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Cars of Cuba

Sunday, February 01, 2015

By Paul Santana

If you’ve been watching the news at all lately, you’ve undoubtedly heard that the relationship between the United States and a small island in the Caribbean known as Cuba is on the cusp of profound change. For the first time in over 50 years, the U.S. has begun to restore normal relations with the small developing country. Located just 93 miles south of Florida, Cuba is home to over 11 million people, with Havana, the country’s capital and by far most populated city, housing an estimated 2 million (nearly four times the population of Oklahoma City). When many Americans think of Cuba, images of cigars and classic cars probably come to mind, and for good reason. Prior to the early 1960s, the U.S. economy had a major impact on the island of Cuba, and thousands of American-made vehicles populated the island. Once the U.S. embargo against Cuba began in 1962, American vehicles were no longer brought to the island, and the availability of car parts from the U.S. was completely cut off. However, as both a testament to the quality of American-made pre-1960s vehicles and the ingenuity of the Cuban people, an estimated 60,000 classic American cars still roam the streets of Cuba today.

There are several reasons these classic “Yank Tanks,” as they’re affectionately referred to, are so prevalent in Cuba – partly due to a Cuban policy in place up until 2011 that only cars in Cuba prior to the 1959 revolution could be freely bought and sold, but also due to the lack of outside sources for new non-American vehicles. During many years of Soviet influence on Cuba, Russia imported thousands of vehicles to the island, but most were designated for official government use and never made their way into the hands of Cuban citizens. Other manufacturers, like Chinese-owned Beijing Automotive Works and Geely, have similar uses, often for tourist taxis and rental cars. The truth is, only a small fraction of Cuban households actually own their own vehicle, and the majority of classics you would see when traveling around Havana are government taxis maintained for tourist use.

According to recent reports, Cuba has some 650,000 cars on its roads, with more than half of them owned by the Cuban government. Those families lucky enough to own a vehicle often pass it down through the family, with each generation struggling to maintain its mechanical integrity in a very difficult parts environment. Allowing the sale and purchase of newer cars after 2011, a right we Americans view as a simple everyday occurrence, has actually driven the price of vehicles in Cuba extremely high. It’s been reported that a Peugeot that cost $53,000 in the U.K. can reach prices as high as $262,000 in Cuba! Although now legal, this makes newer car ownership an almost unreachable feat for most Cuban citizens.

Through the use of academic visas, I have had the unique opportunity to have legally visited Cuba twice in the past 15 years. Being the car fanatic that I am, I was profoundly fascinated by the number of classics roaming the streets of Havana. Ford Fairlanes and Falcons, along with Chevrolet Bel Airs, are the most common, with colors and configurations aplenty. While it’s not uncommon to see a dozen classics driving down any given street, finding an example in anything close to stock condition is extremely rare. Thanks to the increased availability of Russian parts, many have had their original engines removed and Russian diesel power plants retrofitted.

Cubans have needed to be creative and resourceful in order to keep their cars on the road for so long. When you or I have a need for new spark plugs, for example, we can either drive down to the local auto parts store and pick up the new parts, or have the car serviced at a mechanic’s shop. In Cuba, there are no AutoZones, so replacement parts, if available, can be extremely expensive and difficult to find. I saw a few examples of vehicles whose windshield washer reservoir had broken, so they strapped an old two-liter bottle in its place. If anything metal breaks, they weld in patchwork pieces or make a mold and cast a new piece. Cuban mechanics are extremely resourceful, working with what they have to keep these cars on the road. If a vehicle is damaged beyond repair, they often sit until parts become available, or are disassembled and doled out to others at a premium rate.

Like most things in Cuba, classic cars are colorful and vibrant, often requiring repainting due in part to the salty ocean air. Cubans take great pride in their cars and are often found helping each other when things begin to break. There are several automotive gatherings (or swap meets) around the island, where people bring their collections of parts to trade and learn from other Cubans the different tips and tricks to keeping them running.

This collection of assorted parts is one of the reasons experts are predicting as unrealistic the idea of American collectors finding many good condition original vehicles in Cuba. As Reuters reports, “Even if the U.S. completely lifted its trade embargo, a 2010 Cuban law bans cars from being taken off the island” (www.reuters.com/article/2014/12/26/us-cuba-usa-autos). While Cubans clearly express their admiration for the style and design of classic American autos, most would find owning a newer, more maintainable diesel compact from China or Russia a much easier task.

The possibility of reopening the U.S. automotive market to Cuba is something American automakers have been awaiting for decades. A General Motors spokesman said recently, "We're very encouraged by the news announced by President Obama, and will certainly evaluate any opportunities that may present themselves;" while a Ford Motor Company spokesman said, "We are reviewing the initiative to determine its potential impact for the auto industry." From a spokesman for Nissan America: "Nissan is aware of the diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba and will continue to monitor the situation.”

U.S. manufacturers would potentially open up a new market and help drive down the cost of competing brands that have been relying on being the only option for Cubans. The economic benefits of allowing the aftermarket auto parts industry access to Cuba are huge. Both Cubans and Americans alike would benefit by permitting these classic American rides the vital parts they need to continue to perform for years to come.

Riding in a classic Cuban taxi is a unique experience, and one that I will always remember. Cuba is classified as a semi-tropical climate, and the city of Havana has several miles of ocean shoreline. On a hot summer day, the heat and humidity in the air can make for a rather uncomfortable stay, but riding in the backseat of a classic 1958 Bel Air with no air conditioning on my way back to my hotel was anything but unpleasant. With the large windows rolled down, the cool ocean breeze flowed graciously throughout the cabin. Before he stopped to pick me up, my driver was listening to a cassette tape, which he informed me was of one of Cuba’s most famous musical groups, The Buena Vista Social Club. After telling him the name of my hotel, he turned up the volume on his Pioneer stereo, clearly salvaged from a much newer vehicle and installed in a rough cutout in the dash, and we continued our cruise down the Malecón. As the sound of the salsa beat and brass trumpets filled the car, I imagined what it was like back in 1950s, when Americans traveled the island freely, mobsters and celebrities frequented the now famous Hotel Nacional, and La Tropicana performed its nightly cabaret. It was a time when Ernest Hemingway, one of Cuba’s most famous American guests, could be found downing rum drinks at La Floridita while contemplating his next literary offering. In that moment, it was easy to understand why so many Americans wanted to visit Cuba, a small Caribbean island full of music and vitality, and just one of the many reasons I would like to once again find my way back to Havana someday.

It’s seems we’re still a few years away from completely normalizing our relationship with Cuba, and there remain several political and human rights issues yet to be resolved, but one thing is clear. The classic cars in Cuba will remain as an iconic representation of America’s historical influence on Cuban culture in the mid-20th century, and a testament to the quality design and manufacturing during pre-1960s America. 

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