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Classic Mustangs Were Once Very Popular In Yugoslavia

In the Soviet Union and the better part of Eastern Europe, hundreds of millions of people were living under communist terror, in the world where the car market was nonexistent or state-controlled and where listening to western radio stations playing the newest rock and roll records could land you in jail. If you think owning a Mustang in those places would be unimaginable and impossible, you are right. Still, there was a place in the communist universe where new Mustangs were cherished cars just like in the imperialist, western world.

Photos courtesy of Vukasin Herbez Archive

The history of the Ford Mustang has been a popular topic amongst automotive historians and journalists. After all, despite being one of the definitive 60s cars, Ford's bestseller introduced a completely new segment to the market, abandoned typical American styling of the period, and embraced compact dimensions, sporty image, and youthful appeal, which very few cars actually had back in the early 60s. Its enormous success was a surprise even to Ford's executives but showed just how sound the original idea was.

Offer elegant European-inspired styling with a V8 engine, an enormous list of optional extras, and a base price of only $2.368 was the recipe that earned Mustang the place in history as one of the most successful new car releases ever.

No wonder that it took Ford just a year and a half to make million Mustangs and that by 1973 and the end of the first generation, Ford managed to sell amazing 2.9 million copies. The global popularity of the Mustang is also well documented, like its racing success. The Detroit pony was raced practically all over the world, from New Zealand and South Africa to 24 Hours of Spa and 1000 Kilometers of Nürburgring, not to mention its dominance in domestic SCCA and Trans Am championships of the late '60s. Along with the appearance in some of the most popular movies of the decade, Mustangs were driven by celebrities and featured in songs by the top artists. It looked like Ford had indeed conquered the world and, for the first time after the Model T, delivered the equally understood, loved, and accepted product in Buenos Aires and Brussels, in Manilla and Milan.

However, people tend to forget that for most of the 20th century, the world wasn't a "global village" as it is today.

A significant part of it was behind the "Iron Curtain", tightly controlled by autocratic communist governments, rigid political doctrines, and lack of free will. In the Soviet Union and the better part of Eastern Europe, hundreds of millions of people were living under communist terror, in the world where the car market was nonexistent or state-controlled and where listening to western radio stations playing the newest rock and roll records could land you in jail. If you think owning a Mustang in those places would be unimaginable and impossible, you are right. Still, there was a place in the communist universe where new Mustangs were cherished cars just like in the imperialist, western world.

This place was the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, an interesting country in Eastern Europe that was one of the rare bright spots in the rather gray and dull communist regime.

Before disintegrating in the bloody civil war in the early '90s, Yugoslavia was an open and modern country, economically more oriented to the West while retaining a communist political system. In such a unique climate, Yugoslav citizens could enjoy Hollywood movies and wear Levi's jeans without fear of oppression but still lived in a tightly-controlled society where the communist party was the only political option.

Mixing consumerism and communism had a tremendous effect on local car culture. While state-owned car company Crvena Zastava (Red Flag) produced the Yugoslav version of Fiat 600, president Josip Broz Tito's motorcade was filled with Cadillacs. Yugoslav cities were packed with all kinds of cars, including a fair amount of American machines used mostly by companies and government officials. While in other communist countries, owning a car was considered almost a bourgeois act, in Yugoslavia, it was encouraged by affordable loans, domestic brands, and expanding road network.

Yugoslav car fans were aware of the new Ford model when the Mustang was released in 1964. Mainly through movies like "Goldfinger" or French classic "Gendarme From St Tropez" but pretty soon by seeing them with foreign plates driven by tourists on Adriatic Riviera or by Yugoslav ex-pats coming for a visit home.

Seeing a Mustang on Yugoslav roads must have been a pretty impressive and unexpected sight back in the mid-'60s in a country where the majority of vehicles were economy cars.

The initial popularity of the Mustang in Yugoslavia was aided by the legendary Liege-Sofia-Liege rally, which consisted of 5000 kilometers through Europe, from Belgium to Bulgaria and back. Several stages of this tough road-racing event were driven through Yugoslavia, giving local fans a chance to see Detroit's pony in its element, running through the back roads, filling the air with dust and intoxication rumble of legendary 289 cubic inch V8 engine. Those evens enjoyed a fair amount of local media coverage, emphasizing young Jackie Ickx and his winning 1966 Mustang.

It is hard to tell who owned the first Mustang on Yugoslav plates, but the first cars were privately imported soon after the official European premiere. In those days, importing a new vehicle in Yugoslavia was a costly, complicated, and time-consuming affair since the Yugoslav state was protective of its industry.

Still, apparently, in 1965, one dark blue, six-cylinder coupe was registered in Novi Sad and immediately became the talk of the town.

In those days, the general importer for Ford vehicles was a state-owned company called "Interkomerc," which was surprised by the interest of the potential buyers. In 1964, the Yugoslav government started significant economic reforms designed to open the market, raise the standard of living and attract foreign investors, which by 1966 showed the first results. Suddenly, there was a small but influential and well-to-do class of people hungry for a hot new sporty coupe with a seductive name, powerful engines, and sexy image. That is why, by the end of 1966, Interkomerc had announced that starting from 1967, Ford Mustang would be offered to Yugoslav buyers and that Yugoslavia would be the first (and only) communist country where this was possible.

The official presentation was held in March 1967 at the Belgrade Motor Show, where the newly redesigned Mustang was the centerpiece of Ford's booth and generated an enormous amount of interest.

As expected, Mustang was very expensive for the average Yugoslav citizen since the draconian fees of almost 120% over base price were added. However, that high price wasn't a problem for sixteen people who bought brand new Mustangs on the spot.

In an effort to promote the tourist potential of Yugoslavia, state-owned travel company "Putnik" bought 18 brand new Brittany blue, six-cylinder coupes for its rental car branch and sent them to all major cities and tourist destinations. In a few short months, communist car fans fell in love with one of the prime examples of the American car industry. But Mustang's popularity has just started, and on the 1968 Belgrade Motor Show, twenty-five people decide that they want to spend their hard-earned dinars on brand new Mustang. The Mustangs started being featured in Yugoslav movies, in commercials, and in magazines.

They have greeted the foreign tourists in front of hotels and photographed for brochures. Putnik rental agency even sponsored a popular traveling music festival called "Pesme Leta" (Songs of Summer) and gave several Mustangs to music stars to drive across Yugoslavia. Even the Yugoslav pageant for Miss Europe contest used one of those Mustangs to travel to neighboring Italy. The popular legend from those days states that Yugoslav Mustangs had been so impressive to car enthusiasts from the region that they traveled to Yugoslavia, rented the cars, switched the license plates, and tried to smuggle them back to their countries in which owning such vehicles (or any car for that matter) would be unimaginable.

In one of the first big football transfers in Yugoslavia, perspective football player Džemaludin Mušović moved from FK Sarajevo to Hajduk Split in Croatia. In this well-publicized transfer, he was paid an astronomical 36 million dinars. Young football player spent about half of that on brand new and bright red 1968 Mustang coupe, which he used to cruise around the coastal town of Split.

Even though almost all of those cars were base, six-cylinder models, their appeal was fantastic, and very soon, Mustangs were well-known all over the country. By the late '60s, the number of Mustangs on the Yugoslav streets grew, and private imports from West Europe started pouring in. Some of them were German-spec, Ford T5, which Ford used in Germany until 1978 because a truck manufacturer owned the name Mustang. Amongst those imports, V8-powered cars were a popular choice, and some people even imported big-block models like S-Code 390 V8, and a few Mach Is. Unfortunately, there isn't any information about ultra-rare Boss 302/429 or Shelby models registered in ex-Yugoslavia.

By the early '70s, Mustang's popularity veined a bit along with the final restyle and the global oil crisis.

Despite all of that, Interkomerc still offered the cars to the public, but Putnik rental agency decided to retire and sell its fleet. In 1974, the controversial Mustang II debuted, smaller and less powerful, but it was still officially offered in Yugoslavia and managed to find some buyers. For the rest of the decade, Mustang sales were slow, but the car's popularity remained strong, with more privately imported cars roaming the streets. In 1979, the Foxbody Mustang arrived as a fully-redesigned and re-engineered model. Interkomerc managed to sell twenty-one examples in Yugoslavia with a base 2.3-liter four-cylinder and optional 2.8-liter V6 engine. However, in 1981, Ford Europe decided to stop importing Mustangs for the European market, including Yugoslavia. Even then, few Mustangs somehow managed to find their way to Yugoslav roads, keep the name alive. If we wanted to put the exact number of how many Mustangs actually were in Yugoslavia, several hundred cars would probably be accurate, if not a conservative estimate.

Since then, Yugoslavia met its tragic end in the civil war, and classic Mustangs were forgotten while the region's history was re-written. Most of the cars never survived, plagued with rust, negligence, and unenthusiastic owners. After a while, spare parts became a problem, depreciation had affected the value, and car enthusiasts turned to more modern and better-performing cars. Some were even lost in the civil war in Croatia and Bosnia. During the 80s, many Mustangs were crudely modified, V8 engines swapped for more economical powerplants, and some even had roofs cut to make a convertible.

Of course, since then, the popularity of the Mustang as the classic car influenced car lovers from all ex-Yugoslav countries, so remaining cars were restored and dozens more imported.

However, it is quite possible that somewhere in rural parts of one of seven countries born out of the demise of Yugoslavia, in some hidden garage, lies a forgotten classic Mustang waiting for a new generation of car enthusiasts. As one of the coolest and obscure chapters in the history of the Mustang, it would be very cool to find a proud American machine with the red star on the old license plates and communist passport.


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