Cuba is world renowned for the number of old American automobiles from the 1950s and 1960s still on the streets. Before coming to Cuba, my impression was that there would be quite a few, but Duncan and I were simply not prepared for how many automobiles from those eras are in routine use in Cuba. There are times that you stand on the street and the scene could easily have been made at any time in the decade from 1950 to 1960. I was told that there are approximately 60-80,000 pre-1960 American cars or cacharros in Cuba, down approximately half from what existed in 1959, the year of the Cuban Revolution.
One might have expected that these old cars would be mostly around hotels for the tourist trade, and the nicer ones often are as you’ll see below. But old American hardware is simply everywhere in Cuba. President John F. Kennedy authorized a trade embargo with Cuba which resulted in over 50 years of limited access to more modern automobiles. However, fuel provided by Cuba’s historic trading partners along with the amazing resourcefulness of the Cuban people and skills of the mechanics have kept these cars on the road. Though the realities of lack of parts resupply and access to fuel has meant that most of these cars have been re-engined with more current diesels engines in many cases. In other cases, these cars are powered by diesel engines from more industrial diesel engines from tractors and cars from Soviet times like the Ladas. Duncan’s take on this and the diesel engines is on his post, On The Streets In Havana.
The first day that we were there it rained hard which made for some really exciting photography. We had hoped that it would rain more, but the curse of travel for me is that wherever I go, it seems to break out in spectacularly beautiful weather. Fortunately, the light in Cuba was otherworldly and the rest of the days provided for rewarding photography.
Its scenes like the ones above that send one into a time warp. I’m not sure there is another place on the planet where one could see this many 40-60 year old American cars on the road. Its this sort of thing that has many in Cuba talking about how Americans would love to get their hands on some of these automobiles and that may very well be true. Presuming the trade embargo does go away at some point, there are a great many Cuban’s who would love to trade in their rattletraps for either newer automobiles or to supplement their income of Cuban Pesos with the more valuable Cuban Convertible Peso provided by Baby Boomers looking for nostalgia. However, the bigger advantage might be for the American companies that specialize in car parts, notably the older car parts that are still available from even the local auto parts suppliers down the street in anytown USA.
There is a romantic idealism about all of this for many folks, particularly the gearheads like myself. I suspect that others like Diego Rodriguez who keeps Unabashed Gearheaded Gnarlyness would love this place. However, the reality is that many of the cars in many cases are held together with little more than bailing wire and if they could get it, most likely Duct Tape. The cars have been maintained in most cases not for beauty, but a much more practical function as breakdowns are a common occurrence. Its a matter of everyday life here to see people pushing cars through intersections or by the side of the road, having stranded their occupants. That said, some of the ingenuity on these cars was spectacular. The engine swaps along with transmission adaption is one aspect of it, but I saw cars and walked past shops where people were fabricating floors and body panels from what appeared to be sheets of metal, hand hammering them into the appropriate shape. Truly remarkable.
There are the occasional newer American car on the street, but they are very rare. One notable example was a *brand new* tricked out Chevrolet pickup in Cojimar, just down the street from a 1950’s Cadillac and a 1962 Studebaker Lark.
Most of our time in Havana was spent on foot experiencing the full breadth of culture in Cuba. However, we did take advantage of the many taxis navigating the streets of havana. Taxis are the main business and source of income for many Cubans and they are very proud of their automobiles. Taxis here are easy, efficient and low cost, though there are there are issues to be aware of like some of the sketchiest tires I’ve ever laid eyes on, not to mention no seat belts and doors that spontaneously fly open on some automobiles at the most inopportune times, like turning corners… My favorite part of riding in the taxis however, was being entertained with Cuban radio which was absolutely, refreshingly commercial free…
Should you find yourself in Cuba and are interested in a ride in one of these old cars, the taxis are everywhere, but the nicer cars hang out around the hotels catering to tourists from all over the globe. Increasingly Americans who are slipping in through Canada or Mexico or the Bahammas. Just imagine the benefits to both Cuba and the USA should the trade embargo be lifted.
One of our last nights in Cuba, Duncan and I went out looking to get ourselves deliberately lost on the streets in the wee hours of the morning looking for night scenes with cars. The scene immediately above really struct me as we stood in front of an old abandoned RCA Victrola store. This is the paradox of Cuba… Its 2013, yet this scene could have been made at any time from 1962 on, yet the sense of a post apocalyptic landscape permeates everything almost like time has stopped, yet the world and its decay persisted. I expect that these scenes will not last forever as Cuba slowly modernizes and increased foreign investment transforms the island country into something more like Europe in the Caribbean. Should I find myself back in Cuba in the not too distant future, things will probably be very different. But for now, its a unique experience unlike anywhere else in the world.