COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Heads turn, jaws drop and accidents almost happen when Art Hughes drives around.
"One guy almost hit me a few months ago because he was leaning out the window taking pictures of my car as he was driving by," said Hughes, 73. "The reactions sometimes are amazing."
Darrell Saunders has attracted similar attention with his car.
"Wherever I go, people come up to me and ask: "'Where did you get this?'" said Saunders, of Grove City, Ohio.
Hughes and Saunders are proud owners of neither luxury Porsches nor souped-up Corvettes. Their eye-catching model of choice: the Yugo.
Each, in fact, owns three of the "little Slavic sleds" that reached the United States in 1985; were quickly derided for their lack of reliability; and, before the end of U.S. sales in 1992, became the butt of many a joke (How can you get a Yugo to go from zero to 60 in 15 seconds? Push it off a cliff).
"Everybody was informed that they were the worst thing in the world," Hughes said. "But that's not actually true, at least not to weirdos like me."
Saunders has spent a career financing car loans for banks.
When the Yugo hit the market, he said, he thought of it as "a car made for a student going to Ohio State who would drive it for four years and then throw it away."
About five years ago, he said, he got the urge to start a car collection.
"Everybody has a '67 Chevy or an old Camaro or Mustang," said Saunders, 74. "And you have to spend $75,000 or $100,000 to buy and restore those. I didn't want to put that kind of money into a car."
Then the idea struck him: "Why not look for Yugos?" he recalled thinking. "Nobody else has those, and I would be the talk of the town."
Saunders bought his first Yugo in 2009: a blue 1987 model with an automatic transmission, a rarity in Yugos.
Three years ago, he spotted a rarer find on the Internet: a yellow 1990 Yugo convertible, supposedly one of only about 70 sold in America. He bought it for his wife, Harriet.
"This is the cutest little car I ever saw," she said.
Last year, Saunders made his third purchase: a tan 1991 "Sport" model, complete with pinstripes down the sides.
He has spent an estimated $25,000 to buy and restore all three cars, which he enters in shows. He has collected several dozen trophies.
Hughes, a lifelong "car guy" who made a living as a mechanic, has restored and rebuilt thousands of cars.
He still works part time - at Midwest Bayless Italian Auto, a shop that specializes in Fiat and Lancia models.
The Yugo got a bad rap, said Hughes, who views the bare-bones design as untapped potential.
"The car is basically a piece of canvas," he said. "Because it is so basic, to me, it's a blank piece that I can do with what I want and make what I want."
To that end, Hughes has modified his dark-blue 1987 model. (He owns two others but plans to sell them soon.)
He added a rear spoiler and a dual-exhaust system, which he made, and juiced up the 1.1-liter engine a bit. He also installed a Camaro muffler.
The changes give his Yugo a throatier sound.
"Art's car is awesome," said Matt Brannon, who owns the Midwest Bayless shop.
"He's done some tasteful upgrades. These aren't like Jaguars - wwhere you have to keep it absolutely original.
"Part of the fun of owning a Fiat or a Yugo is you can tinker with it and 'hop' it up, and you don't feel guilty when you make those cuts, because it's not a Porsche." Brannon, who recently owned a Yugo, noticed reactions split along generational lines.
"Anybody over 30 is like 'What the hell are you driving a Yugo for?'" the 44-year-old said. "And the kids are like 'That's awesome!' It's counterculture now."
Hughes and Saunders tap an online forum for Yugo owners - which claims 1,317 members but, according to both of them, has only about 50 to 75 regular participants.
That they belong to a select group suits Saunders just fine.
"I like things nobody else likes."
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com.
Editor's Note: We are looking for Yugo owners in the Charleston area. Come on, don't be shy. We know you're out there. Anyone with a Yugo can send a photo and brief description on the car, how it was located, the attraction to the brand, etc. to The Post and Courier, 134 Columbus St., Charleston SC. 29403-4800 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. We may include the photos and information in a future story.
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