The Presence of Classic Cars in Cuba

Airlines like jetBlue are offering daily round-trip flights to Havana for less than the cost of a fancy Valentine’s dinner. Nowadays, a quick jaunt to Cuba feels less like a fantasy and more like a realistic and affordable Caribbean getaway. And the long parade of classic cars in Cuba can make that vacation feel like a trip back in time.

“Mutation: It is the key to our evolution.”

Fidel imposed a ban on all foreign car imports not long after his rise to power during the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Then only a few years later, the United States imposed what would turn out to be the longest-running trade embargo in history. This tension presented Cuba with a unique problem. The country was now unable to bring in new foreign-made vehicles. Additionally, they began to suffer a shortage of parts and fuel for those already on the road.

In an interview with the New York Times, Ray Magliozzi of NPR’s Car Talk explained that the Cuban people initially faced this dilemma with resourcefulness. After “20 to 25 years of cannibalizing cars, they ran into ingenuity.” The classic-looking cars in Cuba are hardly original anymore. But they’ve become something more: a moving testament to the old saying “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Creative drivers “upgraded” classic motors by installing diesel engines. They routinely swap in re-purposed parts from old Soviet models as well as newer Hyundais. If that’s not available then they make do with bits and pieces from boats and industrial machinery. Many car owners have even had to manufacture their own stock parts from whatever scrap materials are on hand. That certainly shows an achievement in mechanics that looks more like contemporary art than simple welding.

“I’ve been to plenty of those old car parades, and you see enthusiasts there, but those are different folks. I don’t know what made the average Cuban who restores old cars get into it. But they are cut from different cloths from what you see in this country,” added Magliozzi.

“I guess what I’m trying to say, is that if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!”

For many Americans, the image of a Castro-free Cuba has been relegated to classic cinema and second-hand stories. But things are changing both economically and politically on the tiny island nation just 90 miles from Florida’s Key West.

Despite little brother Raúl officially running the show since 2008, Fidel Castro’s death this past November felt a little like the other shoe finally dropping. For many Cubans and Cuban-Americans it signaled a step toward greater personal liberties and improved diplomatic relations with the U.S. And quite possibly, the end of a very emotional roller coaster ride of empty promises and disappointment.

Interestingly, Raúl Castro has been slowly opening Cuba little by little to more Western influences since he’s been acting President. Significant milestones include allowing more privately-owned businesses, making international travel easier/less expensive and working towards normalizing relations with America.

Of course, one might fear these changes will destroy some of Cuba’s individuality. Who is to say that fleets of “almondrones,” or classic Fifties cars, may not end up tossed aside in favor of newer, smaller and more efficient imports?

“I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

While new and used auto imports are available for sale in Cuba, all retail is controlled by the state. And the state has tacked on some insane price tag markups. Very few people can or will shell out the necessary cash to bring one home since cars are listed at four and five times their normal asking price.

Combine that price gouging with Cuba’s poor transportation infrastructure. And add in the simple fact that tourists will continually pay good money for the experience of touring Cuban streets in a classic ride. The general consensus is the culture of vintage cars in Cuba is deeply rooted. Therefore it seems unlikely they’re going anywhere any time soon.

Perhaps what’s more worthy of concern is the current political climate in America. Travel and trade agreements are bound to change with the Trump administration planning to review U.S. relations with Cuba. Additionally, Raúl Castro claims he will not run for reelection in 2018. This uncertainty leaves a lot of room for speculation and anxiety. Although, many tour operation companies seem skeptical of a full reversal. They are generally hopeful that President Trump’s background in the hospitality market would factor into any decisions he and his advisers would make.

“Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.”

While any major changes would take some time to be carried out, there’s no harm in playing it safe. If Cuba’s on your bucket list, get moving. (Especially before those pesky American tourists suck up all its authenticity.) And if a vacation isn’t in your budget, there’s plenty of wallet-friendly ways to engage with the classic cars in Cuba right from the couch.

One option is The Discovery Channel’s 2015 docu-series Cuban Chrome, which explores the delightful and complex Cuban car culture in eight episodes. Another is the 2015 documentary Havana Motor Club, which presents a study of the passionate community of underground drag racers. It explores how their lives and dreams of restoring car racing to Cuba are affected by the country’s recent reforms. Both are available for purchase on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.

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