10 May 2012

Fikjo, The Cutest Macedonian

I was taking pictures of a white Zastava 750 on a hot day in Prelip when the owner came out on his porch.  “Zastava,” I said, pointing at the car and feeling silly.  “Take it,” he said, making a shooing motion with his hand.  “Please, I don’t want it.  Take it away.”
The car’s seats were broken and threadbare, rusted cracks fanned out around the headlights, it was missing its front fender. But it was still endearing.  This is one of the cutest and most memorable cars of the trip, a pipsqueak with personality.  It’s also uniquely Yugoslavian, a kind of makeshift symbol of the Balkans – Macedonians lovingly nickname it “Fikjo,” but this is a machine with many monikers.
Italians might sneeringly proclaim the Fikjo nothing but a Fiat 600 with a different emblem on the nose.  Americans would be confused by the name Zastava – we knew the company as “Yugo.”  But we Yankees would be surprised to find such a capable and winning car made by the company that gave us this, and the Italians aren’t quite correct.  It’s true that the 750 is based on the Fiat 600, but there are some differences.  The Fikjo is a little longer than its Italian cousin, and it was scaled down a little inside to make it more economical.
They’re ramabout, wheezy-voiced, easily dented or fixed.  Fikjo, the name, is a Macedonian derivation of “Фићa” (“Fića”), a Serbian newspaper comicstrip.  It’s fitting, a kind of plucky, amusing identity.  It’s the kind of car that we Americans find romantic because we don’t have them anymore and Europeans find unappealing because they need to live with them.
We’ve seen dozens of Fikjos in Macedonia.  At first, it was difficult to tell exactly what they were because so many of them are missing their faux-chrome emblems. But we were attracted to the bright colors and tiny bodies.
It’s testament to their durability that there are still so many examples tooling around the streets of the country.  Their 24 horsepower engines emit a laughably impotent drone, something like that of a mo-ped carrying too much weight.  Zastava’s own estimate (I’m using that word to mean “hopeful guess”) proclaims that the car could accelerate from zero to sixty miles per hour in 51 seconds.  It would take someone brave to get this little tin box going that fast, though, and probably a long downhill stretch.
The Zastava 750 was immensely popular in Yugoslavia. Capable, affordable and government made, the car brought about the dawn of the automotive age in this part of the world, playing the part that the Model T did in America, or the Citroën Deaux-Chevaux did in France.  The factory in Kragujevac (in modern day Serbia), produced some 930,000 of these little things between 1955 and 1984, almost all of them sold within the Balkans. 
In recent years, a few Fikjo driver clubs have been created and the model has begun to see an upswing in popularity.  Parked near the oil wrestling in Çalıklı, we saw a shiny 750 with racing stripes and a rear spoiler.  There are fan groups in the UK and France as well as here.  The car has suddenly become a piece of nostalgia.
Zastava fell on hard times after the wars of the 1990’s, and eventually was completely subsumed by Fiat, which had a major stake in the company for years.  The old assembly plant is being retrofitted to begin producing modern Fiat cars, but the process is slow and the future seems uncertain.
In most cases, the old communist underpinnings in these countries have been covered up and plowed under.  But there are beloved reminders of those days, too, that transcend hardship.  For someone born towards the end of Tito's reign, it's easy to love the Fikjo.  It's one of the few bits of history left, roaming the streets, coughing at red lights, clanging with life.

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