Think Cuba, chances are cigars and cars will come to mind. It might be cliché, but both are true. Cuba’s been called a ‘Jurassic Park for cars’, and there’s truth in that. Classic American cars grace every piece of tourist literature and travel story about Cuba, but I didn’t actually believe there’d be so many 1950s, 60s and 70s cars driving around. They are everywhere and in all sorts of conditions.
In Havana, some of the best preserved and renovated cars chauffeur tourists along the Malecón and into Havana Vieja. Elsewhere in Havana, and every other town in Cuba, there are old American cars that have been patched up, rebuilt and fitted with specially adapted Lada engines imported from Russia. I doubt there’s a classic car left that isn’t made up of several different cars.
We ended up taking classic cars on several different trips. You get a little thrill every time you step inside one, but it would be hard to describe the majority of these workhorses as comfortable. Most have mismatched seats long bereft of functional springs, windows that don’t work and little in the way of suspension. It’s not unusual to see them by the side of the road awaiting repair.
Five hours squeezed with two other people into the front seat of a 1970s Dodge was enough to convince me to never do it again.
In a country where cars and car ownership are rare, people take great pride in their vehicles, and have used enormous ingenuity to keep them on the road. In many ways, they’re an ironic yet iconic symbol of Cuba’s defiance in the face of hostility from the United States.
Given the difficulty of buying new parts, it’s a miracle that so many cars continue to be roadworthy. A casa owner we stayed with said he’d travelled 80km to a small town to find spare parts for his car engine; when he got there he wasn’t able to strike a deal with the owner and went away empty-handed. A daily occurrence in Cuba.
For sentimental reasons we were looking for a 1958 Studebaker. Try as we might though, we couldn’t find one anywhere. We searched and asked wherever we went, but although we found Fords, Chevrolets, Buicks and Dodges from the 1950s, and American ‘muscle cars’ from the 1960s and 70s, a 1958 Studebaker wasn’t to be found anywhere on the island.
Amidst the many classic American cars, Ladas, motorbikes, cycles and various horse-drawn transport, we did see a handful of Japanese, Korean, French and German cars, none especially new. Once the US embargo ends they’ll be more cars, lots more, clogging up Cuba’s highways.
Most of all there’ll be a new batch of American cars on the streets. In another one of those ironies in which Cuba seems to specialise, it’s likely that Cuba’s classic American cars will be heading the other way, back to the United States as vintage collectables.