By Maria Speidel
January 29, 1996 12:00 PM

PUT SIMPLY, THE HOMELY LITTLE Yugo was the Rodney Danger-field of cars. Introduced in the United States as a $3,990 bud-getmobile in 1985, it was promptly dismissed by Consumer Reports as a “barely assembled bag of nuts and bolts” and went nowhere—figuratively and, often, literally. Imports stopped in 1992 when the Yugoslav maker went bust with the splintering country.

Nearly four years later the little car that couldn’t, having failed to find a home in America’s heart, is making a place in its art. Recycled in odd and often oversized ways—as a toaster, a piano, a lighter, a telephone—a fleet of 29 born-again Yugos are the stars of Yugo Next, a traveling show of works by students and alumni from Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts. It’s “the perfect use for a useless product,” says Kevin O’Callaghan, 38, a scenic designer (The Flamingo Kid), SVA lecturer and the project’s creator.

Last winter, O’Callaghan spotted some kids using a Yugo as a backstop for a stickball game and hit on a theme for the 3-D design competition he was organizing. An ad in New York City papers, “Yugos Wanted: Dead or Alive,” yielded 39 vehicular carcasses for $3,600, less than the original cost of one. Students took six weeks transforming the hapless machines, sometimes spending more than the car’s price tag on the makeover. “Let’s just say it’s equal to my senior-year tuition,” says Celia Landegger, 28, of the asking price on her Yugo piano.

Where go Yugo? So far, by moving vans to New York City, Washington and Los Angeles. The next stop is the Houston auto show in March. “All of us love a great sight gag,” says Bob Zmuda, the president of Comic Relief, which used the cars as props at an L.A. fund-raiser. “That’s what these are.”

For some, Yugo art conveys a deeper meaning. “Father, forgive me,” wrote a New York City visitor in the exhibit guest book after seeing the car/confessional. “I bought a Yugo.”