This quirky Eastern European vehicle imported before and after the Iron Curtain's fall and the butt of jokes on late night TV may have the last laugh.

The Yugo, while hardly flooding the market as a collector car, has a small but passionate fan base nationwide including in the Charleston area.

At least two local aficionados own restored Yugos, according to proprietors who responded to queries from The Post and Courier's Automotive sections.

Arousing the newspaper's interest was an Associated Press article early this summer about Yugo collectors including mechanic Art Hughes in Columbus, Ohio. Tony Kierpiec of Cottageville said he "was pleasantly surprised to see you had picked up a story from Columbus, Ohio. I am from north of there and drive not only Yugos but (similarly designed) Fiat X1/9s, both of which source parts from a business located in Columbus.

"I met Art Hughes through the Yugo club on Yahoo and we met in person at the shop in Ohio last year," Kierpiec said. The article, he said, "is quite correct with regard to the cult following these cars enjoy. Rather a close knit group."

For instance, Kierpiec said he knows another local Yugo owner, Ryan Abdullah, of Goose Creek. Abdullah owns a 1991 GV Plus, which he bought more for practical than collector reasons.

"My fascination with the Yugo started about a year ago when I was searching for my first car. I was to pay for all expenses myself, so naturally I wanted something cheap but also something that could get me from point A to point B," Abdullah said.

"I knew because of how little I could pay for a car I was going to be looking at older cars, so I began focusing on '80s and '90s cars. I didn't really know what direction to go in until one day a little white car showed up on my neighbor's curb across the street, reading the simple name of 'Yugo,'" he said.

"It was a tiny, mean looking car with a flare of customized vinyls and blacked-out rims. That had been the moment I'd first heard or seen of the car, and I instantly fell in love.

"For the next couple months I harassed craigslist with 'Want to buy Yugo' ads and checked 3-4 times a day in states as far north as New York for any Yugos for sale. I was nearly ready to give up when I came across a cheap, red Yugo in a town right outside Atlanta.

"Long story short, I called the guy, who ended up being very nice and answered all my questions and concerns about the vehicle. I ended up buying the car and hauling it back to South Carolina to begin making it my own," he said.

Abdullah said the main selling points were the car's history and unique stature. "Most people will never see a driving Yugo in their lifetime, so to be the one to give them that experience is one of the greatest feelings a classic car owner can have," he said. "It's also a great conversation starter. I can't finish pumping gas without someone asking me about it or cracking a joke.

At the same time, "It's great on gas. I average around 35-40 mpg around town on the little 1.1 liter engine. It's such a hated but unique car nowadays that people can't help but crack a smile when they see it rolling down the road, and that's exactly why I bought a Yugo."

Kierpiec, meanwhile, said he's on his second GVL, which is now driven by his son. Both the first and present one where "gifts of sorts," he said.

"I first saw these cars as new, I was a young dad and thought 'neat car, but I have got a family and can't really swing the $3,995 price.'"

But he would see a young Yugo-owning couple buying gas from a station on Dorchester Road. "It was the early '90s and I drove a Fiat X1/9 and every time I fueled up I seemed to see the same white Yugo parked at the station."

Years passed, and he was enrolled at Trident Technical College "sitting in a class with a woman I knew from somewhere ... I realize it was the young woman from the gas station with the Yugo."

Kierpiec said he asked what happened to the Yugo. "It died, you want it?" she responded. "Of course I wanted it; what could possibly be more desirable than a dead Yugo?" He towed the two-door home. "Favorite way to acquire a car."

According to Kierpiec, "These cars are not well liked or well-fixed so often times the most needed part is TLC. The car died on the old Cooper River Bridge," he said.

Yet, "after rebuilding the entire top end and clearing the oil pump pick up and replacing the thermostat," the Yugo was back on the road, he said. "I had that car for three years and sold it to another younger budding Yugophile," he said.

His second car was owned by another classmate, and Kierpiec had agreed to handled the repairs. He never got to it. "Eventually my friend lost interest and gave me the car."

Kierpiec finally started making repairs and many upgrades. "After driving this sturdy little car for years it became my 16-year-old son Joey's first car. It served us very well and it is hard to knock a car that can survive the abuse new drivers can dish out. I would say we will be Yugo owners pretty much for life.

"The most interesting thing about these little cars is just how many people stop you in parking lots or in traffic to share their Yugo stories!" Kierpiec said. "Fun to drive, great on gas, and as long as they are properly maintained rock solid reliability."

Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or jparker@postandcourer.com.