“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.
Why Are There So Many Classic Cars in Cuba?
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!
Cuban Classic Cars Photo Gallery
Pro Tip: you need to go to Cuba, like now.
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Those cars are looking pretty snappy. I love how it defies all logic.
It does defy all logic. Cars today last about 10 years before they are on the scrap heap!
like a time warp!
Yes it is, plus an alternate reality. It is a communist dystopia in many ways. It is one of the most intriguing places I’ve been.
I love your Pro Tip to get to Cuba now. I do hope I make it there before that boatload of shiny, new imports arrive. I am sure those classic cars were lots of fun to photograph. Nice job!
Thanks Alison. They are fun to photograph and it makes trying to take a photo back in the real world really disappointing. Modern cars are just so not interesting!
How very strange it must be to be in current time and see all of these old classics everywhere. Unique post, Jeff, and yes, very cool cars.
Everything about Cuba is odd, from the lack of stores, absence of signs and advertisements, the clothes the people wear. I am glad I got to go back because it won’t be this way forever.
I love your photos – not just the cars but the buildings in the background and the rocky roads 🙂 I’ve never made it to Cuba and I’m afraid it going to change dramatically once American money starts to flow in there.
It makes me sad all those cars are likely going to disappear into the hands of wealthy collectors. I’m old enough to actually remember those cars with their HUGE steering wheels …. well, maybe just huge to a 5-year-old 🙂
The near future of Cuba is unknown. I could see it opening up dramatically and lots of money flowing it, but at the same time not much has changed there in the last 55 years. Everyone is still paid about $10 a month and unless you have support from abroad, you can’t really buy much of anything. I’ll be interested to see how things go with Obama’s visit in the near future and what happens with the next US president. I think the fastest way to bring down the communist regime is to normalize relations.
Great photos, Jeff. I wish they did the same in Myanmar, but on my last trip to the country I rarely saw vintage cars — new Japanese and Korean cars ruled the streets.
I love these cars – the look of them especially. Not sure if I want to drive them. We took one of this classic taxi – boy oh boy, it was super hot inside – no air conditioning 😀
Great images and story, Jeff!
Agreed, those things do get super hot, but they can be nice and comfortable too. We rode about 5 hours in one (on a cool day) and the backseat was like a couch! Getting around Havana, those odd looking coco taxis were the best.
I know it’s Cuba, and I do love the concept of the cars on stage with the buildings co-mingling as a unit for your shot. But the cars bring back such memories–I knew the models and years of all those cars when I was growing up. I could easily ascertain the difference between, say, a 53 Chevy and a 54 Chevy. Love the second photo of the 53 (ahem) Chevy because I once traveled across the States in one exactly like it. I also like the shot of the red 56 Chev (I owned a 56 when I was hip and cool). I would LOVE to take your advice and go now. This post makes me sorry I changed my mind last summer. Were these taken with the Fuji?
You know, I thought about trying to label these cars. Had I known you were an expert, I would have contacted you. I am glad they bring back memories 🙂
I took most of them with the Fuji, a couple with the Canon.
I think I can name them all…except the first one…I’m pretty sure it’s an Oldsmobile, but the year…maybe 52 or 53. Not sure.
I thought about the Sony RX100III, so checked difference between it and the Fuji. The Sony has a number of things I prefer (24-70 zoom, 100% view in viewfinder are only two). But the Fuji has a very large sensor!! I’d have to see a pro’s comparison of photos to make a choice. To be honest, I’m loving my iPhone photos!!
Like Badfish above, I am slapping myself for giving up Cuba during my recent break to go to Colombia and Nicaragua instead. I did love my destinations, but I feel anxious about getting to Cuba before some of these treasures disappear. I also would have thought another vintage Cuban car post would not grab my attention, but you did a great job with the prose and the photos!
I’m very glad I went back another time. It hasn’t changed that much since 2003, but who knows where it is headed. Obama visits later this month and I could see things changing rapidly, or I could see another 12 years of the same.
Thank you for the kind words. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Great photos. We’re hoping to go this year as there are direct flights from Ecuador. There are some incredible air B and B properties though legally I don’t know how that works as there are whole houses available. I thought under communism one family wouldn’t own a whole house let alone be allowed to make a profit off it!
They allow families to rent out rooms nowadays. Here is a very useful link to getting a room in Havana. http://www.casasdecuba-en.net We stayed at Apartment Ivette in old Havana for $25 USD a night. It was excellent.
Jeff, this is a fabulous photo essay. I am so jealous that you went to Cuba – and twice! I really have to save up and go before it changes to much. Apparently I have some distant relatives in Cuba so it’s about time I tracked them down. You are so right about today’s cars not being cool any more – they may be comfortable, but they just don’t have that classy look and feel.
If you have family in Cuba, that would be so cool. Yeah, you’d love it. It is one of the unique countries in the world and as I’ve said in other comments, the near future is uncertain. I could see it being almost exactly the same in 10 years, and I could also see enormous changes. Don’t risk it! Go as soon as possible! It is only a 1 hour flight from Cancun so you can do Mexico and Cuba on the same trip.
Very very cool. I wanna go to Cuba!
Went to Cuba last September, loved the island and seeing all the cars was amazing! Really hope they don’t get sold and shipped to collectors.
I know. I hope they can keep running another 60 years.
Very interesting, thanks. I am eager to discover Cuba this summer.
You’ll love it. It is a great country. Be ready to take lots of photos!
These are just some classic photos Jeff ~ of the cars, the architecture, the people…the essence of Cuba right here. Beautiful posts.
Thank you very much.
Geez, this post makes me want to go to Cuba for the cars alone! I know nothing about cars but all your photos make me drool. 😛
It makes it hard to take photos back in the real world where the cars aran’t cool like this. It is like being in a movie set.
Very Interesting, I be like to go to cuba, huh
I Like That Car, Because It’s Very Cool
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