My grandfather once was the proud owner of a Chevrolet 1952 Bel Air. Sadly, by the time I was born, a few years after the collapse of the USSR, he was forced to let it go. Frustrated by the cost of ongoing repairs, frequent breakdowns and the hardship of finding spare replacement parts, my grandad sold it on, but throughout my childhood he spoke fondly of the great family adventures he and my grandma, along with their trio of daughters had, and the many happy memories built around it. He tells me it was a two-tone white and blue original, and although I've only seen it in black and white photos, I've pictured it lifelike so many times I can almost smell the paint.
Does his once beloved car still live on somewhere, noisily clanking along through Havana's bumpy roads? Has it been well-looked after, nicely preserved or beautifully restored to nearly immaculate condition, or does it lie abandoned somewhere, pieces torn apart and rusting under the sun... I'll never know, and tracing its destiny is near impossible for me (or anyone) nowadays. I like to dream it's had a new lease of life and now roams the street giving curious tourists a ride and tousling their hair as it speeds past the salty Malecon breeze.
Looking at the Cuba of today it might be hard to believe that before the Revolution of 1959, Cuba was one of the leading countries in the world in terms of car ownership, with more vehicles per capita than many other developed countries of the time. Cuba's love affair with the four-wheeled motors saw a great variety of machines roaming its streets and prior to the 1960 embargo, car imports blossomed.
Nowadays, an estimated 60,000 old American cars are still in use, with varying levels of condition, from rundown barely breathing engines that seem to be falling in places to severely modified and upgraded yank tanks who have resorted to desperate measures to keep themselves going. They run alongside Soviet-era Ladas, Polskis and more modern vehicles. But wherever they go, they sure steal the show.
Vintage? Classic? Shabby chic on wheels?
The world's fascination with Cuba as one the most picturesque rolling museums to be found in the 21st century is one that has entranced car lovers the world over, and one that has had tourists (including non-vintage-vehicle-loving individuals) lining up to get a ride on one of these beauties. In fact, taking a snap or selfie either leaning against, riding on the back of, or getting behind the wheel of one of these classic vehicles, has become quite the quintessential Cuba holiday memento. For further proof of this, you only need glance at the covers of fashion magazines like Vanity Fair's November 2015 issue, with Rihanna's Cuba visit being immortalised with a front-page image of her sultrily posing a glistening emerald-coloured yank tank.
So, yes, pretty much everyone and anyone that's been to (or knows anything about) Cuba is aware of the island's ongoing strive for the preservation of four-wheeled marvels dating back to the late 40s and 50s.
But how exactly do they manage to keep these old motors running? And how do they go about finding, replacing and repairing the frequent inevitable breakdowns when spare parts are direly scarce and the embargo put in place since the 1960s means no imports have been allowed for decades? This blog tells the story of the unsung heroes responsible for keeping these old machines going, machines that can no longer be classified as pure Chevrolet Bel Airs or Ford Fairlanes, but which, instead, through years of imposed transformation, have forcefully become hybrids of Cuban ingenuity and resourcefulness, during difficult times of hardship when making do with what little was available was the only option.
Make no mistake, the reason Cuba's classic cars are not a collector's item is the fact that interior-wise they're anything but authentic. Replacements are indeed original, but they are not legitimate for the most part and replacement parts are, in some cases, quite astonishing. Cuba's classic cars are, nowadays, a unique breed you will find nowhere else in the world. You'll have to keep on reading to learn why (and how).
Now, getting back to the story behind the Cuban yank tanks that are still very much alive and kicking today, let me introduce you to the members of one remarkable car club.
The CAAC - Club de Autos Clasicos y Antiguos "A lo Cubano"
OK. It has a rather long and unpronounceable (by most English-speakers' standards) name, so I'll simplify by referring to it as the Club throughout most of this article. Its full name would translate as Classic and Antique Cars' Club "A lo Cubano" (with the latter part of the name written in quotes loosely translating as "the Cuban way" - referring to the peculiar way they've been maintained).
Of course, not every owner of a classic car in Cuba belongs to this club; not for lack of wanting but because of the rigorous criteria their vehicle must go through to prove itself worthy of being part of the club. Not only must the classic car in question be in tip-top condition exterior-wise but it must run smoothly, have every fixture and fitting in full working order and provide comfortable rides. The cars that belong to this club are one-of-a-kind showpieces from top to bottom; each unique in its own peculiar way, each with a uniquely fascinating story and each carefully, painstakingly restored to the minimal detail. Needless to say; owners are enormously proud of their well-looked-after babies and jump through all kinds of impossible loops and hurdles to keep them going.
Jose Festary, a proud member and co-founder of the Club is the exceptional owner of the oldest car in the fleet, a 1930 Ford A, beautifully preserved thanks to the years of devoted dedication to keeping it in as much of a pristine state as possible (I dare say he doesn't just let anyone inside it). It's a true museum piece that's lived on for an astonishing 87 years, defying all odds in a country that's been of cut off supplies and original spare parts for nearly six decades...and counting.
Of great beauty is a Chevrolet Impala 1959, one of the last to make it to the island before car import from the U.S. completely shut down in 1960 with the imposing of the embargo. It's one of two Chevrolet Impalas 1959 that are Club members and it belongs to Ricardo Gaveran. Painted in bright purple and white, with upgraded tinted windows, it's a rare treat for the eyes.
Owner of a Chrysler Windsor 1957, Alberto Gutierrez Alonso, the Club's president explains the rare appeal of Cuba's classic cars, an appeal that's blossomed in more recent years thanks to the curious admiration of tourists, who are majorly responsible for giving these old cars the praise and place they deserve.
"We've grown up seeing them roll around as part of daily life. Sometimes we don't realise they are part of the country's heritage and even a family legacy with historic and cultural value."
Assistant co-founder and historian, Orlando A. Morales Pulido, one of the most knowledgeable individuals on Cuba's peculiar car history, agrees and tells Cibercuba during an interview that a new book is in the making, one telling "the true story of Cuba's automobiles", one made up of three volumes, 850 pages and including 3,000 photographs.
Before this new book sees the light and further enlightens the world, Morales continues giving us a glimpse into this select club's modus operandi.
Every first Sunday of the month, all Club members get together for a general meeting in which they catch up with each other, talk car repairs, upgrades, hard-to-find replacements and exchange personal anecdotes, much in the family members would. They also periodically arrange birthday parties, rides to the beach or the country, exhibitions, car parades and whatever else presents an opportunity to show off their treasured possessions.
Founded in Havana some 13 years ago, last year alone the "A lo Cubano" Club arranged 12 car rallies, as well competitions to find the most skilful driver, vintage costume contests and the crowning of "vehicle jewels", which is to mean the best preserved "maquinas" (machines). About five months ago; the Club updated its Facebook account with a post promoting its upcoming XII Rally of Regularity, which took place last 6th November and which saw quite a crowd of curious onlookers witness this peculiar vintage race.
"Our cars have featured in films, Cuban as well as foreign ones, TV series, TV programmes, documentaries... We were all part of the production of Fast and Furious' eighth movie instalment, which was partly filmed in Havana."
Women drivers have a place in the classic car world too
They say it's a man's world, especially where cars are concerned, yet women are not excluded from Cuba's most prestigious classic car club. They are a small minority (after all these cars are from the 40s and 50s, not widely known as an era were many women drove) but who knows, with the passage of time, more driven Cuban ladies may take to cherish old inherited vehicles and pay an active role in their maintenance.
For now, Sonia Mirabal counts as one proud female member and car owner at the Club. She got sucked into the world of vintage car passion led by her husband, a car fanatic and vintage vehicle enthusiast. She now takes part in the rallies as a co-pilot riding next to her husband and is a self-confessed racing lover, as she herself lets on:
"We've been attending these events for ten years now, maybe even longer. Here we're all like a big family."
Sonia also confesses her "great love" for a Ford 1938, a meticulously preserved wonder that conserves all its pieces in near-perfect, virtually intact shape. And her son is following in her mother's steps as she tells of his driving addiction and her firm belief he will continue the family tradition.
The Club's second female member is Perla Ojeda, a keen driver if there ever was one, who's been driving since she was 14 years old. She drives and thoroughly enjoys parading her Jeep Willys from 1947, which she has taken to all the rallies since she's started taking part three years ago. Speaking of the prejudice she has sometimes faced when it comes to the issue of women driving old machines, she explains:
"At the beginning, some were a bit sceptical, but the experience gained from attending year after year has allowed me to move up in this world."
Founded on 4th October 2003, with only 17 member vehicles at the time, the CAAC club now has grown and expanded to attract more and more classic car owners in Cuba. It now has a total of 120 car members, although throughout its lifetime around 450 cars have been part of the Club at some stage.
Hard times call for (not surprisingly) drastic measures
On why most of these cars are not considered collector's items by most international experts' standards, the explanation in Cuba's case is a very simple one - these old beauties have been subject to continuous transformation for survival, especially interior-wise. Most of the old-mobiles running in Cuba today have suffered less than desirable alterations due to lack of replacement parts, meaning many of these have very little original parts and fixtures left.
You can easily come across a 1955 Dodge running with a Mercedes diesel engine (to keep running costs down as gas is prohibitively expensive for most Cuban pockets) instead of a V-8 original, or come to the discovery that a rare, gleaming DeSoto (which to the naked eye looks like it has just left the factory in mint condition) has been refitted with a Hyundai radio, Ford seats and a Russian transmission.
Cuba's classic vehicles are creatures of incredible ingenuity and endurance that have evolved to survive in a harsh climate - all thanks to the resilience, resourcefulness, inventiveness and loving workmanship of its owners.
Up until 1st January 1959 (the day the Castro-led Revolution triumphed, causing an almost immediate halt to the import of U.S. cars), the most popular car sold in Cuba was the Chevrolet, which took 24 per cent of the sales market in the island. Ford was in second place with a 13 per cent share, while Buick followed in third place. That's the reason you'll find so many well-preserved Fords and Chevrolet in Cuban streets, because spare parts for these were more abundant and readily available, at least during a few good years.
As Morales recalls, during especially testing times of hardship and scarcity, they had to resort to the most extreme measures to keep them going:
"People are surprised by the state of conservation of the Club's vehicles, but not long ago we couldn't even get our hands on brake fluid and we had to make do with pouring soapy water down the tank."
When these large, majestic vehicles break down, what do their owners do? Well, in the words of Alberto Gutierrez, the maintenance of the cars entails a rather complex process that no single car owner can manage on their own:
"We try to help each other out as much as we can because there are many limitations when it comes to finding pieces and we are forced to innovate."
Due to the energy, money and hours invested in their upkeep, many owners at the Club describe their cars are priceless and outright refuse to sell them. The cost, for those contemplating selling their prized possessions oscillates between 30,000 and 50,000 CUC, according to estimations given by Gutierrez.
Whereas elsewhere around the world, vintage car clubs of this kind might demand high standards from members and demand cars are exclusively fitted or refurbished with original pieces, in Cuba it's near impossible for car owners to accommodate all those pre-requisites.
However, to be a part of this exceptional Cuban car club all member cars must be extremely good-looking; from boasting an intact bodywork to keeping the paintwork fresh and maintaining an immaculate appearance where the seats, steering wheel and dashboard are concerned. Regardless of their Frankenstein-like interiors or monstrous engine adaptations, they will be welcome as long as they're kept in good working order and pleasing aesthetic condition. That's precisely where the "A lo Cubano" part of the club's title comes into play; it doesn't matter what these cars have been through internally or how "Cuban ingenuity" has altered them - whatever it takes to keep them alive.
Unique Cuban flair - signature marks only found here
Paintwork in the vast majority of cases is also not original. This is not only due to the impossibility of acquiring purpose-made paint for these vehicles, but also given the spirited, creative side of Cubans who've left their inspiration run wild with new, sometimes daring colour combinations that much add to the unique character of these relics, reflecting the flamboyant character of their owners.
If you take a look at the spruced-up classic taxis lined up close to hotels or tourist attractions throughout Cuba, but mainly in and around Havana, you'll notice that roofless versions clearly outdo roofed ones. While many are indeed convertible originals, these have proved so popular among tourists that many owners have decided to alter their roofed mobiles to offer riders the liberating feeling of open skies, sun-kissed skin and hair tousled in the wind. It's all part of the Cuban nostalgia fantasy.
The fact remains that some non-convertibles have been tuned up (or rather, down) to accommodate visitors' love affair with roofless versions. What's to be taken from this example is the fact that, beyond the bare necessities of keeping all parts (original or not) in working order, Cuban owners are active artists keen to modify some aspects of these to reflect either their personality or the atmosphere in which these old-time beauties have silently evolved. Most have been purposefully transformed to a more eclectic tune while intactly preserving its most attractive and historical features. Much like Cuba, they are true masters of
Purebred or crossbreed, the Cuban vehicles of yesteryear are today's ultimate living timepieces, to the amazement of the world and the admiration of experts and amateurs alike.
How to best enjoy the Cuban classic cars of today
Ordinary Cubans don't really pay much attention to these so-called "almendrones" (nicknamed thus for their large, cumbersome, nut-like shape). They do admire some of the most stunning ones of course, but they're so used to seeing them out and about in their everyday lives that they don't tend to make a fuss over them. Beyond hiring one for special occasions like weddings, or quinceaneras, you won't have to queue up to hop on one of these for the most incredible ride of a lifetime.
Where to find them?
Old American cars are everywhere in Cuba, it's impossible to escape them. You'll find them in every condition, from barely breathing, badly beaten machines to suave-looking, freshly painted models that look as if they'd come out of a gangster film or from picking up a celebrity on the red carpet.
Many of the battered down, least aesthetically pleasing ones operate as collective cabs giving day-to-day Cubans a lift for a cheap fare. If you want the "ordinary Cuban" experience, there's nothing stopping you from hailing one of these and sharing your journey with a bunch of locals going about their daily business. You might find the experience authentic, eye-opening and incredibly rewarding.
For the refined, old-world Hollywood experience you're best off hiring one of the immaculate-looking vehicles purposefully parked outside hotels and main avenues. One of the most famous spots for finding one of the largest and most varied array of Cuban old-timers is in Prado, at Paseo de Marti. Read below to find out more about this colourful, car-laden hotspot.
The open-air museum facing the Capitolio, overlooking Gran Teatro de La Habana
One of the finest line-ups of old American yank tanks you'll ever witness (and probably the only one you'll ever see in your lifetime) lies just outside the Capitolio building, close to Gran Teatro de La Habana "Alicia Alonso", in the esplanade that spans the Capitolio all the way to Parque Central. The area, known as Paseo de Marti constitutes the world's most inspiring open-air car museum. Looking is free and if you want to go for a ride, you can agree a price with drives, with fares oscillating between $15 and $30 CUC depending on where or how far you want to go.
This colourful palette of brightly painted, squeaky clean vehicles of every imaginable shade under the sun, overwhelms and seduces tourists by the bucket-load. From Paris Hilton to Giselle Bundchen, Naomi Campbell and Madonna, no celebrity in Cuba has been able to resist a classic car selfie. Proudly gleaming against the sun against a dreamy tropical, colonial backgrond, many tourist feel instantly time-warped
One of the drivers and owners, Orlando Delgado explains:
"Most of the cars parked here or driven around this area date back to between 1949 and 1956 or 1957. This one here [he says pointing to a purple roofless beauty] is a Ford Fairlane from 1958. Then we have the Chevrolet family, or Chevys [the most abundant make in Cuba]. There's the odd Pontiac, Dodge and the one Chrysler.
"We have a Ford Thunderbird, one of the four in Cuba, of which there are only 40 in the world. And we have one Cadillac from 1950."
On any given day you can expect to find, anything from 25 to 50 classic cars spanning this area, with many more parked in other centric venues, facing hotels and tourist hotspots. But the absolute largest concentration of them in Havana is here, in Paseo de Marti.
Another classic car owner working as a taxi driver here, Yubel Tur, spoke about the condition of his car to Hispano Post:
"Paintwork is not factory original. Seat upholstery is not original, because is very difficult to preserve this kind of things throughout the years."
When asked about how they managed to keep them running and looking so pristine, he replied:
"Well it's quite difficult because everything is very expensive. So, we get the majority of things from other similar cars that have been sold for parts. We recover parts and pieces from other people's engines and we adapt them to ours. Other pieces are brought over from the U.S."
He ends the statement by proudly declaring:
"I've been offered $50,000 dollars for this car."
Reinforcing the idea, that tourists fall instantly in love with these masterfully restored time pieces, Orlando Delgado explains why most prefer it to other modes of transport in Havana:
"This kind of car has no competition because it's a one-of-a-kind in the world. For tourists to see something so exclusive, like these majestic cars are, with such a high life expectancy, it's unique. They can bring any modern car from anywhere else here and we're sure to beat it."
Elsewhere in the city, beyond Paseo de Marti and the nearby Parque Central, there's another long line of classic cars available for hire facing the Nacional Hotel and near the Malecon, outside hotels like the Melia Cohiba and the Habana Libre.
Hire them, rent them, drive them?
Most of the classic cars operating as private taxis in Cuba are available for short drive hires. They typically offer tourists along some of the city's most scenic spots for around 30 CUC. For a shorter trip you can expect 15 CUC to be the bare minimum fare, as it's highly unlikely they'll take you on for anything less than that (when you consider how much it costs them to keep these oldtimers alive, you will understand the fuss).
If you wanted to hire one of these vintage cars to have at your beck and call during your stay in Havana and drive you around everywhere you, you can do so too, at an expectedly higher cost to be negotiated with the driver.
For longer journeys or long-distance tours between cities - say you wanted to do a Havana-Ciefuegos-Trinidad-Havana, or any combination of eastern cities - you can agree a fee with the driver and you can expect it to cost anywhere from 180 CUC to around 300 CUC, depending on the distances travelled. To get the best value for your money it's best to try and get quotes from different drivers and compare, as well as to try and haggle a bit when you can.
There is one fantastic, privately-owned company called Old Car Tours offering a variety of chauffeured car tours from Havana to Varadero and Cayo Santa Maria. The best bit is that you can book one of these ahead of your travels through their online platform, where you can view the price of each journey separately and are also able to customise your trip. You can also add on extras like having an English tour guide for some of the city tours and you can browse every individual car available for hire. Their oldest car is a 1914 Ford, so you'll have quite a pick to choose from.
In recent years, more private companies have sprung up in Cuba to widen the competition, such as Nostalgie Car and History Trip, both of which offer American classic cars for hire.
There's also the state-owned Gran Car company in charge of running a selection of vintage cars for hire, but they often work out a bit more expensive than the privately-owned ones, and some don't look as beautiful as the privately-owned vehicles, which is quite understandable, given owners take enormous pride in the upkeep of their old machines, polished daily to perfection.
However, if your dream is renting one of these old rolling marvels to drive them yourself you best forget about it. Not only have some of these cars been so modified that they require the hands of an experienced owner but most don't have power steering or power brakes, meaning that unless you're accustomed to driving classic cars of have done so extensively before, you're unlikely to find the experience a pleasant one. And that goes without even mentioning the deteriorated state of Cuban roads!
But most of all, driving one might prove particularly difficulty, as their owners zealously guard them and; more often than not, only they know the many tricks involved in the manoeuvring of these. They are quite reluctant to let just anyone get their hands on the precious babies - I'm sure given the difficulties they face to keep them alive, you can understand.
Whichever option you use to enjoy Cuba's selection of classic cars, you're sure to be in for a bumpy, noisy, thrilling ride!
The not-so-lucky ones
By contrast to the shiny, perfectly polished and positively regal classic cars you'll find posing on leafy, tourist-trodden avenues, you'll find many rundown "almendrones" also roaming the streets, sometimes operating as cheap collective taxis for locals, others as private mode of transport for local families. The neglected appearance of many of these often leaves a lot to be desired. With the exterior paint flaking or cracking, peeling off in places and showing the bare metallic body underneath, cracks on the windscreen, windowless doors (lacking glass panels), missing door handles and a shattered dashboard, they might not be much to look at either from the inside or outside (insides tend to be worse). The state many of these while perhaps rescuable, would require an investment that many owners don't have.
This is something that the proud owners of perfectly preserved rolling gems know all too well and why the always say that despite making much more than the average Cuban's salary they're never going to be rich doing this. Weekly maintenance is an expensive reality for these drivers, one of whom said:
"You have to take them to the workshop every week, and the repairs aren't cheap."
But even when these ugly carcasses still miraculously in circulation do breakdown completely, or repairs become too costly for owners to bear, there might be the eager Cuban collector or repairman eager to buy it at a heavily reduced price, refurbish it and give it a new lease of life. After all, going back a little over a decade; these cars, even when fitted with an original V8 engine averaged only $500 and now the cheapest of the lot, even in the worst state of disrepair hardly goes for less than $10,000 - and that goes without considering the heavy investment needed to put it back in good shape.
A source from Old Car Tours recently revealed that the best preserved convertible in Havana, one ridden by celebrities like Paris Hilton, Naomi Campbell and Beyonce, had caught the eye of a potential local buyer and it was to fetch $50,000. So, keeping these old marvels, however dilapidated they might be, could prove a good business indeed, especially for cash-stripped Cubans who can no longer afford to maintain them.
Yet, any foreign buyer keen to get their hands on a Cuban original, must either be prepared to reside in the island or keep it as a holiday car to enjoy in Cuba only, as by government decree, no antique car is allowed to be taken outside the country. A measure most of the classic car drivers firmly agree with, declaring it not only fair, but necessary. It's part of the heritage, the culture and they are a living testament of local character and Cuban resilience.
The future (and challenges) of Cuba's classic cars
After more than five decades of soldiering on through Cuban streets, more and more classic cars are circulation than ever. Many rusty vehicles have been spruced up and taken out of workshops to either entice tourists to a ride and earn a living or out of sheer necessity as Cuba's transport system continues to deteriorate. That's not to say challenges don't remain for classic car owners who have to juggle between the rising price of fuel, replacing parts
As the U.S. relaxed rules on imports in more recent years (although we don't know what spin Trump will put on this provisional detente) some experts believe that the influx of newer, modern cars will outnumber old classics, but while this might be true, it won't mean the existing 60,000 American yank tanks will be put away to sleep in some dusty workshop. Not now that more visitors than ever are fascinated by the sight of these restored relics in full functioning ability.
Tourism has gone a long way to fuelling and reviving the old classic car culture, prompting many owners with neglected vehicles to do their best to spruce them up and get back in the game:
"Many tourists come to see how Cuban people have managed to maintain cars that are over half-a-century old, with some having already reached the century mark."
While many experts disregard Cuban as non-collectibles due to the many transformations the majority of these have undergone out of sheer necessity, many owners keep original V-8 engines safeguarded, ready to put them back in place when they want to return the car to full original specification, or as close to it as they can get.
A dying breed?
The trouble is and remains with the costly upkeep of the classic cars, especially in comparison to modern vehicles. Yet, modern cars sold by the government are at sky-rocketing high prices, out of the reach of the vast majority of the Cuban population and with no sign of these being lowered, it doesn't look likely that classic car owners will stow away their cherished old-timers.
But even if (and when) modern cars become readily available for average Cubans, no one in the country wants to see "almendrones" go. They might be noisy, cumbersome, environmentally unfriendly, badly polluting and yes, very, very costly to repair, but Cubans are nothing if old romantics and they know the true value of priceless items.
If anything, when it comes to the future of classic cars in Cuba, or the near future at least, I'd say that in the current times and with the spotlight placed on the rarity of these unique gems, the automotive capsule is here to stay. We don't know about dying, but a unique breed they indeed are. And they're not going anywhere soon.