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Florida likes Yugo, even those who haven't seen it

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The lowest priced car in America is the second automobile to be imported from a Communist bloc nation, and people are lining up in Florida to buy it months before it will be available.

And, in some cases, they are laying down money without having seen their new wheels.

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The car comes from Yugoslavia with a $3,990 price tag, but according to the manufacturer, the brand new Yugo is as American as apple pie.

Zastava, the Yugoslavian carmaker, is trying to discourage a foreign import image, hoping instead to make Americans feel they are buying a domestic car. And like many other immigrants, Zastava has changed its name to sound American.

Its base in New Jersey is called Yugo America Inc. The first Communist bloc car imported to the United States was the Skoda from Czechoslovakia.

The Yugo brochure calls the car 'an American tradition' and the 'greatest automotive value in America.'

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Zastava chose a special team of auto workers to build American Yugos, paying them 5 percent more than auto workers who assemble Yugos for sale in other nations.

The Yugo American laborers wear red, white and blue uniforms while building the car that comes in red, white or blue -- plus tan for consumers less concerned with patriotic colors.

The finished product looks like a cross between a Volkswagon Rabbit and a Renault Le Car, with wide pinstripes adding a sporty look.

'The Yugoslavians are taking national pride in making this car a success,' said salesman Ron Rivard at Luke Potter Dodge in Winter Park. 'They know they can't get anywhere in the car industry unless they sell big in America.'

Two Yugos are on display in Rivard's showroom. Both cars have been sold to customers who were told they must wait about a month before driving them home.

'We need these cars for display. So far we've only been able to show pictures,' said salesman Ron Rivard.

Alex Jeanty bought a Yugo at Palm Beach Dodge, where there aren't any Yugos even for display but about 100 potential customers telephone daily. Jeanty is expecting his car to arrive some time next week.

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Jeanty said he chose the Yugo over any other car because of its 'uniqueness' and with the expectation it may become a small car classic.

'It seems like a new trend,' said Jeanty. 'I think I just bought the modern version of the VW Bug.'

About half of the 69 Yugos expected in January at Caruso Chrysler-Plymouth in Jacksonville are spoken for, said salesman Greg Deweese, whose dealership like the others is asking for a $500 dollar deposit to hold a car.

Caruso also has two display Yugos, but Deweese said, 'We're not selling those until the others arrive or else people won't have anything to look at.

'It's been crazy,' Deweese said of buyer interest. 'It's like Beetle mania only with a Yugo.'

Yugo has been sold in 33 European countries for 4 years, according to Jonas Halperin, senior vice president of the Yugo America. Yugo was introduced to this country when 500 were sold last month in Baltimore.

Halperin said Yugo's price is low for three reasons.

'The labor rates in Yugoslavia are less than those in the United States,' he said. 'Ninety-two percent of the car is made by one company. Just like in the old days of Henry Ford, there are few outside vendors.

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'And there are no regional distributers. Zastava eliminates the middle man.'

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