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The cars of Cuba: photos and stories from Havana

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 (Bob Ames/Hagerty)

HAVANA, Cuba – The American trade embargo with Cuba in 1960 had the effect of instantly separating thousands of 1940s and 1950s Detroit-built cars from their spare parts supply. Amazingly, many are still on the road more than 50 years later, cherished by owners who have patched them up with Russian and Chinese tractor parts.

While the subject of Cuba still has the same effect on Congress as a full moon on a werewolf, at least American tourists are once again able to visit this 40,000 square-mile Caribbean paradise. It’s absurdly close to the U.S. mainland – only 90 miles from Miami.  

In December, my wife Kathleen and I took one of the first People to People tours of Cuba, authorized by the U.S. government. A large factor in our decision to join this National Geographic-led group of 24 tourists was that leader Chris Baker wrote the coffee table tome, “Cuba Classics – a celebration of vintage American automobiles.” Baker also authored “Mi Moto Fidel,” a chronicle of his 7,000-mile tour of Cuba on a BMW R100GS Paris-Dakar motorcycle.

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As a lifelong fan of 1950s American cars, I’ve long wanted to view these much-publicized “Cuban classics.” I can report that most of what you’ve seen in print is true. The streets of Havana reminded me of my high school parking lot …

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Since the American trade embargo began in 1960, there have been no U.S.-made cars exported to what was one of Detroit’s most enthusiastic customers. GM’s presence was huge, and even today Cadillacs, Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets outnumber Ford and Chrysler products four to one on the island.

Convertibles were always popular, thanks to year-round tropical weather. The place for posing with your ride is hard to miss in Havana. The squares around Capitolio, a flattering copy of Washington’s Capitol building, are lined with 50-year-old American cars during daylight hours. Most are taxis looking for fares, and they don’t leave on their semi-fixed routes until every seat is filled. Others, however, are available for tourist hire by the hour or day. I have a particular 1958 Edsel convertible confirmed for my next visit.

If you want to be a hero and meet Cuban “car guys,” bring spark plugs. The only problem I had dispensing this capitalist largesse was convincing the recipients they were a gift. Other, more transportable ice-breakers are Ferrari and Porsche decals. These seem to be particularly popular with Buick and Lada owners.

There are some new cars, but the rental fleet Geeleys in the parking lot of the hotel we stayed in near Pinar del Rio, a couple of hours west of Havana, were not encouraging. I wish all the best to Warren Buffet and this emerging Chinese manufacturer, but poorly primed paint was peeling off these imports from Cuba’s No. 1 trading partner. Perhaps it’s time to sell my Berkshire Hathaway stock.

Back in Havana, there is a fascinating car museum on the Calle Officios, a historic pedestrian street lined with lovely restored 18th century buildings. One of these houses Museo del Auto Antiquo, which features Cadillacs, Rolls Royce, Packards and other reminders of the country’s splendid, decadent past. The machines on display are generally untouched originals, although Cuba’s oldest car, a 1908 Cadillac, was away for restoration.

Nearby is a street market in Plaza de Armes where I scored an original Cuban yellow or “particular” license plate for my collection. There are plastic fakes in all the souvenir shops, while the genuine variety are riveted onto cars that are rarely scrapped, and until recently could not be legally sold.

Here’s a bit of lore for automobilia collectors: Cuban license plates come in three basic colors; yellow for privately owned vehicles, red for rental cars and blue for the many official or government-owned cars. We saw a handful of Mercedes and BMWs – all with blue license plates.

Given the age of Cuba’s passenger car fleet, and the fact that most have been cut off from factory support for 50 years, mechanical ingenuity is highly developed. I saw pistons made on a belt-driven lathe and was told of a man who can make bumpers for your ’58 Caddy – out of tin.

Great cigars, cheap rum concoctions, cool jazz in the nightspots and collector cars actually being used. There are no trailer queens in Cuba. I can’t wait to go back.

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