Classic Cars and the Cubans That Keep Them Running
If you’re a classic car buff, Cuba is just about the greatest place on the planet. It’s like one big car show, where autos from the 1940s and 1950s motor along the streets and highways. There are Chevrolets, Fords, Pontiacs, Buicks, Dodges, Plymouths, and Studebakers. The cars run the gamut from mint condition to downright dilapidated. Well-preserved cars have exteriors that shine with chrome and new paint jobs, while the worse-off autos are held together with odd parts and scrap metal.
American cars were imported into Cuba for about 50 years, beginning near the early 20th century. After the Cuban Revolution, the U.S. embargo was erected and Castro banned the importation of American cars and mechanical parts. That’s why Cuba is the way it is today—essentially a living museum for classic cars. The old American autos are often kept running with parts and pieces that were never intended for them. It’s not uncommon to find a beautiful 1950s Chevy with a Russian engine—something that would be considered sacrilege to serious car collectors.
Of the cars imported since 1959, Russian-made Ladas are the most common. You’ll see these small, boxy cars everywhere you go. More recently, Chinese Geelys, Citroëns, and Nissans have entered the scene. The Geelys are a popular rental car, and you’ll see tourists driving them around most of Cuba. The cars look and drive fine, but they are somewhat unreliable and not very durable.
The government has allowed pre-revolutionary cars to be bought and sold freely for several decades. In the past, nicer cars were reserved for doctors, Communist officials, sports stars, and the like. However, as of 2011, Cubans have been permitted to buy and sell cars freely. This marked a major improvement in the Cuban auto market.
The government, however, tightly controls the new car market and charges very high prices. For example, a Volkswagen might cost $70,000, while a new Peugeot might sell for $250,000. Needless to say, this is completely unaffordable for most Cubans, who earn about $20 per month. Even so, there is a growing Cuban middle class that is able to afford luxury cars, including Mercedes, Audis, and BMWs. You’ll occasionally see these cars flying down the highway, passing old beaters that are toiling along in the right lane.
These days, there are around 60,000 classic American cars in Cuba. Experts estimate that about half of these cars hail from the 1950s, while 25 percent are from the 1940s and another 25 percent are from the 1930s. The cars are often family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation.
As you drive around Cuba, you’ll see men hunched over cars, repairing engines and fixing exhaust systems. Since the country lacks replacement parts and in some cases the necessary tools for fixing the vehicles, the locals are extremely crafty and adept in their repairs. Quite simply, Cuban ingenuity has kept these old American cars on the road. Mechanics find ways to use imperfect parts and keep the things running.
In some cases, Cubans have even had to create materials from scratch to keep their car alive. Russian cars – usually Ladas and Volgas – are dissected into their useful parts, and hood ornaments are sometimes handmade from scrap metal. Cuban mechanics are truly the wizards and MacGyvers of the automotive world.
On many older cars, the windows might not roll down and the exterior might be touched up with several layers of paint. The original engines are almost always tweaked, and many cars have Soviet engines powered by diesel. If a car is unable to be fixed, it can be broken down into component parts, which are then used to restore other classic cars.
Riding in Classic Cars
Travelers can take driving tours in classic cars, especially in more touristy areas like Havana Vieja and Veradero. In these places, there are usually rows of beautiful cars lined up for visitors to choose from. Many of the cars are convertibles, which are perfect for cruising slowly and taking pictures.
To take a tour in a classic car, simply find the car that you like best and tell the driver how long you’d like to drive around for. Oftentimes they will recommend a route, but you’re also free to direct them where you want to go. If you’re in Havana, it’s pleasant to drive along the oceanfront Malecón—sunset is an especially beautiful time of day to cruise this section of the city.
You’ll typically pay a flat hourly rate for these tours. Most are CUC25–CUC40 per hour. Before you head out on your tour, hop behind the steering wheel and have someone snap a few photos of you at the helm. All of your friends at home will go crazy once they see you behind the wheel of a 1956 Chevy.
Many of the taxis in Cuba are also classic cars. These vehicles tend to be in much worse condition than the cars aimed at tourists, and are often used to transport locals around town. The taxis are shared and often carry more people than the car was intended to hold. This results in increased stress on the car and causes the vehicle to require more frequent maintenance.
Traveling in these taxis offers travelers another interesting look into the classic car culture in Cuba. You’ll see the wear and tear that the cars have taken over the years, and observe some of the impressive ways that they are held together. If you’re interested in mechanics, ask your driver to tell you about his car—chances are he’ll be proud of the crafty ways that he has managed to keep his car on the road.
One other good thing about taking classic car taxis: aside from bike taxis, they’re the cheapest transportation option there is in Cuba.
Buying Cuban Classic Cars
American car enthusiasts are chomping at the bit to get their hands on classic cars in Cuba. Even if the trade embargo is completely lifted, a current Cuban law bans the cars from being removed from the island. That might change someday.
Regardless, according to some car professionals, serious car collectors are better off trying to find a vintage auto in the U.S., since most of the cars in Cuba have not received the best care. As we’ve already explained, most Cuban cars have been kept running using foreign replacement parts that can affect the functioning and value of the vehicle.
Still, some American collectors may be interested in purchasing Cuban cars in order to own a piece of Cuban history. But that’s just the rub—these cars are a part of the Cuban identity, and even if the embargo is lifted, it’s hard to imagine them all leaving the island. It would dramatically change the cultural fabric and automotive aesthetic of Cuba, which is used to having these old autos rambling down its roads.
If the embargo were lifted, the Cuban auto market would be flooded with replacement parts and repair manuals. This would be the most significant result that lifting the embargo could have on the car culture in Cuba. Old cars could be repaired properly and be kept on the roads for decades to come.