“How in the heck do they find parts for those cars!” marveled my dad as I showed him photos of the classic cars of Cuba. As a car guy, he was amazed that there were so many on the road. That was way back in 2003, after my first trip to the island. When I returned in December of 2015, I expected that many of those vintage cars would be put out to pasture since restrictions on car ownership had been relaxed, but I was happy that the roads were still full of cars that pre-date the revolution. It is a testament to American engineering and Cuban ingenuity that these cars from the 1950s are still in use today.
After Castro took power in 1959, the Communist Party restricted the ownership of cars, and shortly thereafter, the United States embargo took hold, banning imports of cars and auto parts to the island nation. For the last 57 years, Cubans have been salvaging parts and Frankensteining vehicles to keep them running. The resilience of the cars is a metaphor for the resiliency of the Cuban people.
Today, some cars in Havana have been restored to their original glory – with refurbished interiors and bright, shiny paint jobs – and are now rented out to tourists who cruise along the Malecon. In general, the old cars are the photogenic workhorses of the country, humbly serving as taxis and family cars, for the few people who are privileged enough to have a vehicle. In Cuba there are two cars per 100 people, compared to 50 per 100 in the USA. Someday, barges will arrive in Cuba dropping off new cars while scooping up the classic American cars to take back to the states to be sold to collectors.
The old-school American cars are, in a word, cool. They are built like a tank, with no regard for weight or fuel efficiency. Some of the cars have wings and fins, others are decorated liberally in chrome, and while some are painted a classy black, many others are Barbie Hot Wheels pink. Cruising along the Malecon or through the colonial streets of Trinidad, they are terribly photogenic. Today’s cars just aren’t cool anymore. We need to change that. Make America(n Cars) Great Again!
Pro Tip: you need to go to Cuba, like now.
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