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Atlantic Racing Scene

Classic Cars

Our Sedan in Havana

There’s a joke in Cuba th at goes roughly like th is: Q: Why are Cuban taxi drivers called ‘thInkers’? A: Because tHEY think thEy drive gooD cars.

Classics Galore

That’s the humour that’s shared with us by Jorge, our tour guide, while waiting for a bus to replace the one that’s broken down en route to Havana. A few yards away, several youth are standing in front of a vintage American car and passing some kind of object back and forth.
Standing on the highway, it’s fascinating to watch the parade of creaking, broken down, in some cases, prohibitively unsafe, vehicles that creep past us.

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 miraculous.

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 themselves.

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 uniform standard.

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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