consumed more would be motivated to produce more. Consumption subsequently took off. Yugoslavs filled their houses and apartments with modern furniture and appliances, they followed world fashion, used cosmetics, listened to rock’n’roll, ate well, took vacations to the sea and abroad, built vikendice, weekend homes.
And they bought and drove cars. Private ownership of passenger vehicles ballooned. Pre-war, in 1938, there were 1.3 cars per 1,000 inhabitants in Yugoslavia. In 1960, five years into Fićo’s production, there were about 12 cars per 1,000 people in socialist Yugoslavia; in 1965 the figure jumped to 32 cars per 1,000 (for comparison, in Italy it was 106 per 1,000), and in 1969 to 82 per 1,000. Again, about half the cars sold in Yugoslavia were domestic, half imported.
By the mid-1960s, Belgrade urban planners could no longer ignore the automobile. Aided by urban planners from the U.S., the second master plan of Belgrade, developed in 1967, put transportation at its core.
The car took over the cities and the countryside, as Yugoslavs traveled, more often than not by car, to the Adriatic coast as well as abroad, including to the West. Amidst all that, Fićo became, in the words of Karin Taylor and Hannes Grandits, “an icon of holidaymaking in Yugoslavia in the 1960s.”
In short, the Yugoslav Dream, to use Patrick Hyder Patterson’s phrase, was made of stuff and experiences–and it fit into a Fića.
PETER KORCHNAK: Fićo acquired legendary status already during the socialist Yugoslav era. After all, it was produced for most of the country’s existence. Fan clubs of the Yugoslav socialist automobile existed already in the 1970s. Most Yugoslav citizens thus had some experience with it at some point in their life. It was part of the fabric of Yugoslav life.
“There was no car that ever felt more completely “ours”,” than Fića, writes anthropologist Marko Živković. It was the first car in Yugoslavia that was affordable to many, which made it “a true people’s car.”
What does “affordable” mean? Whereas in 1964 a Fića cost 31 average monthly salaries, a mere four years later, in 1968, “only” 18.
Fićko made it onto silver and TV screens as well. In his book, Pogačar traces how the role of the car, in general but often personified with Fićo, evolved in Yugoslavia. “Popular culture formed, through film and music, the cultural imagination of the car and consequently attitudes toward life, present moment, and society,” he writes. As the Yugoslav people’s car, Fića played a central role. Whereas first, the car was a tool for transport, for work, utilitarian, later it became a status symbol of the middle class, of abundance, of having made it in the Yugoslav society, and then finally the young people’s right, a stand-in for independence and emancipation, for life itself. Fića was a symbol of Yugoslavia’s development, of mobility and ascendance to the middle class, and of individual independence and consumerism.
In the 1961 film Prvi gradjanin male varoši (The First Citizen of a Small Town), the protagonist, a municipality director played by the Yugoslav actor Rade Marković, inexpertly drives a Fića as he deals with the challenges of the titular town’s urban development.
In the 8th episode of the 1975 television series Grlom u jagode, titled “Driving Hours,” characters learn how to drive in a Fićo.
Fića reached its pop-cultural pinnacle as the co-star in the 1979 film by Goran Marković, Nacionalna klasa (National Class). The protagonist Flojd, a cool, carefree dude portrayed by the great Yugoslav actor Dragan Nikolić, races a souped up, black Fića with two yellow stripes, in the category of small domestic vehicles. All he wants is to win, to the expense of his girlfriend, the military draft, and generally his responsibilities as an adult.
In the early 1980s the children’s program Kocka kocka kockica ran an episode titled “From the Life of a Fićo” where a group of children meet an orange Fićo, sporting a mustache across the grill, big eyes on the windscreen, and a cap on the roof. He drives them to visit the Zastava factory and to learn how he is made.
PETER KORCHNAK: Fića featured in a couple of children’s songs and there were also Fićo jokes in old Yugoslavia.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Through the Doors of the Circus” by Ergo Phizmiz]
Why do Fićo drivers go to heaven? Because in the Fićo they’ve already been to hell.
[SOUNDBITE – joke drum]
Why do Fićo drivers never carry a map? Because they can’t get far and so they can’t get lost.
[SOUNDBITE – joke drum]
Fićo was actually designed for five people. One is driving, four are pushing.
[SOUNDBITE – joke drum]
What do you do when Fićo overheats? Stop pushing it and let it rest.
[SOUNDBITE – joke drum]
[SOUNDBITE – Fića car noise]
PETER KORCHNAK: If Fića was an icon of Yugoslavia, it was an icon of its demise as well.
On June 27th, 1991, a couple of days after Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia and proclaimed independence, Yugoslav People’s Army tanks rolled through the city of Osijek. The local resident Branko Breškić parked his red Fićo to block their path. Seconds after Breškić exited his Fićo, a T-55 tank, driven by a Croatian soldier no less, rammed it and crushed it against the side of a bus.
PETER KORCHNAK: After Yugoslavia disintegrated, the Yugoslav auto industry followed. Zastava suffered from sanctions imposed on the Milošević regime and was partly destroyed in the 1999 NATO bombing.
But a revival of sorts began shortly after when modified Florida and Koral models went into production. In 2008, the now-Serbian company Zastava entered a joint venture with Fiat, which became its majority owner. The loop closed.
Meanwhile, Fića lives.
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: My name is Jovana, and currently we are riding in my little baby, the yellow Fića from 1978. I am a tattoo artist and I love cars. I don’t know why I love cars, I love old cars. I don’t know, I just appreciate the effort, the technology, the engineering skills and the artistic skills that they’ve put into old cars altogether, you know, people have put so much effort in these cars back in the day, you just can’t not appreciate them.
This car brought many good things to me. I met so many nice people, good people, people with amazing hobbies similar to this one. So yeah, and then the business came later.
PETER KORCHNAK: Jovana Stojilković is the founder of Yugoverse, a company in Belgrade offering tours around the city in Yugoslav cars. She bought the Fića, whom she nicknamed Ćips, in 2016. Ćips the Fića was the first of three Fićas Stojilković now owns, and she now also has a Yugo 45 and a Yugo Cabrio convertible. I met with Stojilković in Blok 23 in New Belgrade and she took me for a drive to her tattoo studio in Ćips, my first experience in a Fića.
PETER KORCHNAK: What is the story of the car’s name, Ćips the Fića.
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: So the story of the car’s name is very short. The fact that I’ve bought it with a license plate that starts with PI, and then the last two letters C and S have formed the name Ćips. It actually one wasn’t the letter C, it was the letter Ć, as in chips, you know, so four letters perfectly aligned on the license plate [and] just asked for it.
PETER KORCHNAK: A decade ago, the anthropologist Marko Živković scoured the Nacionalna Klasa internet forum to see how members relate to Fića. In answers to the question, “What does Fića mean to you?” he found people see the little car as a person. The mere fact the Zastava 750 has a nickname testifies to that; Stojilković naming her Fića punctuates it.
Moreover, to many people Fićo was a family member, writes Živković, “a master time-binder, a memento, that recalls family history,” end quote. Fića is an object through which former Yugoslavs tell their personal stories and those of their families. Maybe you were conceived in one or were driven around in one as a baby to help you fall asleep. Or you rode in the backseat of one to an Adriatic vacation with your family or you learned how to drive in one. Maybe a Fićko was the first car you bought or you raced one on weekends. Perhaps you hauled bricks in one to build your vikendica or you picked up girls in one…
MARTIN POGAČAR: There’s just like milion stories about— The first story I heard was from my mom. So, there was— My mom and her sister and my grandfather and grandmother and my grandmother’s mother who all fit into Fićo [Peter laughs] including camping equipment, and they would drive to somewhere in Istria. So for me it was, like, impossible to understand, so we have now these huge cars, but we cannot fit everything in.
PETER KORCHNAK: At the same time that Fića ties together many a family history, it connects people’s personal past with that of the community–and the country. “Fića has come to stand for a whole way of life in the former Yugoslavia,” writes Živković.
A recent meme, in Serbian, circulating on Yugonostalgic networks, is telling. The text around a picture of a Fića at a gas station reads, “Daddy, how were things in Yugoslavia?” “How? You went to Serbia, you went to Croatia, you went every friggin’ where, your Fića breaks down, nobody around in the middle of the night, no cell phones, so you knock on the nearest door, people open and go find a mechanic and meanwhile they serve you some cold cuts, some rakija, you end up staying the night… That’s how things were in Yugoslavia, son.”
Fića does his magic all over the world. Take Pep Stojanović, formerly of Kragujevac, now in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is the owner of Commie Cars which imports and restores vehicles from that time and place. In a 2018 short, he told this story of driving his orange Fića:
PEP STOJANOVIĆ: We pulled up to a Serbian deli grocery store. And we were standing outside with the owner who was admiring it and looking at the engine when another guy, another car pulls up. And he goes, is that a Fića? How can there be a Fića in America on Forest Home? As he goes through a series of the stories, I come to the realization that these are all new stories. And what I want to ask you now is when was the last time that you told that story to anyone? He’s like I never would have even thought of them had I not seen the Fića here in front of me. And then it dawned on me that it’s not just a car, it’s not just an everyday get you to work and back, and it’s not just, you know, drive it through the snow in the rain, that these cars have a lot more. I’ve told people I go this is an antidepressant on wheels. I mean, you can’t help but smile, you can’t help but feel warm, you can’t help but have an exceptionally positive response to them because everything that they evoke are of happy times.
PETER KORCHNAK: Like Trabi in East Germany became a prime carrier of Ostalgie, Fića has become a beast of Yugonostalgia. Živković again: “This little vehicle has in that way acquired the power to date both family history and the zeitgeist of an era.”
MARTIN POGAČAR: Fićo was a really, really good example of seeing into the layerness [sic] or, really, the diachronicity of Yugoslav history. It’s not just Yugoslav car. It was a car that grew up with the country; then at some point the country outgrew it, but the country is not there, but there’s still quite a number of [laughs] Fićo[s]. PETER KORCHNAK: And they’re growing in popularity.
Do you know how many there are still on the roads of Serbia?
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: Not that many, but more and more each year, I believe. And we started joking that people, you know, have started restoring Zastava cars that much that we’re going to have more Zastavas now than we used to have when we were producing them.
When I say we I’m coming back to us younger people who started driving these cars because we love them not because we have to drive them and we started you know, adjusting them, using different rims lowering them, you know, using all kinds of custom stuff on them.
This was done years before I bought my first car. So I just kind of continued swimming in that sea of endless possibilities of, you know, Pimp My Zastava Society, because it was a cheap car to modify and a cheap car to drive. Well, before these strict laws of registration that we have right now you could do whatever you wanted with your car and get away with it.
PETER KORCHNAK: What would this particular Fića, not that you’re selling it but a similar Fića, go for today?
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: There are so many different prices out there. The thing is, you can never get back what you invested in the car, if you did it properly. Like, I invested more than 6,000 euros in this car, I say more than 6,000 because that’s where I stopped counting, more or less. So you know what I mean? If I wanted to gain any profit from it, it would have to cost at least eight or 9,000 euros. Nobody would buy this car for that amount of money unless it’s someone insane.
But it’s not about the money. The thing that people don’t understand is the commitment you have to put into this car. It’s literally like you’re adopting a child. I’m not exaggerating. Because you know, you need to know the needs of the car and you need to know what to do when it breaks, why it broke, and just take care of it all the time. Sometimes you just want to do something and your car doesn’t want to do it. What people don’t understand [is that] it’s not all about finances, it’s about commitment.
PETER KORCHNAK: “To love a Fića is to know what is love, and those who don’t know how to suffer don’t know how to love,” professed a member of a Fića internet forum.
I could tell Stojiljković loves Ćips to death.
PETER KORCHNAK: Are you trying to preserve it as close to the original or are there any adjustments?
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: So as you have seen it that’s the way it came out from the factory, like 99 percent, visually especially. So I have restored it in its original color we have used the sample from the under the hood you know where it’s least influenced by the light and least faded. So it’s in its original factory color and then the interior is the red Pepito design. It was specific for this Zastava 750 Special or special. They had the black and white or the red and white Pepito depending on the car color. So I’ve managed to find the same design for the interior, I followed all the rules, except some things that I’ve added like I’ve added [a] leather steering wheel just for you know nicer grip and like a nice touch and the rims are original and the tires are even original I still drive the tires from Yugoslavia, I know that’s not very convenient but I’m not good at finding new tires for my car, I admit. So yes, the car is 99 percent original.
I have done minimal adjustments to the mechanical parts of the car to make my life easier: first of all the alternator as the newer version and then the new type of water pump and, not to go into too many details, I have put the electronic ignition from the Yugo 45… So some things like that that don’t really influence the engine performance a lot but it influences the general, let’s say, well being of the car so it has less problems and I’m not really worried of going anywhere with it.
PETER KORCHNAK: Speaking of Yugo 45, what made you choose the Fića over the Yugo?
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: Well since I have two Yugos as well… I don’t know Fića is a is a cute car. It has a great personality. That’s how I saw it since Day One like a tiny car with a huge personality. And it’s very old school. I have to admit the love for the Yugo came much later. And I believe that the love for the Yugo will grow in people just now.
Before, as I mentioned, it was a cheap car to modify and drive but now it’s become more of a relic and now people are looking at the Yugo as an old timer instead of just the cheap, you know, thing to drive from point A to point B. So yes, the Fića came along in 2016. And then another Fića and then another Fića and then the Yugo convertible. As I’ve learned later in life, that there was a Yugo convertible that was made in only 500 units, and very, very few of them still exist. And then after all that, when I, you know, kind of made a full circle with collecting things and learning about Yugoslavia, I got my Yugo 45, which I’m also keeping in factory condition as much as I can.
PETER KORCHNAK: Stojilković had arrived to our meeting in her Yugo Cabrio convertible which she had souped up with chameleon paint. Is it purple? Is it blue? Is it sparkly green? Yes.
Restoring to factory condition is one of two ways people treat their Fićas (and other Made in Yugoslavia cars for that matter). It’s actually more difficult than souping them up because you need original parts as well as the right kind and amount of dedication. Often the process entails taking the car apart, fixing what can be fixed, replacing what needs to be replaced, and putting it all back together again. It’s like a rebirth, in the words of one enthusiast, that leads to the restored car being even better than the original, “more itself.” It’s less repair and more rejuvenation, and, on the metaphorical level, a revitalization of the society that produced the original car in the first place.
Živković, the anthropologist, claims that, quote, “Ex-Yugoslavs who lovingly restore their Fićas are often quite explicitly conscious that they are thereby enacting some sort of ritual return to the idealized past of a country that had some weight, some order, and some self-respect. To restore Fića to its factory condition is to magically gather the dispersed agency of a dead state, a dream and a desire to retrieve that which may never be recovered.
MARTIN POGAČAR: And it also is a very interesting object through which to look at the post-Yugoslav situation, because it’s an object that is the kernel around which people from different parts of Yugoslavia meet–because they need spare parts. I mean, it’s a very mundane thing but it’s quite essential if you want to have a drivable Fićo.
PETER KORCHNAK: And there are quite a few people doing it, if online forums and old-timer car shows are any indication.
Stojiljković is a member of one of many Zastava fan clubs around the region.
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: Zastava Fan Club is a club of people well, it’s there’s a lot of people actually coming to these gatherings, maybe 80, 90 cars per gathering.
PETER KORCHNAK: There are dedicated Fića fan clubs in Niš, Zagreb, Rijeka, and Dalmatia, for example, and Fićo owners are a strong contingent in Zastava fan clubs around the old country, including its origin, Kragujevac.
Until the pandemic an annual Fića Festival AKA Fićijada took place in Jagodina, Serbia.
Remember the red Fića from Osijek? In 2011 an art installation that aims to serve as a kind of a monument was erected at the intersection of Vukovarska and Klajnova Streets. “Fićo Crushes a Tank” features a red Fićo with the registration plate comprising OS, for Osijek and the date, 270691, mounting a T-55 tank submissively sinking in a box of gravel. Initiated by a city councilor and created by unknown authors affiliated with a local veterans organization, the installation aims to symbolize the city’s resistance in the Croatian war of independence. It wants to say that the spirit of resistance against an aggression not only cannot be crushed but it also prevails in the end. The piece was vandalized shortly after its unveiling but soon restored.
One of my Instagram followers, @adrianalzamalo (not a real name), an Osijek native, told me, in a direct message, he considered it an “ill conceived installation with little or no artistic value. It’s like a fist into the eye, as we say. I would love to see it removed.” He sees it as part of a takeover by “right wing nationalist currents” of public spaces in the city. Moreover, he says, “one of the reasons I dislike the…installation is because it reminds me of the day my childhood ended. Another reason is…that since we never allowed enemy tanks into the city during the war there is no reason to have one on display at the most traffic heavy intersection.” Finally, the piece “keeps and produces more hate towards our neighbors and our past as Yugoslavs and Croats in Yugoslavia and [thus] serves the politicians very well.”
The piece also inspired a parody blog, Red Fićo Recommends. For example, it called for the monument to be included in the UNESCO world cultural heritage list to join the likes of the Taj Mahal or the pyramids in Giza.
My alternative, metaphorical read on the installation: an industrial symbol of Yugoslavia that later became a (pop) cult(ure) one tops a military one, underscoring the survival of the country on the cultural level even as the political unit perished in a series of wars. In this subversive twist, the monument could be inadvertently communicating that on one level, Yugoslavia lives.
In 2013, the Montenegrin singer Sabrija Vulić, who has lived in the U.S. since the 1980s, released the narodna muzika song “Piči Fića,” in which he exalts the car’s qualities. Vulić loves women and his Fića, which carries him as he were a young man, without shame, and eliciting awe. “When the former Yugoslavia existed,” goes a late verse, “It was proud of Fića. Anyone who wanted it could drive it, even those who weren’t rich.”
[SOUNDBITE “Piči Fića” by Sabrija Vulić]
In the video Vulić drives a yellow Fića on country roads. Three scantily clad women are hitchhiking but instead of the Fića they stop a big black Mercedes. The Mečka then breaks down and Vulić’s Fića is there to save the day.
[SOUNDBITE “Piči Fića” by Sabrija Vulić]
PETER KORCHNAK: Follow Vulić on Facebook, Instagram, Spotify, and YouTube, and buy his music on Amazon. I’ve included the links in the episode blog post.
MARTIN POGAČAR: There’s today in Kranj, just outside Ljubljana, a guy who makes miniature Fićos and he calls them, they’re Slovenian Fićos, and he is really proud of them, because he’s apparently sold nearly 500,000. Because each car has two register plates and each one has a red star, and so he says he sold million stars.
To be honest I have, like, about 50 of them, so I can send you one.
PETER KORCHNAK: Why do you have 50 miniature Fićos at home?
MARTIN POGAČAR: I don’t know, when this book was coming out I thought it would be a good idea to just give one away with each book, but then we had some other arrangements. Give me the address and I’ll send you. [LAUGHTER]
PETER KORCHNAK: There are countless other examples of Fićo’s presence and persistence in popular culture.
The movie Nacionalna Klasa has inspired a couple of eponymous businesses in Serbia. There’s a cafe restaurant in Belgrade called Nacionalna Klasa situated near the Museum of Modern Art on the left bank of the Sava River with a Fića painted like in the movie on a pedestal out front. And I spotted the fast-food joint Nacionalna Klasa in the food court of a mall in Novi Sad.
In 2013, two youngsters from Split toured all of former Yugoslavia’s breweries in a white Fićo.
The online magazine Autoslavia “follows the old-timer scene,” transferring the country’s memory into that of its cars. “Through unique personal and historical stories, we celebrate the car and preserve the car heritage,” write the creators at autoslavia.com. Some of the cars are of course Fića.
A 2013 parody video “Top gir Jugoslavija” presents Fića among three Yugoslav cars, with the Yugo 45 and Zastava 101, as something of a hot rod. “Fićo achieves a fantastic result of going from 0 to 40 kilometers per hour in an unbelievable 30 seconds.”
[SOUNDBITE – Top gir Jugoslavija]
PETER KORCHNAK: Naturally, Fića enjoys an adventurous life on social media. Several Facebook pages and Instagram accounts are dedicated to the little car. The Facebook page named simply Fićo, founded in 2008 and, alas inactive since October 2020, has 39,000 Likes. The 58,000-strong page Zastava Automobili, dedicated to the past and the present of the factory’s products since 2013, is very much active. Fića makes a frequent appearance on the page, particularly through Shares from the page Fića se voli, sve ostalo se vozi, a wordplay that translates roughly to Fića You Love, Everything Else You Drive.
On YouTube, countless videos tell stories of driving, restoring, pimping, loving the little guy.
So the story of Fića continues…
PETER KORCHNAK: How did you go from having just a fun car to drive because you like it to actually using it to make a living.
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: So I have, as I said, a lot of friends who own old Zastava cars as well who are passionate about saving this heritage and just you know, keeping the story alive. And we figured, you know, if there is a possibility to earn money through this, and we knew there was, why not do it, we own the cars, we know them best, we take care of them, we can drive them and they can earn their own money. So the car doesn’t have to be an expense, it can actually, you know, fend for itself, it can earn money for the registration, for the spare parts, and it doesn’t have to be a costly hobby.
PETER KORCHNAK: So you said heritage, you know, it’s one thing to of course think that it’s a cool car. It’s a veteran, it’s a retro toy, or whatever. And another thing, it’s a business tool, you know, commercializing or, you know, making a living or making a business out of people wanting to be in this car or ride in this car. But it’s a whole another ballgame, if you will, to want to preserve the legacy or preserve the heritage that you said that you were trying to do as well. So tell me about that.
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: So that’s an interesting wordplay use there. As you said, this car is definitely not a toy. It’s cute in the pictures, people like to take photos of it posted on Instagram, have it on their wedding, etc. But this car is definitely not a toy. It’s a headache most of the time for people who don’t know what to do with it. You know, you get used to it after a while, you know how to recognize the problems and you know how to solve them fairly quickly. But it’s not a toy.
And the heritage part is the most important part for me personally. We are like, little army of people who are battling against time to make sure that these guys don’t get forgotten, educating people that don’t know and reminding people who might have forgotten. So yes, someone has to do it. The state, the country is not really interested in it, because there’s no real profit in it, I think. So it’s just us regular people and drivers and people who have restored these cars and have experience with them who are obligated to educate other people and just, you know, make people pay attention to this because this is our history. And it’s very, very worthy of mentioning.
I consider it my duty to, you know, do my little part in keeping our history alive.
It’s all connected, you know, it’s all connected. You have asked me about the tours, and yes, we do make profit from it. And yes, with that profit, we again, go around around and just, you know, flip the money and buy stuff and keep stuff and repair our cars. And it’s just like a self sustaining little ecosystem.
PETER KORCHNAK: Who’s the “we”?
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: So the we in the story is Yugoverse and is Zastava Fan Club that exists for more than 12 years in Serbia now. And the only difference between the two is that, you know, this is a fan club that organizes gatherings and people hanging out and Yugoverse is my company that is there to make profit. So it’s there for us to try and make profit with the cars that we actually do have. So we never had this way of doing like buying cars for the business, it was vice versa. So we already had our cars and then we decided to use them for, you know, their well-being, our well-being, and everybody’s well-being because Zastava needs to be mentioned more often as our domestic brand that we should be proud of, like every nation is proud of their things, right? Instead of just bashing it like a bad product, like, you know, people tend to do.
And then as far as from my company, I don’t have actual official employees. But I have all these people working for me on the like a daily wage. I give them the information on the tour, you know, the day, who were we taking on a tour, where we’re going, how long it’s going to take, and then people come to me and say I want to drive on the drive on a drive. And we have reached the point where we can actually choose which cars we can send to the tour. So we can offer the tour with only Fićas or the tour with only Yugo convertible or you know, or or or…
We have fully customized our tours now since we have enough vehicles and enough drivers to, you know, pick the cars and pick the destinations.
We do offer life let’s say generic tours about Yugoslavia for the lovers of Yugoslavia where we take them through New Belgrade, show them all the socialist brutalist buildings and modernist buildings, and tell them about the history of New Belgrade as the capital of Yugoslavia, how it was built, that the national youth organizations, all the, you know, volunteer free work. And we combine that with the story of our cars and the factory and the fact that they’re driving in very, very old cars. We take them to the Museum of Yugoslavia, where they go, as I said, a full circle, and then they can complete the story about Tito and Yugoslavia.
People who come to our Yugoslavia tour come with some knowledge about it, at least basic knowledge. They ask a lot of questions, which I really like, because you know, it’s interactive. I love answering questions. And they do come with some misconceptions about Serbia. You know, some of them think we’re still at war. Some of them don’t know anything, you know, about anything. So it’s nice to hear them saying that they learned something on that day, you know, they have changed their mind about Belgrade, they have learned the [sic] piece of history they never knew existed. I tried to connect the story of Yugoslavia with their country of wherever they’re coming from, you know, I do some parallels. I mention some of the world leaders, I mention Tito.
PETER KORCHNAK: When we spoke, at the end of May, Stojiljković just returned from a big tour for a large group of Dutch people, featuring 17 cars.
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: Ninety-nine percent of our guests are from abroad: from France from Norway, Germany, United Arab Emirates, India, today, Netherlands. So yeah, we have people from all over the world. And it’s fascinating to, you know, just hear different stories and hear different perspectives that people have on this.
But as well we offer personalized tours for the people who either are not interested in this or have already seen it because we do have people who are not interested in hearing a lot about history but rather they consider our cars as super fun and super cute and they want to experience the old timer experience as it is. So we offer the option to them, you know, for them to tell us where they want to go. Give us some ideas, some hints, you know, sometimes they don’t really know what they want. They say I want a cool view, or they say I want to go to nature, so we compose this tour for them. We tell them okay, this is our suggestion. We have a lot of celebrations, birthdays, weddings, surprise parties, you know, people have called us for all kinds of stuff. So yeah, we are fully able to, you know, accommodate most of the needs.
So yeah, the major difference is that on Yugoslavia tours, we have geeks, like history geeks and car geeks, some of them even own the Yugo or have seen it before, driven it before. And then the people who just consider them fun, don’t really commit too much. They just want to be seen in the city in the cool car.
PETER KORCHNAK: So you’re driving this car around and you know, people ride in it for any reason that you mentioned. What about the response to that you get on the street, you know, do people– I would expect that. You turn a lot of heads with the with the car. Tell me about that.
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: Yes, we turn a lot of heads, especially when we travel to a different town or a different country. Like I used to go to Sarajevo. I’ve been [sic] there two weeks ago. And I got a call from the you know, news reporter that wanted to do the story with me in January. But then I got back home and she was like, oh, please call me the next time you get here. So I called her and I arrived in Sarajevo, and I parked straight in front of the TV cameras that were waiting for me. And there was like, 20 people as soon as I turned around, just standing and taking pictures and videos, and just like, wow, you know, it’s not only a Fića, it’s a Serbian license plate Fića. Like they became 300 kilometers just, you know, chill in here.
PETER KORCHNAK: So how’s that ride? I mean, I’ve done the trip by bus. And it’s not not too much fun. Do you ever fear that you’re going to break down in the middle of it or anything? So what’s what’s what’s, what’s it like to drive from Belgrade to Sarajevo on in a Fića?
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: Honestly, if I had the fear, I would probably not go anywhere. I don’t actually think about it while I travel. You know what? If it happens, it happens. I mean, it’s like you can’t walk around in the street thinking if someone some lunatic is gonna go on the sidewalk, and, you know, run you over with a car.
So the journey with this car is an incredible experience of its own, you have all the time in the world to look around, because you’re so slow, obviously, and you’re not rushing to get to your destination as quickly as possible. But rather, you’re enjoying the journey. So yeah, I don’t really think about, you know, any, any things breaking down. And even if it happens, usually, I know what it is and I can fix it. And if I can’t fix it, I have friends who can. So no matter what, I have someone to call and they might take a little longer to get there. But then you know, I’m gonna see them and I’m gonna be happy to see them. And it’s gonna be a nice hanging out experience. So this is [a] Fića-connecting-people kind of life.
PETER KORCHNAK: So you mentioned that, you know, you have a lot of cars, you have to keep track of them, you have tours, you know, different tours with different people, etc, etc. Sometimes you don’t know where your head is at. And yet, you just told the story of how this car basically slows down your life in a sense. So that’s an interesting contrast.
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: Yes, it’s like a perfect balance. You know, when I’m in this car, I’m not rushing, I’m just going slowly and I’m just kind of looking at these reactions from people that you mentioned earlier and people are smiling, and it’s nice to see smiling people waving at you, it’s just brightening someone’s day and they’re brightening your day in return.
So yes, I do need this car in my life. If I drove a brand new sports car, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you anyway. So yes, people are living too quickly. And it’s just everything is happening so fast. They’re behaving like they have nine lives instead of one. So I’m just trying to follow the example of our grandparents and our parents who never had the rush to go anywhere. They’ve [sic] enjoyed the journey to either seaside or the mountain or anywhere they went, they were never in a hurry. You know, they didn’t know about anything faster. This was the fastest they could go.
PETER KORCHNAK: So I can confirm, as we’re driving around, and I’m looking at, you know, people who are looking at the car, lots of smiles, lots of like, look at that, you know, look at this, look at this Fića, look at what’s happening…
PETER KORCHNAK: And so when you go through, let’s say, streets like this or through New Belgrade, what are some of the stories you tell people, tell customers, tell guests about what they’re seeing, what they’re experiencing.
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: I like to make them imagine the life that people led when these buildings were just made and I like to explain to them the concept between New Belgrade blocks. The fact that they were making let’s say, people-friendly living spaces, meaning that in your block, you would have a school, you would have a mini-hospital, you would have a kindergarten, the park and the supermarket, like you would have everything you need with no need to travel to a different part of town or a different side of town to do basic things. And there was enough space for everyone, there was enough space in schools for all the kids, there was enough parking spots for all the cars, you know, everything was just perfectly planned out. And there were a lot of green spaces, a lot of greenery around, trees, you can see a lot of trees still even though plenty of them are chopped off. So everything was just, you know, planned out and people friendly. Not like today.
PETER KORCHNAK: A two to three hour Yugoslavia tour is 40 euros, the length depending on traffic conditions, length of stay at the Museum of Yugoslavia, and the number of questions people ask. If you do take the tour, tell Jovana you heard about Yugoverse on this podcast. No, there is no discount, just a good feeling of fostering connections.
Do you have a favorite blok in Novi Beograd?
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: Favorite book?
PETER KORCHNAK: Blok.
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: Blok, um, probably Blok 30 because that’s where part of my family is still right now and that’s where I partially grew up. And it’s just so nice, it has a lot of green areas around and the buildings are nice, and the apartments are amazing. And it doesn’t look as socialist as the rest of New Belgrade. Because the buildings are all white, they’re not like gray concrete, they’re not unfriendly looking as the Blok 23, you can see right in front of us, it’s like, pure concrete, you know, what they look mean, and this one as well.
PETER KORCHNAK: Well Televizorke are interesting for its windows that look like TV sets, but…
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: It’s very interesting, but most people will just tell you, it’s ugly.
PETER KORCHNAK: Fair enough.
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: But then again, you need to understand the people who live there, look at this every day, and they just didn’t see that as something special. And you can say–
Look at this lady at the traffic lights, see her like, she’s smiling so much–
And you can say the same for me and my car: I’m so used to it that I don’t think about it anymore, I don’t see it that way anymore. You know, if I see another Fića in the street, I’m gonna come close to it and check all the details and see if there’s something missing. But I’m not gonna look at it and be like, “Oh, wow, look at it, it’s a Fića!” Just because I’m so used to it. That’s, I think, that’s the same thing that happens with people living in the next tower or something else.
You know, today on the tour, I met a guy who lives in Genex, as he said, for 38 years already. And he was fascinated by the fact that we’re fascinated by his building. You know, he said, I’m just so used to it that I’m really glad to see people gathering here to talk about the tower, you know.
It’s been declared [a] cultural monument, in November, last year, but now it’s been advertised for sale, which makes me feel mixed feelings, you know. I’m aware that the country is never going to invest any money in it, most likely. So I’m just hoping that the fact that it’s been announced as a cultural monument is going to protect the actual look of the building. So whoever buys it will have to, you know, keep the original looks or you know, improve it minimalistically, so…
PETER KORCHNAK: How much is it?
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: I’m actually not sure. I’m not sure. I don’t know, I can’t afford it.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s what I was going for.
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: Unfortunately, I can’t afford it. If I was a crazy rich person, I would probably buy it and just sit in the revolving restaurant at the top and look down at the city and just, I don’t know, admire it.
PETER KORCHNAK: How many Fićas would it take to buy one Genex tower?
JOVANA STOJILJKOVIĆ: Probably they don’t exist in that number anymore.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Changed Tomorrow” by Ketsa]
PETER KORCHNAK: The asking price for the Genex Tower, according to media reports, is 2 billion Serbian dinars or 18 million US dollars. At about 7,000 dollars per a mint Fića, a price I’m finding online, it would take 2,600 Fićas to buy one Genex Tower. A stack of these cars would equal the height of 26 Genex Towers, or, horizontally, about the distance on the New Belgrade end of the Brotherhood and Unity Highway from the Genex Tower to the Sava River.
At the outset of the Remembering Yugoslavia project, I dreamed of buying a Yugo 45. I’d drive the route of the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics torch around the former country with a folding table and chair and an Unis typewriter in the trunk. I would stop at central squares, markets, and events, and type people’s answers to the question, “What does Yugoslavia mean to you?” I might still do it, but I’d rather get a Fića. It would be red and its nickname would be Srećko (Little Happiness).
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:
OLGA DIMITRIJEVIĆ: There is not one Lepa Brena, there is [sic] several Brenas. We wanted to detect which Brena is important for us.
PETER KORCHNAK: Lepa Brena is the greatest and best-selling Yugoslav pop star. She also continues to personify Yugoslavia for many people in the region to this day. Who is she? What is she? How do people remember her? And why?
On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, Lepa Brena Lepa Brena Lepa Brena Lepa Brena Lepa Brena…
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.
[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, photos, links, sources, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
And if you’re up for a little drive through the land of supporting Remembering Yugoslavia, chip in for the petrol at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate. Vroom vroom!
Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Song “Piči Fića” by Sabrija Vulić used with permission and gratitude; follow him on social media and music streaming platforms. Additional music by Ergo Phizmiz, Ketsa, and Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons. Special thanks to Ryan Spiering.
I am Peter Korchňak.