Cruise control | Behind the wheel in Cuba


Cuba’s treasured classic collectible cars are a metaphor for the Cuban national character. These cultural heirlooms and the Kafkaesque used car market tell the complicated tale of the island’s recent history, explains Lydia Bell

Cruise control | Behind the wheel in Cuba

Before it all got decimated by Trump’s tiresome torpedoing foreign policy on Cuba, there was a moment that peaked in 2016 during the Obama administration when American tourists poured into Havana, wild with excitement and naiveté as the forbidden island revealed itself to their gaze for the first time since 1959.

I remember the first time the new American presence hit me. I was waiting at traffic lights near Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion, the engine of the restored 1956 Tri-Five Chevy Bel Air race car rumbling. To be clear, it wasn’t my car: it’s the baby of one of my usual taxistas, Jorge. On his car, which is worth more than any house he will ever own – more on that, later – Jorge has lavished a jumped-up sports exhaust, interiors lit up in flashing neon-blue, and high-intensity discharge lamps.

They were open-topped, and full of Americans who whooped every time their drivers thumped the horn

Reclining against the white-and-turquoise leather fit-out, my attention was diverted from the bare-bottomed reggaeton video unfolding on his dash by a giant fleet of classic cars cruising past, blasting salsa music from retrofitted sound systems. The cream of the classic car crop, they were decked out in colours as vibrant as a tutti frutti gelato display. Shocking pink Studebakers, lime green thunderbirds, coral-hued Hudsons and ocean-blue Mercurys. They were open-topped, and full of Americans who whooped every time their drivers thumped the horn. “The Americans have arrived then,” I commented. Jorge let out a long, low whistle and nodded. Asi es, he replied, sagely.

Photograph by Lydia Bell

Shortly after coming to power in 1959, Fidel’s Castro new revolutionary government halted imports on both foreign cars and parts. After that, the USA signed a commercial embargo blocking the sale of American-made goods to Cuba. The bloqueo as the Cubans call it, prevented all exports except food and medical supplies. The flow of American-built cars, bikes, and trucks was stemmed. From that moment, Cuba’s American car scene was cryogenically frozen – and, as the embargo is still in place, that remains the case.

Over the six decades that ensued, the cars already in the country, now irreplaceable, were passed down through the generations as family heirlooms. To this day, they glide around the island like props in a 1950s fiction feature. They are cosseted, lovingly washed, and guarded like the Crown Jewels of Tower Bridge. They are also weapons in the arsenal of Cuban machismo, as you rarely see a lady behind the wheel. Driving is a “blue job” in Cuba. Any woman foolish enough to attempt to park in a public spot in Cuba will receive lots of helpful mansplaining tips from male passers-by, along with those strange gestures that men do when they try and tell you which direction to turn the wheel in, which is both confusing and distracting. But I digress.

Photograph by Lydia Bell

Classic cars are one of the island’s most pronounced visual reminders of the so-called “time warp” Cuba has inhabited since the Revolution. Ironically, of course, these iconic Cuban classics are of course almost entirely American. Dodges, Studebakers, Chevys, Hudsons, Buicks, Fords, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, DeSotos and Chryslers are a standard sight. American trucks dating back to 1929 still chug along dusty country roads. For the most beautiful array of well-kept classics, drop into the mobsters’ old favourite and 1930s-era faded grand dame Hotel Nacional, where they line up the sexiest for your touristic delectation. (The drivers of those particular cars are some of the biggest barefaced rip-off merchants in all Havana.)

As much as being a reminder of Cuba’s suffocating time warp, the cars are a reminder of Cuban ingenuity, and the Cuban ability to stay effortlessly cool in difficult circumstances. Most of these cars bit the dust Stateside long ago, written off or sold for scrap. Here, lashed-up jalopies known as almendrones function as collective taxis and spacious privately owned cars handy for family outings. The chug-along bangers – the maquinas – seem to be held together with gaffer tape. If you want to open the window, you may have to tap the driver’s shoulder, and he might hand you a pair of pliers. Under any bonnet, a mechanic will notice many an inventico – a transplanted part. The Cuban car, after 60 years plus on the road, is not so much a hybrid as a mongrel. The owner might comment that it’s all “todo original”, but if you push them, it turns out that that’s everything apart from the brakes, fenders, steering, windscreens, electrics, retro-fitted air-con, four-cylinder Japanese diesel engine, video sound system imported from Miami by a mula, seats and lights. But the chassis – hey, that’s Chevy.

Photograph by Lydia Bell

In 2014, the legalisation of the buying of new cars again became a reality, after half a century in which only a select crew of government workers were allowed to buy new cars. However, this doesn’t mean much in practice. The first US-market vehicle to reach the island for 58 years was – ta da! – 2016’s Infiniti Q60 red coupe. According to Fortune magazine, it took months of negotiation to get the vehicle in. But in a country where the average state salary is £25 a month, who can afford that? Surprise, surprise, a rush on new cars by Cubans did not happen. Due to immensely high taxation on car imports, prices remained prohibitive, ranging from $30,000 for a Chinese Geely to $250,000 for a bog-standard but new Peugeot. Kias, Citroens, SsangYongs and MGs trickle in, generally as state taxis and rental cars. Chinese cars are cheaper and more popular – Geelys, Cherys and Zhongxing, unfamiliar on Western roads, can be seen here, again, generally as state-owned taxis leased to private taxi drivers.

Photograph by Lydia Bell

It’s not the first time that the Socialist government has introduced other foreign-born cars to Cuban roads since 1959. In the Soviet-era, Moskviches and Ladas, Volgas and Polskis were available for selected Communist party faithful. I once drove the 866 kilometres from Havana to Santiago in a 1972 Moskvich with orange-tinted windows and sticky vinyl seats, which blasted reggaeton all the way, its boot cobbled together with cable ties and bailing twine. An old artist friend of my ex-husband, Miguel, owns a Lada that hasn’t had any headlights, wing mirrors or hubcaps since I’ve known him. When he drives down the street at night, old men on the street shout, ‘You’ve forgotten to put your lights on!’ ’Gracias, caballero!’ he shouts back, waving cheerfully at them.

Which brings me to the delights of the used car market. A Jurassic-era Lada in relatively acceptable nick retails at between $25,000-$35,000, depending on how souped up it is.

If you really fancy pushing the boat out, you could go for a premium 1990s VW Passat: asking price upwards of $75,000. As my friend Marinella, the proud lady owner of a 1990s-vintage Peugeot, puts it: ‘these are pretty much the height of luxury on the Cuban car market’.  If you’re less flash with the cash, you could pick up the boxy, unsexy, 1990s-era Dihatsu Tico for $30,000. And if you’re stony broke, and only have $10,000 to spare, it’s the Polski Fiat 126p, a slightly crapper version of the Cinquecento. Welcome to the insanity of the Cuban car market.

As a result of all this, most people don’t have a car. They are more expensive than any regular apartment, and you can’t sleep in them, as the over-zealous police would probably arrest you. So people catch the bus, take collective taxis (horse-drawn in the countryside), jump on the back of trucks, hitchhike, ride a bike, or a horse, or just walk.

Photograph by Lydia Bell

In this country, a car – any car – is a massive asset, in fact, a shortcut to a small fortune in the Cuban context. Because why be a neurosurgeon when you can earn more as a taxi driver? The best money to be made from cars is in hiring them out to tourists, as having a car dealership remains illegal. Nidialys and Julio Acosta of the classic car hire company Nostalgicar are a good example. They are one of a number of private business owners who have materialised since the legalization of private enterprise was conditionally allowed from 2008 onwards under former president Raul Castro. Nidialys complains of the constant game of upkeep and repainting, but it’s clear: the business has been an enormous success. Getting the parts is a massive challenge: she takes personal trips to Miami to carry parts back, or works with the mules who ply the airways on a daily basis bringing back goods to Havana that you can’t get in Havana (read: everything).

Some car aficionados worry that the importation of new cars will spell the end of the Cuban classic. Spain-based automotive photographer Piotr Degler, who makes a living shooting Ferraris and Viottis, a few years ago took himself off round the island to search for Cuba’s most interesting cars, fired up by a 1978 photograph of a mustard-yellow Mercedes-Benz 300 SL. “I don’t think the classic Cuban cars will disappear, but they will import many more modern cars and it will be impossible to find a street with only vintage cars,” he tells me, mournfully. This is certainly the case now in Havana – but in country towns, it’s still common to find streets just like that. Degler’s crowd-funded labour of love took him from Viñales to Santiago de Cuba.  “Other than Porsches, Jaguars, and a Hispano-Suiza, I was lucky enough to find a couple of Mercedes 300SL worth more than a million dollars,” he reports.

Photograph by Lydia Bell

Automative auction houses will not be descending on Cuba to snap up these Frankenstein’s monsters any time soon. With Cuban classic cars being preternaturally expensive in Cuba, it makes much more sense to buy a classic car in the States, or, literally, anywhere else. Lenny Shillman of Lenny’s Garage in Brooklyn, president of the Antique Automobile Association of Brooklyn, owns 70 classic cars. “Cuban cars have little appeal outside Cuba,” he tells me, “since they have all been modified – their appeal is only seeing so many from the 1940s and 1950s on the road there.”

They are still cruising the roads today with their Caribbean colours

Elo, the erstwhile owner of the late London Motor Museum, which displayed cars dating from the 1930s onwards, from set props to super cars and hot rods (including Del Boy’s yellow Reliant Regal), echoes this. Now resident in Miami, he runs Miami Supercar Rooms, which rolls out gourmet dining amid a rotating display of 48 vintage cars (nice business idea: entrepreneurial Habaneros of the future, take note). He agrees the appeal of the cars is to see them in situ, in the “mad time capsule” of Cuba. “These cars are period, only on the outside,” he explains.

But, still. As Piotr Degler puts it: “Cuban cars are beautiful for what they are. They survived 60 years of usage every day. They are still cruising the roads today with their Caribbean colours. If you’re a car enthusiast, it is something so magical that I can’t actually describe it in words.”

The fact is, for anything that requires gasoline to be cruising the roads in Cuba at the moment is a miracle right now. The petrol shortage in Cuba – caused by America’s efforts to blockade Venezuela’s oil supply to Cuba and make it nigh on impossible for the Cubans to pay any bills through the international bank system – is very bad. Minimum-three-hour queues at petrol stations in Havana are currently the norm. Buses and minibus routes are being cut because of a lack of diesel. Private collective taxis are pulling off the road because it’s too difficult for them. Buses are now so over-squashed that people are hanging out of doors and windows, as happened in Cuba’s Special Period.  Police are positioned at bus stops to prevent fights from breaking out about which person was last in line, and to force cars with ‘B’ plates – government cars – to give people lifts. Which all means that less people are going to work. Congratulations, Trump (but oh, good luck with breaking the Cubans).

In this mad world, it is indeed a beautiful thing to simply keep on truckin’. C


Local Cuba experts Cuba Private Travel offer specialised tours in Cuba with a range of experiences, and can arrange for travel in vintage classic cars every step of the way, or even car-focused tailor-made itineraries for the true aficionado