Our Sedan in Havana
With brands like Chevrolet, Ford, Mercedes,
De Soto, Chrysler and Buick rolling
by, it’s almost like watching a living, moving
tribute to mobile Americana.
The funny thing is, most of them are
driven by “thinkers.”
To say that Cuba is overrun with classic
(and Jurassic) American cars would be
stating a cliché. How they got here in the
first place is a lot more interesting; the fact
that they still operate is nothing short of
To Cubans, their cacharros are a tremendous
source of pride. Not necessarily
because that they’re “showy” - Indeed,
that would be too American - it’s that
they’ve been maintained and had their
life spans exploited so long by means of
necessity, it’s as if the longer the car has
been running, the more it defines its Cuban
owner. The car’s been fixed up, been
broken down, had a new part eventually
found for it. And it’s still running. That
makes it pretty resilient. Just like the Cubans
And to say that Cubans will find just
about any means to make their cars work
is an understatement. Tailpipes are painstakingly
reconstructed to look like their
originals. Steering wheels are crafted out
of wood. Even car windows have been
stretched with plastic. Hey, whatever
works. There are plenty of sketchy mechanics
around who have been known to
install a Russian engine under a De Soto
hood, too. It’s all a proud testament to being
able to make something beautiful last.
Vehicle control unit reprogramming
is here, now.
The funny thing is, Cubans don’t
much like them. The cars are gas guzzlers,
parts are hard to find, and there’s very little
factory literature to maintain them to
It’s the tourists that wax nostalgic
about them, perhaps stimulating memories
of a time and place when things were
simpler. Sensing this, the Cuban government
exploits the history factor by offering
a car rental service to tourists who
want to toodle around in a classic car.
It’s estimated there’s about 60,000 of
these cars left in Cuba. There were once
about 150,000 at the height of prohibition
when American interests in booze, gambling
and prostitution was at its peak.
But the 1959 Cuban revolution and
subsequent US trade embargo ended all
that. Undaunted, Cuba struck up a massively
successful oil-for-sugar deal with
the USSR until that economy collapsed in
1991. When the Russians fell, so did 80%
of Cuba’s imports.
Thereafter, the Cubans entered an exceptionally
dark time in their hard-breaks
history, when a so-called “Special Period”
of five years was imposed. Rations
became the norm, medicine was hard
to come by and oil was virtually nil. But
people gotta do what they gotta do, and
the Cubans became especially creative
when it came to transportation. Whether
it was purchasing a million bicycles from
China or converting semi-truck flatbeds
into giant buses called “camels”, Cubans
did whatever was required to get to where
they needed to.
And that includes the government
permitting car owners to haul out those
classic “yank tanks” and operate taxi services,
despite the fact that Fidel Castro despised
this, referring to them as “selfish
capitalists.” Those cabs still operate today.
Jorge the tour guide points out a few
of these, just as a new bus finally arrives.
As we prepare to board, I look over towards
the youth I’d noticed earlier one
more time and realize that the object
they’ve been passing back and forth is a
car door handle.
Much, much more in the print addition of Auto Atlantic.
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