Vintage cars in Cuba are part of daily life with most classic cars being used as taxis. Some of them look brand new, painted in vivid colours and transport tourists around at prices beyond Cubans reach (25-50 CUC per hour). Those that are less well maintained are used as collective taxis or ‘taxi colectivos’ as Cubans call them. Other classic American cars are preserved like museum pieces. These are the originals that are rarely seen out. Fan of classic cars? Cuba is the place to go.
What to do in Havana?
Whilst all over the world classic American cars of the 40s and 50s have long been discarded, in Cuba classic cars are still on the road. So why does Cuba have so many old cars? To answer that question, we have to go way back and examine the history of cars on the island.
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The Golden Years: 1900-1959
The first automobile was brought to Cuba from France in 1898, during the Cuban-Spanish-American war on the island. It was a model most people don’t hear about these days: La Parisienne.
After the turn of the century the United States soon became the main provider of cars for Cuba. In 1919, the island was the top Latin American importer of US cars, and one of the leading countries in the world in terms of vehicles per capita.
The Ford T was welcomed on the island and became the “fotingo” (Cuban slang). Still today Cubans call “fotingo” a car that looks old or run down, even if it was not manufactured at Detroit plants.
Cuba was big business for American brands such as Chevrolet, Ford, Cadillac, Dodge, Buick and Chrysler. State of the art establishments run by authorized dealers in Havana sold Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Mercury, Studebaker and Packard automobiles. Cars were taken from the factories to US southern ports and then to Port of Havana just in a few days.
Some models touched Cuban pavement even before being for sale in the States, with Cuban roads used as a sort of test track for American car companies. Sometimes Americans even bought their American cars in Cuba and took them home on ferries sailing between Havana and Florida.
The United States was the origin of more than 70 per cent of goods imported into Cuba, and cars were an outstanding part of that reality. Bohemia magazine, one of the top Latin American publications in those days, announced in 1951 that a car equipped with a TV set, the second one manufactured worldwide, was traveling around Havana streets.
In 1956, there were 143 thousand cars on Cuban roads, 95 thousand in Havana alone.
The first Cuban woman seen driving a car was the most sought-after escort in Havana in the early years of the 20th century, known as La Macorina. She owned nine cars that she received as gifts from lovers and admirers, among them prominent business men and politicians.
American writer Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Havana for twenty years, had seven cars at his Finca Vigía, in the outskirts of the city: a grey 1940 Buick Sedan Coupe convertible; a black 1941 Lincoln Cabriolet Continental 56.125 “W.B”; a grey 1941 Plymouth Deluxe Special Wagon, and a blue 1947 Buick Super Road Master convertible.
Also, he had a 1950 Buick Super 50-59 Station Wagon, a yellow 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook convertible, used by his wife Mary, and a luxurious red and white 1955 Chrysler New Yorker, one of the two cars of the model imported into Cuba. This one was found a few years ago, restored and taken back to Finca Vigía, a renowned museum on Hemingway.
Rough Times: Cold War and Embargo (1959-1990s)
Until 1959, cars as well as spare parts had been imported in Cuba from the US. Then a drastic turn came about with the Cuban revolution in 1959; former business partners became foes and Cuba classic cars were left stranded on one side of the Florida Straits, while the manufacturing plants kept functioning on the other.
The Cold War was an insurmountable wall separating both sides of the Straits, but the American embargo on Cuba ended up setting a higher wall. As of the early 60s, not even a US car part nor a screw would be exported to the island. American market was closed for Cuba and its old cars.
Many people are passionate about travelling, but have to travel on a budget. Money doesn’t grow on trees after all!…
Many old classic cars changed ownership and were put to new uses, some remained abandoned in old garages or repairing shops, some were preserved as relics. There were no spares nor a chance of buying new cars, so drivers became mechanics, and mechanics learned the art of creativity, so important to Cuban life. One way or another, old cars adapted to the new times and moved on.
The once classic American cars were repaired with spare parts from newer cars that would arrive mainly from the USSR and the Socialist Block: LADAs, Moskvitchs, Volgas, Polish & Argentinian Fiats. Some cars from other markets were also entering the country during the 70s: VW “Beatles”, Ford Falcons and Italian Alfa Romeos can be still seen traveling Cuban roads.
Old American cars, today’s valued Cuban vintage cars, survived and were kept running just because their owners needed them as a means of transportation and to provide for the family, mainly since the 90s, when the economic crisis and the boom of tourist industry made these classics attractive again, a very profitable possession. People started to look at them as vintage cars, not just old heavy pieces of iron over wheels.
Today more than 70 thousand of the 150 thousand cars registered back in 1956 are still traveling around Cuba, mostly in Havana. More than 60 years later, the fact that almost 50 per cent remains functioning must be a world record. In terms of city landscape, surely it is a one-of-a-kind motion show.
Post 2000: The Vintage Wave. The Revival
Photo Credit: JBP.Media
American automobiles from the 40s and 50s are today essential for everyday transportation of Cubans. Streets of Havana are crowded with these collective taxis. People call them “almendrones” (big almond) and their drivers “boteros” (boatmen).
Some cars have been modified, run on diesel engines instead the original V8, and their interiors have been changed to accommodate more passengers. However, many of them keep their bodies intact and just need some renovating work to look as they did decades ago.
The elite of Cuba old cars consists of two groups: those with chromed vivid colours and almost perfect bodies that amaze tourists at Havana and charge 25-50 CUC per hour for a tour around the city (sometimes going in vintage-fashion-parade like groups), which may be modified, and those that have not been modified and keep original parts, seats and decoration details. These are the minority, a small 5-10 per cent of all classic cars running in Cuba today, and have been carefully preserved by their proud and persevering owners.
Some of these drivers offer exclusive and high-priced tours to make their living and keep a monetary reserve in case the car needs a fix or a new part. Sometimes they can ask relatives living at Florida to buy original parts in the United States and send them to Cuba. Cubans started a few years ago, the business of buying original parts in the States, where certain companies are still manufacturing parts and components for classic models, and then import them into the island.
The national market has grown. A digital portal, AutoCubana, showcases cars for sale: a 1955 Chevrolet sells for 50 000 CUC, the same price of a 1938 Chevrolet. A 1952 Oldsmobile sells at 26 000; a Buick Special, 13 000; a Ford Fairlane, 17 800; a 1958 Rambler, 40 000… It is possible finding there a 1956 Ford Thunderbird, or maybe a British car (there are old Jaguars, Austins, Hillmans and MGs at Havana).
There is also a collectors and enthusiasts club, A lo Cubano, founded in the early 2000s. The club often organize parades and exhibitions around the city.
Can you buy a Cuban vintage car?
A law from 2010 prevents foreigners from exporting cars from Cuba. Within Cuba, Cuban classic cars can be bought by Cubans and foreigners who are permanent or temporary residents.
If you think these cars are cheap you might be surprised. An old, Soviet car may cost 10 thousand dollars, and the American cars start at 30 thousand and goes up to 100 thousand, depending on the condition.
What is the future of Cuba’s classic cars?
Photo Credit: JBP.Media
It is not an easy matter to predict the future of Cuban vintage cars. There is a big “if” on the equation: If the embargo is lifted, if there is a further improvement in Cuban-American relations, owners could improve their income transporting more American travellers and subsequently invest on their cars, or order original parts manufactured in the United States. But many people think that come that day, owners will use those earnings to buy new modern and better gas mileage cars. In that case, the old classics would end up in junk yards or abandoned anywhere.
Let us not forget that even today, amid difficulties and lack of spares, many of those in possession of old American cars in Cuba stick to them because a) it is their only choice, but also because b) they get make a profit and c) they have a taste for vintage cars or mechanics. In the future, they could find other ways to keep them running, even in a more efficient manner.
If they are still running after 60 years without the proper maintenance, who knows how long their useful life would be if right conditions are guaranteed?
Eventually, there will always be heritage lovers who know the value of their property (even looking at it also as an investment, an asset) and choose to preserve their old Cuban automobiles as closest as possible to the appearance they had back in the 50s.
Those well-preserved cars are the jewels of the motor-driven crowd that caused traffic jams in Havana decades ago, collectors’ items, another unique face within the Cuban national heritage.
The day vintage Cuban cars are no longer part of Havana’s landscape, they will be missed. Havana will not be the same without these old machines, with their extravagant colours and decoration and beautiful curves.
It feels good thinking about that image while going around the city on a brand-new-like 1957 Chevy Bel Air. Because what really amazes in Cuba, especially in Havana, is not the old classic cars themselves but the large number of them still going around Havana streets, at the extent that sometimes it seems you are in the middle of a traffic jam back in 1950… more than 60 years later.
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