All over the world, seeing a classic car in everyday traffic is a pretty rare occurrence. If you however see such a vehicle, it will almost certainly be a perfectly restored example, and you’d often see it taking part in a classic car rally or a car show. However, there is a country where seeing classic cars as everyday transport is an inevitable experience. In fact, with an estimate of more than 80,000 classic cars on the road, old iron dominates the streets. Where is this classic car heaven, you may ask? And the answer is quite simple. Just 90 miles south of Miami there is an island with the perfect tropical climate, best cigars, fantastic music, and beautiful people. It is called Cuba, and it’s one of the last communist countries in the world, filled with glorious American classic cars. So, let’s introduce you to the vibrant Cuban automotive landscape.
In order to fully understand Cuban car culture, we must take you back to the 1940s and 1950s when Cuba was a playground for wealthy Americans. Perfect beaches and grand hotels attracted tourists, as well as investors, and very soon Cuba became somewhat of a tropical Las Vegas. Of course, with a strong American influence came the US dollar and with the US dollar came all the American cars. Imagine big and shiny Cadillacs, Lincolns, and Chryslers cruising down the Cuban boulevards, overlooking the ocean and parking in front of luxurious mansions, and that was the Cuba of the era.
Cubans adopted car culture with great enthusiasm and Havana was not only soon flooded with all kinds of cars, but Cuba organized successful Grand Prix races which attracted famous racers of the period like Juan Manuel Fangio. For rich Americans and Cubans, it looked like the party would never end, but then in 1959, everything changed.
Cuban revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro overthrowed the dictator Batista and turned Cuba into a communist country, cutting all ties with the United States. Big hotels were closed, rich Americans expelled, big mansions nationalized and luxury cars seized. In a very short period of time, Cuba became a tropical version of the Soviet Union. Despite the radical change in politics, cars were the only reminder of Cuba’s capitalist past, and shiny tailfins of American land yachts still cruised through its gloomy political reality.
The new Cuban government imposed a set of rules which really affected car owners. First, all forms of motor racing were banned and people caught racing would have been severely punished. Second, to own a car you needed a special permit issued by state officials. You could not buy a new vehicle, and you could only receive a car from the government if you had a permit. People who owned cars before the revolution were allowed to keep them and even if somebody offered them money, they weren’t permitted to sell them. That way, cars became a family heirloom and younger drivers inherited old Buicks and Chevrolets.
This very strict and pretty discriminating set of rules froze Cuban car culture in the 1950s. As time inevitably passed, Cuban government realized that the country was in desperate need of new vehicles and turned to the Soviet Union for Ladas, Moskvitch and other East European models. Castro’s administration even imported an Alfa Romeo Berlina in the mid-1970s.
Even though the state was importing politically correct Russian vehicles, Cuban car enthusiasts never forgot the glorious American steel with big chrome bumpers and sexy styling. Compared to an ordinary Lada from the early 1980s, an average US limousine looked not only better, but it was more powerful and comfortable, even at being 30 years old.
Being stuck with classic American cars in a communist country under American economic and political embargo really put Cuban car enthusiasts to the test. The spare parts and tools were not available and shopping power of an average Cuban car owner was extremely limited. That is why Cubans developed ingenious ways to keep the cars running for decades without importing a single new spare part.
They did whatever they could to keep their US land yachts on Cuban roads and make them roadworthy. These talented Cuban craftsmen started producing various parts in small metal shops across the country, and some car owners even went so far that they produced homemade motor oil or brake fluid!
Over the years, original engines wore out beyond repair and Cubans started putting whatever they could find, so today, it is not unusual to see a big Cadillac limousine powered by a Russian diesel truck engine. Everything was allowed as long as it kept the car running. Of course, that kind of maintenance really took its toll on the looks and originality of the majority of Cuban classic cars, and once shiny and luxurious sedans and convertibles became rolling shells which barely resembled the original designs.
As the global car industry moved forward and chrome beauties were replaced by more aerodynamic and fuel efficient cars in the rest of the world, classic US iron started turning out into one of the strongest symbols of Cuba and its urban landscape. Tourists from all over the world enjoyed sightseeing from the back of an Oldsmobile convertible under warm Caribbean sun. Pretty soon, riding in a classic American car became one of Cuba`s main tourist attractions.
In desperate need of a foreign currency, Cuban government allowed private car owners to work as taxi drivers as long as they had a presentable and well-preserved car. That is why you can see only the best looking convertibles and sedans waiting for tourists in the center of Havana and other cities. However, if you want to see the real Cuban cars you should go to the back streets and see beaten up 70-year-old machines which somehow still run.
In the early 2000s, the Cuban state started importing modern European, Japanese, Korean and even Chinese vehicles, which slowly replaced the classic American cars. Since there is no more Soviet Union and no more Lada or Moskvitch, hotels, tourist agencies, and rare privileged Cubans now drive Peugeots, Citroens or Kias.
In 2014, Cuban government brought a new set of laws regarding car ownership, allowing anybody to become a proud owner of a motor vehicle. After 55 years, an average Cuban could freely own a car, without any limitations. However, there is a catch. The new car market in Cuba is currently very limited, and only a few dealerships exist. The other problem is the cost of the vehicle. Due to extremely high import duties, new vehicles cost three or four times more than the price in the rest of the world, making the price tag of an ordinary family sedan around $85,000, an astronomical price in any country especially in Cuba where average monthly earnings are around $20. That is why new and shiny vehicles are owned almost exclusively by hotels and foreigners.
Since the Cuban car culture was frozen in the fifties for so long, automotive archaeologists tracked down some remarkable, very rare and very valuable classic cars. The best known story is about legendary and extremely sought after Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing which has been found abandoned in Cuban jungle. There are not one, but two such models on the island and despite every effort by the collectors to buy one of those cars, exporting is prohibited and both cars are still in Cuba, slowly rotting away. Just for your information, Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing was made in just 1400 examples and the current market price for a perfect one is over 1 million dollars.
The internet is something that most of us take for granted, but it is very scarce in Cuba and its average citizen has no internet access. The modern car community is globally connected and a wealth of information is easy to come by. However, that is not the case in Cuba and even without the advantages of modern communication technology, Cubans managed to get organized into car clubs dedicated to preserving their automobile heritage. One of the more interesting clubs is Porsche Club of Cuba which collects information about classic Porsches on the island.
You may think that every Cuban is a potentially rich man if they eventually decide to sell their cars to foreign collectors, since the prices of classic cars skyrocketed in recent years. But you are probably wrong. The thing is, apart from being illegal to sell cars abroad, a majority of Cuban cars are highly modified and non-original. If something looks like, for example, a classic 1957 Chevrolet, it doesn’t mean that it has original V8 engine, drivetrain, suspension and rest of the components.
The imperative in classic car world is originality, and Cuban cars unfortunately don’t have it. There are some extremely valuable examples like the Mercedes 300 SL and there are dozens, highly collectible, and perfectly preserved vehicles on the island but the rest is pretty beaten up and modified beyond repair. That is why a big majority of Cuban classic car owners will not cash in, if or when exporting cars from Cuba becomes legal.
Cuban government should never allow exporting classic cars. From this perspective, big and heavy American cruisers in various states of decay are not only silent witnesses of one turbulent era in the world’s history and politics, but also a special kind of Cuban national treasure. There is no other place on the planet which has so many classic cars roaming through its streets and it makes visiting Cuba an unbelievable experience. Not only for the sheer beauty of the island, perfect climate, and interesting colonial architecture but for the chance to see La Habana looking the same way as it was 50 or 60 years ago with period correct cars as perfect street décor. That is something that you can’t do anywhere else and an essential part of Cuba`s appeal as a tourist destination, especially if you are a car enthusiast who’s dying for a sunset ride in the back of a 1955 Mercury convertible near the ocean, with a Cuban cigar in your hand and Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack blasting from the old radio…