Cuba – The Cars

One of the first things an American learns about Cuba is they have a lot of old cars there. It’s easy to figure a lot of it is hype. Not so. 

Fifties-era American cars are everywhere.

Fords, Chevys, Oldsmobiles, Buicks, all pre-1960 models; along with a sprinkling of Russian Ladas, Peugeots, Kias,Toyotas, and even a Volkswagen or two. 

And one Blue Bird school bus from the early Seventies. I have no idea how that got there.

You can walk to just about any corner in Havana and take picture after picture of classic cars cruising through the intersection. Rows of old cars are also parked near El Parque de la Fraternidad (Fraternity Park), where the drivers will let you sit in one for a photo, in exchange for a few pesos. It’s customary to tip the driver of any car you wish to photograph.

The cars are also in various degrees of wear. Some look every minute of their sixty-ish years (which does little to diminish their charm).

Others are immaculate. On the outside, at least. On the inside, they can be a Frankenstein-ian conglomeration of original, remanufactured, and jury-rigged parts. Many have been converted to run on diesel, which apparently is easier to get in Cuba than gasoline. The original engines wore out decades ago and most are now powered by Peugeot, Toyota, and Mercedes engines and transmissions. Other parts are fixed or re-machined using the kind of ingenuity Cubans have had to develop during their long isolation.

Look carefully at the picture and you can see right above the V-8 logo, an engine with just five cylinders.

Some of the car interiors are nothing short of spectacular. I saw a Chevy convertible whose vinyl seats looked like it had just been driven off the showroom floor. I can’t even vacuum all the sand up from my 2011.

Factory radios have also largely been replaced. It’s a hoot to look at the dash of a 1957 car and see a USB stick protruding from the radio. I also don’t think a horn that plays “La Cucaracha” was original equipment on your average 1956 T-Bird.

Legend has it that the cars are handed down to each generation. I’m sure this is true in some cases, but the driver of the beautiful baby-blue ’57 Ford Fairlane we rode to dinner our last night on the island said his car was owned by “the company.” The language barrier prevented us from getting much more detail.

Many of the cars are operated as cabs, which will you can hire for a ride across town or across the entire country. Unlike in many cities, no one counsels you against taking a private, “gypsy” cab. You’re perfectly safe getting into a car whether or not the driver has documentation as a taxi driver, and the rates are all about the same.

Read other articles in this series.

Here’s the gallery of all our pictures of Cuban vehicles:

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