In addition to the sun and the heat, two other important factors help attract Canadian visitors to Cuba in winter: the affordable price of the trip and, if they’re car buffs, those (mostly) beautiful old American cars!
But before you trudge through the slush to the airport, you need to know a few things about these cars. First of all, if you think you're going to find the retro car of your dreams, you should know that many of these old-timers are beautiful from far but far from beautiful. Few of them, if any, have been finished to meet the standards we’re used to here, if only because the Cuban working on them don’t have access to the same materials and equipment as we do.
Then there’s the price they’ll throw at you, certainly more than you’d hoped. And if that doesn’t stop you, there may be regulations preventing you from taking it out of the country. Truth is, you could find the equivalent in North America in better condition, with less fuss and for a much better price!
The fact is, these classic Americans criss-crossing the streets of Havana are a Cuban tourist attraction in their own right. Some visitor’s guide make the claim that there are over 60,000 old U.S.-made cars still in use in the country.
After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Fidel Castro wanted Cubans to stop buying American products, and that included cars. Most of the classic cars on the road thus date from the 1950s, and most of them are low-end or mid-range mass-market cars given the limited means of the average Cuban consumer at the time. Still, you will on occasion spot luxury models, especially Cadillacs, once owned by rich Americans living on the island in the pre-Revolution days.
Most of the old American cars you see in Cuba are… hybrids. No, there’s nothing electric about them (in fact you won’t find any electric-powered vehicles on the island). By hybrid, here we mean that many of these cars have adopted mechanics taken from another vehicle, often a diesel engine and a manual gearbox stripped from a Lada or other Soviet-era car, or perhaps a Japanese-made model.
It can be a bit of an effort for the imported powertrain to propel the heavy American body. Even from a distance, the giveaway with a diesel-engine Chevy, Ford or Plymouth is the gravely sound of the motor, or the big exhaust that, when the car is in motion, tends to spew out black smoke. These are not modern diesel engines…
Why diesels, you might ask? Because they cost less to run – I heard talk of a black-market diesel fuel that could be had for less than half the cost of “legal” diesel. Imagine that! Gasoline sells at around one convertible peso (CUC) per litre, but the average salary of Cubans is only 40 pesos per month. Roughly, that means a tank of gas is a month’s salary. It’s not hard to understand then why the owners of old American cars often convert them into taxis, those being very lucrative business in Cuba.
The majority of these “taxis” ply their trade in Havana and in the tourist region of Varadero.
In addition to American models, common sights include Peugeots (mainly rental cars), old Soviet-made cars (Lada, Zaporozhets, Volga and others derived from Fiats) and Chinese Geely models. You can also spot the occasional British-made car like a Ford Consul or Prefect or a Vauxhall Cresta.
These are all largely outnumbered by the Chevys, however, especially Tri-Fives (1955, 56 and 57), as well as Ford and Dodge models. Interspersed among them you’ll see Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, Mercurys and a few Ramblers, but the vast majority remain budget models from the mid-50s.
In among the beautiful actual convertibles, it’s not uncommon to come across coupes and sedans that have simply had their tops lopped off. This was possible with these old cars because their frames sit on a rigid chassis; you couldn’t do it with modern cars due to their self-supporting chassis.
Trucks and pickups
One surprise awaiting many Canadian visitors to Cuba, is the number of recent-vintage GMC Sierra trucks they might come across. These belong to Canadian companies partnering with Cubans to exploit the country’s mines and gas reserves. These companies often also use F-250 pickups and International and Freightliner road tractors. Many find themselves in the possession of Cubans once the Canadian companies are done with them.
If you’re heading to Cuba, make sure to bring your camera and keep it at the ready! If you have a few extra dollars to spend, why not spring for a little joyride in an old American? Just don’t expect that you’ll be riding in a pristine car!
Continue to the next page for more photos of some of the great classic American cars that dot the landscape of sunny, welcoming Cuba.