20 December 2011

The Cars of Cuba: Photos and stories from Havana


Collector Bob Ames joins one of the first authorized American tours of Cuba, armed with a camera and free sparkplugs for dedicated drivers of ‘40s and ‘50s “Detroit Iron”

Eight Things You Didn’t Know about Cuba

  1. Ladas are worse than the Fiat 124 sedans they copied.
  2. Many of the older American cars are now running on Soviet or Chinese diesel engines, often from tractors.
  3. There is a club for car enthusiasts – The Fangio Club – and the clubhouse is reputed to be near where Cuban rebels kidnapped the five-time F1 champion in 1958. He was later released, and remained friendly with his captors. The incident was dramatized in the 1999 Argentine film “Operation Fangio.”
  4. More Cadillacs were sold in Cuba, per capita, than in any other country – including the U.S.
  5. Hemingway’s last car in Cuba was a 1955 Chrysler New Yorker – a convertible, of course – and it still exists.
  6. Cuba has an eight-lane motorway the length of the 800-mile island. It has more carts drawn by burros on it than cars – and more potholes than burros, as well.
  7. If classic Havana buildings haven’t been restored, you’d be well advised not to walk to close to them, as pieces can fall off at any time.
  8. Coca-Cola may still be banned, but there is a local equivalent. Otherwise how could you have a Cuba Libra?

HAVANA, Cuba – The American trade embargo with Cuba in 1960 had the effect of instantly separating thousands of 1940s and 1950s Detroit-built cars from their spare parts supply. Amazingly, many are still on the road more than 50 years later, cherished by owners who have patched them up with Russian and Chinese tractor parts.

While the subject of Cuba still has the same effect on Congress as a full moon on a werewolf, at least American tourists are once again able to visit this 40,000 square-mile Caribbean paradise. It’s absurdly close to the U.S. mainland – only 90 miles from Miami.  

In December, my wife Kathleen and I took one of the first People to People tours of Cuba, authorized by the U.S. government. A large factor in our decision to join this National Geographic-led group of 24 tourists was that leader Chris Baker wrote the coffee table tome, “Cuba Classics – a celebration of vintage American automobiles.” Baker also authored “Mi Moto Fidel,” a chronicle of his 7,000-mile tour of Cuba on a BMW R100GS Paris-Dakar motorcycle.

As a lifelong fan of 1950s American cars, I’ve long wanted to view these much-publicized “Cuban classics.” I can report that most of what you’ve seen in print is true. The streets of Havana reminded me of my high school parking lot …

Since the American trade embargo began in 1960, there have been no U.S.-made cars exported to what was one of Detroit’s most enthusiastic customers. GM’s presence was huge, and even today Cadillacs, Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets outnumber Ford and Chrysler products four to one on the island.

Convertibles were always popular, thanks to year-round tropical weather. The place for posing with your ride is hard to miss in Havana. The squares around Capitolio, a flattering copy of Washington’s Capitol building, are lined with 50-year-old American cars during daylight hours. Most are taxis looking for fares, and they don’t leave on their semi-fixed routes until every seat is filled. Others, however, are available for tourist hire by the hour or day. I have a particular 1958 Edsel convertible confirmed for my next visit.

If you want to be a hero and meet Cuban “car guys,” bring spark plugs. The only problem I had dispensing this capitalist largesse was convincing the recipients they were a gift. Other, more transportable ice-breakers are Ferrari and Porsche decals. These seem to be particularly popular with Buick and Lada owners.

There are some new cars, but the rental fleet Geeleys in the parking lot of the hotel we stayed in near Pinar del Rio, a couple of hours west of Havana, were not encouraging. I wish all the best to Warren Buffet and this emerging Chinese manufacturer, but poorly primed paint was peeling off these imports from Cuba’s No. 1 trading partner. Perhaps it’s time to sell my Berkshire Hathaway stock.

Back in Havana, there is a fascinating car museum on the Calle Officios, a historic pedestrian street lined with lovely restored 18th century buildings. One of these houses Museo del Auto Antiquo, which features Cadillacs, Rolls Royce, Packards and other reminders of the country’s splendid, decadent past. The machines on display are generally untouched originals, although Cuba’s oldest car, a 1908 Cadillac, was away for restoration.

Nearby is a street market in Plaza de Armes where I scored an original Cuban yellow or “particular” license plate for my collection. There are plastic fakes in all the souvenir shops, while the genuine variety are riveted onto cars that are rarely scrapped, and until recently could not be legally sold.

Here’s a bit of lore for automobilia collectors: Cuban license plates come in three basic colors; yellow for privately owned vehicles, red for rental cars and blue for the many official or government-owned cars. We saw a handful of Mercedes and BMWs – all with blue license plates.

Given the age of Cuba’s passenger car fleet, and the fact that most have been cut off from factory support for 50 years, mechanical ingenuity is highly developed. I saw pistons made on a belt-driven lathe and was told of a man who can make bumpers for your ’58 Caddy – out of tin.

Great cigars, cheap rum concoctions, cool jazz in the nightspots and collector cars actually being used. There are no trailer queens in Cuba. I can’t wait to go back.


41 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Maria Burbank, CA USA April 2, 2013 at 21:45
    I just bought a vintage yellow Particular license plate from a friend! It's in great condition. I'm Cuban-born, raised in the States since the late 60's, so this is very meaningful to me. I want to learn more about the old vintage cars that still remain in my homeland. ;)
  • 2
    Archie1954 Vancouver December 24, 2014 at 13:22
    The ingenuity of the Cubans is legendary and honed to perfection since the 1960s. These cars are absolutely amazing. I would visit the island simply to see them on the streets. It would be like time travelling.
  • 3
    Bill Jacob Louisville, Kentucky December 24, 2014 at 13:26
    Like stepping back in time, I am surprised by how many 4 door cars were shipped to the island.
  • 4
    Frank Wichita, Ks December 24, 2014 at 13:29
    How was this guy able to give away spark plugs? I recently saw on a CBS-Sixty Minutes program where some music students were not allowed to accept any sheet music or 'reeds' for their instruments. Why the double standard?
  • 5
    jim Mill Creek, Wa December 24, 2014 at 13:44
    Too bad Americans don't care about American made cars as much as the Cuban people.Maybe then there would be a few less Japanese, Korean,German,Swedish,and soon, unbelievably, Chinese cars on our roads and Detroit wouldn't be a ghost town
  • 6
    Martin fee United States December 24, 2014 at 14:32
    While I understand the car aspect but this is not historic, it is repulsive. King Obama just legitimized one of the most repressive and murderous regimes in the western hemisphere. This should not be supported in any fashion, the tens of thousands murdered, tortured, and imprisoned for the crime of disagreeing with the party demands we do not accept this.
  • 7
    Jeff Chillicothe, Il December 24, 2014 at 15:09
    Someday auto tourism WILL be a reality in Cuba. Enjoyed the article and amazing photos. Wish I had been with you!
  • 8
    Ed Florida December 24, 2014 at 15:41
    With the exception of the convertibles pictured the majority are 4 door post car and most likely have been used for Taxi's. As Taxi's many may have had the original engines replaced with smalled gas saving engines. I do not believe there is a gold mine of classic cars in Cuba. Unless 4 door posts are the new in thing...
  • 9
    Fran Endwell USA December 24, 2014 at 15:42
    I find it very cool to look at the pictures, if only the cars could talk, I am sure they would tell a different story that the BO media is telling US sheeple. All of a sudden BO says Cuba is great and the USA sheep can forget everything!
  • 10
    george Austin, tx December 24, 2014 at 16:10
    The article that contains "eight things you did not know about Cuba, item 8 should be "Cuba Libre" not libra......
  • 11
    george austin, Tx December 24, 2014 at 16:19
    Amigo, it's "Cuba Libre", with an 'e'.
  • 12
    Jon Canada December 24, 2014 at 16:50
    I was in Cuba in January ( I'm a Canadian) we booked a tour and a beautiful Blue 55 Chevy Sedan rolled up. Rode smooth but did not sound like a Stovebolt 6. The driver opened the hood and it had a Toyota diesel 4 cylinder ! Great engineering. Jon
  • 13
    Tom Tompkins Beaverton, Oregon USA December 24, 2014 at 16:54
    Fun read and fantastic photos. Two unique 58 Oldsmobile wagons but not one Crosley. Great tattle!
  • 14
    Dave North Carolina December 24, 2014 at 18:20
    Given most US auto spare parts seem to come from Asia or Mexico why does Cuba have a hard time getting them? The embargo is only with the US isn't it?
  • 15
    Dave North Carolina December 24, 2014 at 18:21
    Given most US auto spare parts seem to come from Asia or Mexico why does Cuba have a hard time getting them? The embargo is only with the US isn't it?
  • 16
    David Beach, Oregon United States December 24, 2014 at 19:15
    I bought the coffee table book recently in anticipation of my people-to-people trip in February 2015. Thanks for the tip on spark plugs Bob..
  • 17
    craig Scottsdale December 24, 2014 at 10:17
    Having spent 10 days in Cuba earlier this year, I had plenty of time to see these cars up close. While they look great in photos, they are hardly collectible. Due to 50 years of embargo, there have been no parts for decades. Most of these cars are used as taxi cabs and have Russian diesel engines. Many have been "converted" to convertible tops by crudely hacking off the hardtop. Body parts and other components have been cobbled together from whatever resources the Cubans could find. These cars, at best, are project cars that are unlikely to match the quality of the average American backyard rust bucket.
  • 18
    Mike Forestburg SD December 24, 2014 at 10:49
    Careful about the motivation of the Obama administration. They could be licking their lips to bring cash for clunkers back and crush all the classics in Cuba?? Hope not.
  • 19
    Bob Fratkin Washington, DC December 24, 2014 at 22:50
    The best article you have ever featured! Thanks for sharing. Amazing how good most of these cars look 60 years later. Love the Edsel convertible!
  • 20
    Ruben NM.88203 December 24, 2014 at 23:01
    I read that Classic Owner's in Cuba have have to rebuilt there parts them self can't order parts out of Cuba. Hope it all change for the good. I know classic owners can't wait.....Cool Car's and Harley Davison's....Yeah!
  • 21
    Greg Mundy Maryland December 24, 2014 at 11:32
    When we start trade with Cuba, the owners of those old cars are going to Mecum and Barret- Jackson and become filthy rich.
  • 22
    Luis Huntsville, AL December 24, 2014 at 11:53
    I too was born in Cuba and a classic car restorer/collector now mostly dealing in LBCs. It's nice to see the old cars but what people need to realize and the author hints to is that these old cars are classic on the surface. Most moving parts have been replaced over the last 60 years to keep them serving as basic transportation and not collector cars. Also consider that Cuba is a tropical island with the salt air and humidity that goes along with it. These cars will require a great deal of work and money to be brought back to collector condition for those contemplating it.
  • 23
    rollie demay usa December 24, 2014 at 11:55
    If vintage autos are ever allowed to be sold to Americans, only the rich and connected will get them. I can see a "Limited Liability Company" logo on the titles now.
  • 24
    Charlie Bloomington, IN December 24, 2014 at 11:57
    What type of sparkplugs did you take? Meaning, for what type of car/engine would be most popular or useful to the Cuban '"Car Guys"? What about other small parts (that can fit in a suitcase) like distributor parts, points, carb jets, or other hard to find, but easy to transport parts? Thanks for your article. I hope to visit and do a car tour also. Thanks.
  • 25
    Steve Hendersonville North Carolina December 24, 2014 at 12:00
    I heard that a lot of these American cars have Russian diesel engines in them. This is something one of my relatives told me when he was visiting Cuba about for five years ago and had a ride in a American car taxi
  • 26
    Jeremiah Blakley Fort Leavenworth, Kansas December 24, 2014 at 12:21
    A great documentary on the subject of classic Cuban cars is "Yank Tanks" it may still be available on Amazon, I saw it on Netflix but I believe it is gone now.
  • 27
    brett seattle December 24, 2014 at 12:27
    sounds great lets make friends with a communist dictator,so we can maybe buy some four door rust buckets that aren't worth there weight in scrap.More koolaid please
  • 28
    Howard Brock New ork December 24, 2014 at 12:44
    I just came back from Cuba and I was there when the announcement was made and all I could think of was wait until the American collectors get here. I saw an absolutely mint 1959 Buick LeSabre convertible parked next to a mint 1958 Olds 98 convertible!
  • 29
    Bob Zimmerman Seattle December 24, 2014 at 12:44
    What is meant by the term "Particular" in reference to Cuban license plates?
  • 30
    Mike Davis Michigan December 25, 2014 at 13:23
    Ames errs in writing that no US cars since 1960 models have been imported to Cuba. The director of the National Automotive Museum in Havana wrote me several years ago that the post-1960 models in his collection came from foreign embassies, which were allowed to import whatever makes they wanted. Surely some of these were US type vehicles, even if imported from Canada legally. Before the embargo, it is even possible that some 1961 models were imported. BTW, Before Castro, GM had an assembly plant in Havana for cars distributed in the Caribbean. Ford may have had one also.
  • 31
    Jim LoScalzo Shoreham N.Y. December 25, 2014 at 09:13
    Would love to get over there to buy old motorcycles.. Always looking and hunting find one call me..
  • 32
    Car Collector Chronicles SE Wisconsin December 25, 2014 at 10:42
    Correct me if I am wrong, but the "supposed" lift of travel restrictions to Cuba is just that, supposed. One may not "just hop on a flight out of Miami any day of the week of their choosing. Nor may one just go to be going. It still has to be with an "educational tour." That being so, what has changed?
  • 33
    William A Conger United States December 26, 2014 at 07:08
    I and a few other students from the University of Dayton were among the last US citizens to visit Cuba. We flew R/T Cuban Airlines ($90) over the Easter wknd (spring break) in 1960. All six or seven of us jumped into a 1956 Caddy limousine at the airport, toured a rum factory (hic) and enjoyed the evening show and spending the night at the Havana Riviera Hotel. Castro had recently taken over the govt and there were gun emplacements on about every corner. I still have a couple of photos and the silkscreen print of the cathedral that one of our fine art students made and gave to each of us from that trip that eventually got married. What a trip and a great experience! Can't wait to go back. BTW - currently own and drive a collectible 1963 Ford Thunderbird coupe plus a '95 XJS convertible and an '05 X-type Jaguars.
  • 34
    Robert Conciatori nyc ny December 26, 2014 at 20:20
    I love old cars too but any local 7-11 cruise in gathering has much higher standards then the clapped out, Russian-engine hulks wheezing along in Cuba. My wife of 37 years was born in Cuba and had to flee the the oppression and butchery of the revolution. People in her own family were murdered by Castro and his henchmen. On your next tour, please remember between sips of your Cuba Libre that the Cuban communists have murdered more people per capita than than the Nazis and have imprisoned more people per capita than Stalin did at the height of his terror. Going on an old car tour sounds great, but every Yankee dollar you spend there goes towards supporting the bloody regime which continues to enslave its own people. I sleep well at night. How about you?
  • 35
    Ken Mesa, AZ December 26, 2014 at 20:55
    I have roamed the island with a local. He showed me the Cuba that foreign visitors seldom see. Two hours before our return flight left we were shown car storage yard where cars are sold by an agency of the government. There were two '55 and '56 T-Birds, asking price was $1,500 USD and a '75 Chevy Convertible for $1200. By the time I was able to return these cars had been sold.
  • 36
    Chris Carson City, Nevada December 28, 2014 at 18:23
    I saw a special on t.v. a while back about the American cars in Cuba. One fellow used dish washing soap for brake fluid! Ingenious! There were illegal shops in back alleys to repair these cars. These guys can make anything. Very interesting. I'm going over there as soon as possible.
  • 37
    Roger Houston, Tx December 29, 2014 at 15:58
    Since most of the engines are non-US made, what type spark plugs did you take/do people need? I am headed back to Cuba next year and would like to take some spark plugs with me. Great way to make conversation with the locals and to give back.
  • 38
    Jim Gray United States December 29, 2014 at 09:11
    I enjoyed the article on 'The Cars Of Cuba' and hope to visit the island some day soon. A few corrections...Havana is actually around 230 miles from Miami; not 90 miles (that's how far it is from Havana to Key West) and Warren Buffett (that's Buffett with two 'tt's) is doing his best when it comes to Cuba. Thanks for the tips on 'gift giving' Best wishes, Jim
  • 39
    Ed Arcuri Colorado December 29, 2014 at 21:24
    Sedans have B pillars, not posts. Coupes also have B pillars unless they are convertible coupes or hardtop convertible coupes. Terms such as "post sedan" are redundant to the extent that they are not malapropisms.
  • 40
    Don Buckley California December 30, 2014 at 21:46
    As an owner of a '56 Chevy for the past 30 years, I just love to hear stories like this. Makes me want to go out in the garage and work on it! Enjoyed the reading!
  • 41
    Dominic gonzales CAlifornia October 31, 2016 at 03:43
    I have 1940 Chevy 4 special deluxe and had some do the front seat and didn't do a good job on it and looking to buy original front and or back seat to does anybody where I can o buy them

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