There are four things that spring to mind when I think of Cuba; cigars (exploding or otherwise), Che Guevara, classic cars and Communism. It’s the latter that has for many decades been the catalyst that has made Cuba so rich in classic American cars. But it is only now that foreign cars have been allowed to go on sale in Cuba, something that hasn’t happened since the revolution in 1959.
It was this closing of doors in the late fifties that set Cuba in the time warp that all car lovers have ingrained in their minds. The romantic image of slightly battered, but strikingly beautiful over-sized American classic cars is one we can all probably relate to.
This is the effect, but the actual cause was a law that decreed that citizens could only sell cars built before the revolution. Fine for a couple of years no doubt, but the revolution was 55 years ago now and as any classic car owner knows, the older a car gets the more love and attention it requires – which equates to spare parts in the car world.
Things have been slowly changing in Cuba over recent years though; budding entrepreneurs can now set up in business and legally sell all sorts of household goods, and from 2011 the outdated rule relating to what cars could be sold was also changed.
But the excitement of being able to potentially buy a brand new car has been dampened somewhat by the state remaining firmly in control and marking the prices up to cripplingly high figures. One very public example given has been that of the Peugeot 508 which is listed in Cuba at nine times Peugeot’s suggested retail price of $29,000.
While it’s arguable that we are missing the bigger picture by romanticising the image of Havana as a blue skied city bathed in the light of a setting sun where cars from yesteryear roll happily past beautiful untouched buildings with crumbling paintwork, I feel we should be able to separate politics from the simple appreciation and fascination of being able to see such wonderful classics still (just about) running.
The likelihood is of course, that should the price of brand new cars in Cuba inevitably come down, these road-going classics are very likely to disappear. The Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs and Chevrolets of the dusty Cuban roads in Havana will be replaced with the more efficient, but possibly less attractive, curves of the ubiquitous modern family car.
Since the revolution, Cubans have become very imaginative in their abilities to be able to repair and service these precious classics and many of the cars are passed down from generation to generation. As if to illustrate this, I recall seeing one Cuban car owner panel beating some sort of metal crate part into a replacement lower door skin some years back.
It’s also true that what lies underneath the bonnet may not be what you might expect either, as some of these ancient V8 engines have been replaced with slightly more modern Fiat engines – far less thirsty than a V8 for an owner that might well be only earning $20 a month.
Many owners understand that the car they own is probably the only car they will ever own in the current climate. And in a society that isn’t exactly geared up for every worker to have a savings account, I feel we might be seeing the classic American pre-1960 car rolling along the streets of Cuba for some time to come yet.
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