Last updated: 11:22 AM ET, Fri June 05 2015

The Cars of Cuba

Features & Advice | David Cogswell | June 05, 2015

The Cars of Cuba

All photos by David Cogswell unless otherwise noted

As American/Cuban relations warm, we as travelers are starting to get glimpses into a culture that had been more or less invisible to us for more than 50 years. We're discovering so much about this unique Caribbean nation and her people, her distinctive mix of Spanish and Caribbean influences, and the effects of five decades under embargo. One thing about Cuba that intrigues first-time visitors the most is the unusual amount of beautiful antique American cars you'll find on every street.

Above is a picture I took in Cienfuegos, Cuba, and it looks similar to many other pictures of Cuba you see that feature vintage American cars. But for me this one had an added dimension of meaning, because that car is a black 1957 Ford Fairlane, and the first car that I owned was a black ’57 Ford Fairlane. It was a beautiful thing, a black convertible with a V8 engine.

Most people would have walked by this car and not taken particular notice. Anyone who has been in Cuba more than a few days has seen hundreds of such vintage cars, so this particular old Ford would not attract much attention. But for me this was no mere car, it was a tangible relic that served as a nostalgic trigger to thrust me vividly back to a period of my life that is mostly forgotten, the year that I had that old black Ford.

I haven’t seen anything remotely resembling it for so many years I can’t even begin to calculate. Cars of the 1957 vintage were already a rarity in the ‘70s in the States. We burn through cars.

In the 1950s when those cars were manufactured, Americans were buying new cars on average every three years. The styles changed rapidly and radically, as part of the strategy of planned obsolescence of the car manufacturers, to keep people buying new cars all the time. Americans were affluent at the time and they loved it.

Decades ago I saw a study on how long people in different countries kept their cars. In the U.S. it was three years. (It’s increased greatly since that study.) The study said that on average Cubans kept a car for 30 years. It was hard for me to imagine keeping a car for 30 years. But if we are seeing 1950s vintage cars in Cuba today, that’s not 30 years, that’s more like 50 or 60 years. Wow. Just wow. It is mind-boggling.

If you want one single example of how radically different the Cuban experience is from that of the U.S. you don’t have to go any farther than that. You can look at the music, medical practice, education, the arts, etc., and in any of these areas Cuba is about as different from U.S. culture as you’ll find in the world even though it is a neighboring country. But even just looking through the prism of cars you can get a glimpse of the deep differences between Cuba and the Norteamericanos.

To us, the old cars are museum pieces. They are like elaborate pieces of baroque art. It’s odd to think that the cars that we love so much in Cuba are actually a symbol of the hardship in Cuba, and the ingenious ways the Cubans coped with scarcity while under a U.S. embargo since 1960.

The cars are a showcase of the creativity and resourcefulness of people coping with adversity. Cuba is itself almost like a laboratory experiment showing the creative resources that come forth from the human spirit under duress.

“Stepping into the Cuban car culture is almost like visiting a living museum,” said Shane Matlock, Cuba product manager at Collette. “While Colonial Williamsburg has old cottages and pilgrim-dressed actors, Cuba has old cars from the ‘50s and Cubans polishing their hoods, just waiting for the chance to take one of the many tourists in their cars.”

Most of the antique cars are not technically restored, they are just kept running by any means necessary. In the early days as the old parts wore out, many of the original engines were replaced with Russian engines. 

“I don’t think most of the old cars are powered by Russian engines any longer, more like Japanese and Korean engines,” said Steve Cox, executive director of International Expeditions and a veteran of 11 trips to Cuba. “In fact, Cubans make a joke about the old Russian Lada cars saying Lada owners are ‘true believers…they believe they have a car.’”

Abercrombie & Kent’s Cuba program managers echo the fact that very few of the classic cars are completely original. Russian parts kept them running until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, after which most of the engines powering the classic cars were manufactured by either Toyota or Mercedes-Benz.

A few of the cars still have all original parts or replicas of original parts. After a half century under embargo, Cubans have developed the capacity to rebuild cars piece by piece, even producing tiny parts that are copies of the originals in machine shops that can reproduce almost anything.

“This is a source of income – tourism and taxi service in a restored vehicle, zooming around Havana,” said Collette’s Matlock. “It’s almost impossible to buy new cars for Cubans. It’s not something they trade in, can lease, or get an upgrade. Once you have your car, it’s yours for life. Just like your house, you don’t move out when something goes wrong – you fix it.”

PHOTO: Dan Sullivan, president of Collette, touring Cuba in a classic car. (Courtesy of Collette)

According to Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, the recent influx of money coming into the country via tourism has actually led to an increasing number of old cars being restored to operating condition. The Cuban government set up a co-op system through which mechanics can charge money for restoring parts.

Although there is widespread concerned today about Cuba changing and losing its character, giving rise to a flood of articles about how people are “flocking to Cuba before the Americans come,” the way tourism income is boosting the antique car enterprise is encouraging news that the change will not be all bad.

Who knows? Vinyl records made a comeback. Maybe there will be a renaissance of classic American cars.

“It’s one of the areas of private enterprise that are being opened up,” said Popper. “It’s a blooming cottage industry because so many are being restored, every aspect, even the tires. Every year we see more of these restored cars providing rides for tourists. They charge $35 for a half hour of cruising around. They pick you up at the hotel.”

Popper met one of the new auto entrepreneurs on a trip to Cuba in March.

“She had a fleet of 35 cars she owned,” he said. “I was stunned simply by the amount of cars and the amount of maintenance required. Each year she takes more cars, restores them. It’s a perfect example of how tourism affects the life of the regular Cuban and creates opportunities.”

The talents and capacities developed to high art forms by the resourceful Cubans as a response to being under duress provides evidence that whatever changes take place in Cuba will continue to faithfully reflect the Cuban character.

“What makes it beautiful is the ingenuity to keep these vehicles on the road,” said Popper. “I saw a 1940s something, I don’t remember the brand, I don’t think I have ever seen anything like it in my life. There were eight of us in the car. It was like a miniature bus. You could hire him to drive around the city for 25-30 minutes.”

To call it “restored” would be almost laughable. The car was a contraption made up of makeshift components from whatever its owner could find.

“The upholstery was torn,” said Popper, “the seats were pushed down. Most of the gauges didn’t work. And the gas tank – the gas tank was a bag in a box!

“What’s extraordinary is this things runs, and runs reliably! That’s the Cuban spirit. It doesn’t matter what disadvantage they might be under, they figure out how to make things work and how to make their society work. If you think about similar conditions in other countries, I don’t know if the outcome would be the same. It’s with everything they have, all the appliances in the home. Everything they use they make it work. They make it last.”

“Learning about how the Cubans fix cars is like learning about how Dr. Frankenstein cobbled pieces that didn’t go together to make something run,” said Matlock. “You can see the source of pride in their ingenuity, and their ability to figure out how to make these cars run. The question now is, will they continue to protect this culture once imported cars and parts become more accessible over the next few years?”

With more money coming into the country via tourism, Popper said he is actually seeing an increasing number of antique cars.

“There are more of these restored beauties on the road,” he said. “You see more of them. They are coming out of hiding. Some people are bringing them back to life, hoping some day to sell them for a lot of money.”

For Americans, the old cars are mind-blowing relics of an affectionately remembered era.

Mary Stachnik, senior vice president and co-owner of Mayflower Tours, spent weeks in Cuba with her husband John organizing Cuba tours for Mayflower. Seeing the antique cars all around made her feel almost giddy.

“I was raised in Minneapolis where you got your driver’s license when you were 14 years old,” she said. “I learned to drive stick shift versus automatic. I have two older brothers who always were working on cars. Everyone in the family loved cars. The Petersons had the newest cars on the block beginning with a white 1958 Cadillac with red interior, lots of chrome and a push button starter. We thought we were hot spit!"

The rush of nostalgia in seeing the old cars was a delight beyond her expectations.

PHOTO: Mary Stachnik, senior vice president and co-owner of Mayflower Tours in Cuba. (Courtesy of Mayflower Tours)

“Imagine my delight to see 66,000 antique cars in use in Cuba,” said Stachnik. “I was like a kid in a candy store. Looking at, and wondering what make of car I was observing, tracing it back to the times I spent with its ‘relative’ from a long-past time. Back then, you dated up a storm, and it helped if the guy had a great looking car. I rode in many of those same cars when they were new.”

Mayflower arranged for the final dinner on its tours to incorporate a special experience riding in the antique cars.

“Stepping back in time is always a winner with our travelers.”

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