U.S. car collectors eager about Cuba trade deal, though most classics stripped of value

Jose Felipe’s left foot gently taps the accelerator of his 1956 Ford Fairline, its V8 engine growling like a Florida Panther lurking through a swampy thicket. Sporting a showroom pristine white-and-salmon color paint job, the four-door sedan slowly backs out of the carport behind the Cuban American handyman’s townhouse in Hialeah, Fla.

The Fairline was fully restored when he purchased it for $11,000 in 2008 from a seller in New York City he found online, Felipe relates. “I had the exact same car in Cuba,” Felipe says. “I sold it for $10,000 Cuban pesos 20 years ago because I was leaving for Miami and not coming back.”

The Ford Felipe left behind is among tens of thousands of American vintage automobiles that have trekked Cuba’s roads since before Fidel Castro came into power in 1959. Yet, Felipe – who also owns a 1956 Mercury Montclair that cost him $25,000 to buy and restore – dismisses the idea that one day he can go back home to reclaim his original Fairline even as the U.S. and Cuba governments thaw more than five decades of icy relations to reestablish diplomatic ties.

“It hurt when I sold my first Fairline,” Felipe says. “But as a collector, I wouldn’t go to Cuba to find a car. Que va!”

Despite Cuba’s bountiful inventory of classic rides, auto collectors doubt the 1950s era Buicks, Chevys, DeSotos, Fords, Oldmobiles, and Plymouths that remain on the island are worth the hassle of restoration and dealing with the country’s communist government.

Ted Vernon, owner of South Beach Classics, a vintage car dealership based in Miami, said there are thousands of clunkers, many stripped of original parts, for every hidden gem in Cuba.

“Most of the cars have been bastardized,” Vernon says. “The motors have been changed. The electrical systems have been changed. You pop the hood and you could find parts from a Toyota in there.”

As a result of the 56-year-old U.S. trade embargo with Cuba, vintage cars are the only American-made mode of transportation on the island. Anything on wheels post 1959 originates from the old Soviet Union and former communist bloc satellite countries in Eastern Europe. American cars in Cuba have gone through more than half-a-century of wear-and-tear with owners unable to replace original parts as a result of the U.S. government forbidding trade with Cuba.

Cuba’s new car market is also tightly regulated and a brand new car can cost more than $200,000. For many years, vehicles prior to the revolution could be bought and sold freely, leaving many on the road.

Mechanics and car enthusiasts in Cuba were forced to come up with inventive solutions to keep their vintage cars running, says Roland Perez, president of Yesteryears Classic Car Club in Miami. For instance, the original engines on many American cars in Cuba have been replaced with diesel motors because of the cheaper fuel costs.

A mustachioed 56-year-old painting contractor who owns a restored 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, Perez says Cubans have also made new windshields by recycling old shattered ones and brake pads using asbestos-based materials. “You have to hand it to them,” Perez said. “Under 56 years of communist rule, they’ve had to use real ingenuity to modify the cars.”

The cleverness of Cuban mechanics and car specialists is the subject of the first U.S. reality show to be filmed in the country. Producers of Discovery’s “Cuban Chrome” were granted unprecedented access to film members of A Lo Cubano Car Club fixing up their antique autos. In one episode, car club members resort to using a boat motor for a 1934 Model A hot rod.

Nevertheless, the modified cars are a turn off for any true collector, Perez explains.

“There would be interest in a car that has a solid body and doesn’t show any signs of rust,” he said. “But those are very rare.”

Perez also doesn’t believe the Cuban government will make it easier for its citizens to acquire true replacement parts for their American cars despite the normalizing of relations with the U.S. And he expects the Cuban government, which has banned the export of cars since 2010, to make it even more difficult for collectors to take cars out of the country.

“The problem is the Cuban regime wants everything for themselves,” Perez says. “You have to pay the price the government sets, which will be a ludicrous figure. I’ve tried to broker deals to get cars out through Mexico or South American countries, but was unable to do so.”

Still, some collectors see a future market for the classic cars in Cuba.

“It will be a long time before everything smooths out,” says Bryan Kinsley, vice-president of Yesteryears Classic Car Club. “But it will be a lucrative business for the person who has contacts here and in Cuba.”

Francisco Alvarado is a freelance journalist in South Florida.

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