Among the most iconic images of Cuba—and one that pops up all the time in articles about travel, and in tourism brochures—are those of the 1950s American cars that have survived in Cuba long after they've disappeared from nearly everywhere else.
After a trip to Cuba earlier this year and some research, I have some stories to tell about them, and they are different from what I expected, and from the popular image. It's not so bright and shiny, but in its own way, the true story is more interesting.
Some have clearly led hard lives...
I admit there are possibly too many pictures here; my wife was very patient with my constant spinning around to catch another car. You'll notice as you look at the pictures here that
- the cars are not all shiny and well-kept, though some are
- they're a fairly large proportion of the cars you see all over
- they're not just taxis and props, they are people's everyday cars
- not all are U.S. makes; there are Europeans mixed in
- even some Russian cars of 70s and 80s seem like part of the scene.
- early 1950s dominate; they were not new at the 1959 revolution
So, what are the secrets that have kept these 'ancient ones' on the road long after their peers have been discarded or turned to rust? The main ingredients, I think, are necessity, improvisation, and sheer determination.
You don't want to scrap a car you can't replace, although some must have been swallowed up for parts, and some are clearly out of service waiting for a future. And who says that the only possible engine for a '55 Chevy is the one that came from Detroit? Many have been retrofitted with Lada engines from Russia, imported as replacements in the 80s.
Even those are now fairly old, as are the ones that came installed in the Ladas, Moskviches and even the occasional Zils that came from Russia. As a result, Cuba is one of the few countries in the world where leaded gasoline is still sold as a road fuel. There's also unleaded ('especial') that runs newer cars coming in now.
Riding in the cars can be fun; while they're not all taxis, many are, some officially and some just offering themselves at tourist hotels and hotspots. On the other hand, nearly everyone we rode in had door problems; the driver had to run around to open the door from the outside. And they can be loud and smelly.
All together: new Geely cab, veteran Chevy and a Moskvich
Cuba's biggest fleet of new cars comes from Geely, a Chinese company that also owns Volvo and the company that makes London taxis, as well as the new Buick Envision. All the new yellow cabs, police cars and government sedans are Geely. China is also the main supplier of new trucks and buses; China is willing to provide Cuba with financing that others won't.
But engines are not the only part of the American cars that may not be original. You can see in the pictures that grillwork is often missing or improvised, fenders and other body parts are extensively patched and plastered, or changed altogether, including a Studebaker in Santiago that had been turned into the station wagon Studebaker never made.
No, the "opening" of Cuba is not going to be a bonanza for classic car collectors! Most of them are by now as authentic as the fiberglass sports-car replicas that used to be made to fit on a VW Beetle chassis.
Many of the cars have colors that weren't on offer in the 50s...or 20s
But the sheer ingenuity that keeps them going in the face of embargo, financial woes, parts shortages and changing fortunes...that's a good story in itself. Just not the one we expected.
Here are some more...hope you enjoy them!