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Cuba's Cars: Varied, surviving, fascinating

 

I think everyone who goes to Cuba goes with at least some expectation of stepping back into the 1950s, into a world populated with glamorous American and European cars.

DSC06916And it is partly true. There are a lot of the cars we remember (my generation) and wish we did (younger generations), but the glamour part is in most cases questionable. For all the glitter of the best preserved, there are a lot of gap-toothed veterans, barely clinging to life, and with parts missing. Like some of us, actually.

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The first thing that struck me on arrival, though, was just how many old cars there are, and how much they are a part of regular traffic. We're not talking about a tourist attraction here (although my wife believes I found them much too attractive); we're talking about an integral part of the transport mix that keeps running because owners can't afford to let them die.

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While quite a few of them function as taxis, either full or part time, far more are simply daily-used private cars. Some owners attempt to replicate or fabricate parts and work at keeping them truly beautiful (and many of those are the ones waiting near major hotels to offer themselves as cabs) but others just work at keeping them going.

DSC06899No hard numbers, but we were told that more than half are running on aftermarket engines, including diesel. For the rest, Cuba is one of the last countries selling leaded gas. Newer cars run on 'especial,' which is unleaded.

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As the Studebaker above shows, there are often major body modifications, in this case, turning a sedan into a station wagon; we also saw a number of pickups that we believe started as sedans...sort of like home-made Ford Rancheros. In other cases, we spotted fenders and other parts from similar models (but wrong make or year) and quite a bit of home-made molding of plastic and fiberglass.

Among the other surprises was the number of cars older than the 50s; the late 40s were well-represented, and we rode in one that's actually older than my wife. Like most we rode in, the driver had to run around to open the doors from the outside! 

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The supply of older European cars is also significant, including some oddities like the one above that we weren't familiar with. Prominent among the mix are Russian cars, including both Lada (widely used as yellow taxis) and sad Moskvitches. The more recent versions look more like recent European cars, but they've lost their market dominance: Nearly all the newer taxis and many other cars are from Geely, the Chinese manufacturer that also makes Volvo cars and London cabs.

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A few I wish I'd had a chance to take pictures of before we left, but missed, included a yellow taxi that turned out to be a Zil limousine, a 1949 or 50 Hudson, and a quite impressive-still early 1950s Packard, one of the last of its breed.

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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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