PHOTO: An array of classic cars in Havana, Cuba. (photo by David Cogswell)
The Cuban car phenomenon is stunning.
It grabs you the moment you emerge from the airport and keeps you in a sort of near-trance of unreality until you return to the airport and leave the enchanted land.
The 1950s American cars that populate the roads of Cuba are only one of the striking differences between this island and every other place in the world. But the cars are the most obvious, glaring point of contrast.
There is a pervasive sense of otherness for an American encountering Cuba, and it takes a while to sort out what that difference is comprised of. But not the cars. The cars smack you in the face when you first arrive. They are a staple component of the unique Cuban experience. And the whole phenomenon is almost incomprehensible.
In the world these cars were produced in (1950s USA), people were trading their cars in after an average of about three years. Even today, the lifespan of cars in America is only 10-12 years.
Many of ours ended up in the junkyards within a few years of rolling off the Detroit assembly lines like shiny, fresh babies. In contrast, the ‘50s cars that are still plentiful in Cuba have been operating for 60 years or so.
There are no junkyards in Cuba.
Everything is re-used, repaired, restored or rebuilt. Nothing is wasted. And there are beautiful specimens from the 1950s on the streets everywhere. Many look obviously patched together from spare parts. Many are customized with flamboyant features and paint jobs. And some are impeccably restored almost to their original appearance, but with dazzling new bright colors and humming new Japanese engines inside.
The restoration—actually, the re-creation—of half-century-old cars has been raised to a high art form.
The creativity of the 1950s American automobile industry, turned loose and driven by the post-World War II economic boom, produced a wild variety of headspinning designs. Each of the automakers was trying to outdo the others in fabulousness. There is no comparable period in car design that produced such tremendous artistic flourishes in sheet metal as in the giant fins of the Cadillacs, Plymouths and Chevrolets of the time.
The broad sheet metal surfaces were extravagantly draped with ornate chrome ornamentation and often two-tone paint jobs. It was a kind of American neo-baroque architecture applied to car design, a reflection of the postwar euphoria of America.
And it was a long, long time ago.
But the automotive art of that period still lives, and vibrantly so, in Cuba. It has been preserved by mechanics and craftsmen who have developed skills unmatched by their peers anywhere else in the world.
Roses Out of Rust Heaps
Every yin has its yang, and no bad thing ever happened that did not produce some good side effects. In Cuba, the sudden cutting off of all products from America due to the 1962 U.S. embargo of Cuba set off decades of hardship and shortages here.
Few people would willingly change places with the Cubans in terms of what they have had to endure. But at the same time, there is nowhere in the world that has developed car art the way Cubans have.
On my trip to Cuba escorted by Group IST, an operator of cultural tours, the company set me up to meet Julio Alvarez, the founder of NostalgiCar, an operation that has two parts.
One is a collective fleet of classic cars operating as taxis. Second is a body shop that restores cars. I got a glimpse behind the scenes of the Cuban car phenomenon and became even more amazed than I had been by seeing the cars on the street.
Alvarez is one of Cuba’s new generation of entrepreneurs, or cuentapropistas.
READ MORE: What Travel Got Wrong About Cuba
In NostalgiCar’s shop, Alvarez employs eight people who rebuild cars essentially by hand. Of course they use various kinds of machines, such as sanders and buffers, welding torches, cranes, mallets and hammers. But while the original body parts of these 1950s cars were stamped out of sheet metal on giant assembly lines, NostalgiCar rebuilds a precisely perfect replica of a 1959 Chevy rear fender—with its elaborate sideways fin and detailed sculpturing—using hand tools.
I saw the flat pieces of sheet metal they start with as raw material, the hammers and work stands they use to shape the pieces. And if I had not seen it, I would have trouble believing it. But it is through that kind of body work developed to a high art that you see so many vintage cars in Cuba with fenders in perfect shape after more than half a century.
The craftsmanship is just as acute in the workings underneath the body. The Cuban mechanics can handcraft a tiny part of an engine that needs to be replaced. They are true magicians.
IST set me up with a translator who could help Julio tell me his story: What led him from starting a business six years ago to hobnobbing with the likes of John Kerry and the Obamas.
I followed the translator into an office much like where you pay your bill at any car repair operation. It was about 12 square feet with a large desk, two shelves of plastic car models on one wall and two walls lined with framed photos and documents: A letter of thanks from Michelle Obama and a picture of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shaking hands with Julio’s wife, Nidialys.
It all started with Julio taking antique cars to tourist spots like Hotel Nacional and “fishing” for customers who wanted rides, as many other Cubans do. As the government was loosening restrictions on private businesses and encouraging citizens to generate their own income to reduce state payrolls, Alvarez started thinking bigger.
Making it Big in the World
In October 2010, the government instituted a major policy shift from indifference toward entrepreneurial businesses to encouraging them. Alvarez joined with four other car owners to form a collective fleet. Through strength in numbers, they could handle larger groups, bolster each other and create a larger presence.
The company offers airport transfers, excursions, city tours and any kind of transportation in between. Six months after starting the business, he told me, “I made the biggest mistake of my life.
“I brought my wife into the business.”
I stared dully while the moment hung, and then both Julio and the translator cracked up. The joke was that bringing his wife into the business was really the best thing he ever did.
Nidialys Acosta had worked for a state company doing public relations and marketing. She had a flair for promotion and went to work producing flyers, business cards and finding new ways to spread the word.
“We had more success every day,” said Alvarez.
They went from fishing at tourist spots to making reservations. They had more work than they could handle so they pulled in more drivers. The fleet grew from four cars to 22.
In November 2013, Julio and Nidialys were invited by the Center for Democracy in the Americas to attend a conference in Washington D.C. on “Cubans in the New Economy, Their Reflections and the U.S. Response.”
When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo visited Cuba, he rode in Lola, Nidialys’ pink 1956 Bel Air Chevy, and posed enthusiastically in front of cameras seated in Lola’s driver’s seat.
When Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cuba in August 2015, the U.S. State Department asked Alvarez to hurry up and complete its restoration of a 1959 Impala for Kerry to drive.
When the Obamas visited Cuba in March 2016, they held a forum for Cuban entrepreneurs and invited Julio and Nidialys to participate. The President was talking about people like Julio and Nidialys when he told the Cuban people in his speech to them, “El Cubano inventa del aire,” or “Cubans invent things out of thin air.”
NostalgiCar is still a collective, but Alvarez has a dream of growing his own personal fleet. And now that the government is encouraging private business, there is nothing stopping him.
Catch up on the rest of "My Cuban Journey" here:
Part 1: Catching the Winds of Change in Cuba
Part 2: My Cuban Journey Begins
Part 3: My Cuban Journey: Small-Ship Cruising on the Voyager