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Cuban time capsule – Cars in Havana

If you want to take a step back into automotive time, go to Cuba. Havana itself is beautiful and exotic with its brightly colored if rather battered-looking buildings and milling streets. But there is nothing quite as beautiful as seeing a line of classic cars sitting at an intersection like nothing else happened since 1955.

Back in the 1950s Cuba ranked as the top importer of North American-manufactured cars, with nearly 125,000 Detroit-made automobiles bustling around the island.

The World turned upside down in 1959, when Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries took over the country. In response, the 1960 United States imposed a strict trade embargo against Cuba, leading to long-term economic lockdown which also banned all import of new cars and spare parts. “The Cadillac does not provide jobs for anyone,” Castro said during a speech to the Cuban people. “The Cadillac does not increase the wealth of the country. It diminishes it”.

Amidst the general impoverishment and economic struggle, the Castro government imposed strict laws on Cuban car owners, whereupon a government permit was required for anyone not already having a car to acquire one. The stiff laws eliminated any prospect of a second-hand market, practically binding the existing vehicles to their owners. Thus most of the pre-1960 vehicles remained the property of their original buyers and as the economical hardships continued the cars went on to their descendants and then the generation after them.

The Cuban car owner community went to great lengths to keep their vehicles running. Owned by families, the cars were cherished, maintained and repaired to the best of the local ability. Mechanics displayed an amazing ingenuity in keeping the vehicles going – frankensteining parts from multiple vehicles, tractors, miscellaneous machinery and through widespread improvisation.

Later on in the 1970, official friendship with the USSR allowed Cuba for importing an additional lot of Moskvichs, Volgas and Ladas, but unsurprisingly, spare parts for them weren’t catered for either.

Today, almost 6 decades later, as many as 60,000 American vehicles are still in use on Cuba, nearly all of them in private hands.

Cubans are proud car owners, and yes, to maintain an American car for 60 years of everyday use is a feat by any means. Parking lots and squares in Old Havana are bustling with bright color and deep engine thrum of Cadillacs, Chevys, Dodges, Buicks and Fords. The majority of well-preserved cars serve as taxi cabs for tourists, providing a crucial source income for the owners. A 10-15 minute ride could cost tourists around $10, just make sure to negotiate a fare upfront.

Outside the touristy areas you will still see many American classics but often in much rougher condition. The sound of the engines would also be different, indicating many replacement engines (which could be, duh, Peugeot or Hyundai diesels). A peek inside a car may reveal an add-on DVD player sitting in the dash or various festive LED lights.

Since mix-and-match parts are considered a no-no to car collectors, the Havana autos, albeit old, haven’t got much value left for potential exports. Some of the cars are even difficult to identify due to decades of retrofitting and repainting. But they are all colorful, beautiful, amazing.

In 2014, Cuba’s government, which still owns and decides everything on the island, had announced an end to the prohibition on the sale of new and used cars to the population. Although prohibitly expensive, these new vehicles (particularly Kias and Hyundais) are gradually taking over the streets. An easing of the U.S. embargo will likely have a further dramatic effect on the overall Cuban automotive landscape.

Cuba is on the brink of becoming like every other country in the world. The end of Havana’s incredible car skansen seems to be in sight.

16 additional images. Click to enlarge.


4 responses to Cuban time capsule – Cars in Havana

  1. Many thanks for sharing this, Martin.
    The two blue cars in front of flamboyant ochre facades – one of the best car-related pictures I’ve seen for a while.

  2. Great photography !

  3. Thanks Alessandro and Johannes. I wish I could have taken credit for this, but they are a work of some really able photographers :). Glad you enjoyed the article.

  4. we spend some time in cuba around 2014, have to look
    for the car pics – still not so brilliant as these but ….lets see☺️

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