Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Classic Cars of Cuba

Go to Cuba and you will think you have walked into an all encompassing car museum. Today one of Cuba's biggest tourism draw cards is the classic cars filling the streets. They are an example of something born of hardship and necessity eventually becoming a unique and precious asset.   The 60,000, mainly American, classic cars thronging the streets range from beautifully restored and gleaming, to dented, rusty and 'I-hope-I-can-make-it'. They are a sight to behold.

A normal street scene in Havana
 Although now a major and proud feature of the country the Chevrolets, Fords, Dodges etc, mostly dating from the 1940s and 50s, have remained on the roads as a result of the trade embargo placed on Cuba by the US government in 1962 which forbade US companies from doing business with Cuba. Then Fidel Castro decided that in his socialist model Cubans would not be permitted to buy cars, that they would only be given to them by the government if a car was a necessity, and it was usually deemed that they weren't. During Cuba's soviet era some Ladas came into the country and while you can still see a few on the roads they didn't last the way the solid American cars have. The old American cars have mostly been in the same family since purchase and have been proudly handed down from father to son.

Under the hood
Mind you, it has taken incredible ingenuity to keep them on the roads plus a dose of good luck.  Many have parts missing, some have boat engines installed under the hood and I was told some are even powered by motor mower engines. In poverty stricken Cuba many have been converted to run on the much cheaper diesel fuel.  Don't be surprised if the classic car taxi you hire has string for a door handle or a steering wheel worn right down to the metal and the glove box held together with duct tape.  

On a long bus trip along an intercity highway we passed many of these old cars broken down by the side of the road however all were being worked on and would, no doubt, be up and running again before long. It is not uncommon to see  relatives visiting from other countries arrive at the airport, their luggage bulging with  spare car parts eagerly awaited by the locals. 

 Our guide told us that Raoul Castro  now permits Cubans to buy foreign cars but that the costs are so prohibitive no one can afford them.  A car dealership opened in Havana a year or two back but soon closed down through lack of sales.

A car repairer on a Havana street

My friend, Hilary, and I hired a bright pink 1952 Chevrolet convertible with gleaming white upholstery, complete with driver, for a tour of Havana. ($40US) It was marvelous fun touring the city with the wind in our hair reliving our teenage years, well, not really, more how we wish our teenage years had been! 

Reliving my teenage years?  I wish!

Some people are concerned that with the opening up of Cuba to tourists these cars will disappear from the streets.  I have read that this is unlikely to happen for a number of reasons.  Apparently the cars have been so altered and tampered with, just to keep them running, that they are no longer desirable to collectors.  Secondly, they are a proud symbol of the Cubans independence and survival and a nose thumb to a world that cut them off.  Cubans who own these cars are also immensely proud of them, as not only part of their heritage, but for providing them with work as taxis and helping draw in the tourist dollars.  I am so pleased to have seen these cars, a definite highlight of the trip.   I wonder how long Cuba can hold on to them before they really are beyond repair?

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