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Countries with a proud automotive history must naturally, almost by default, have their own car production to brag about. But there are of course exceptions.

Very few countries have as colourful and interesting a story to tell, with cars deeply entangled in the whole countries history and legacy, as Cuba. Yet it all rotates around the mostly American cars which came into the country prior to 1960, and to this day still make out a very large portion of the cars you will see in everyday use on the island.

I’ve just come back from a short stay in Cuba. However, it was through work and sadly only gave me 24 hours there – not near enough to properly explore a country overflowing with culture and history. Also not enough time for me to indulge in the many fabulous classic cars which still roam the streets of Cuba.

It was in 1960 that the US trade embargo stopped all import of US – and effectively many other Western – products into Fidel Castro’s socialist Cuba. As such, the Cubans were forced into keeping what they already drove, in decent functioning order and on the road. Initially it was purely a necessity – certainly not a passion. But the embargo not only effected the import of cars, but equally automotive spares. So as time passed and those big forties and fifties Yank tanks became tired and worn, the Cubans needed a fair amount of mechanical ingenuity to keep them running. This lends the Cuban roads quite a unique atmosphere not to be found anywhere else on the planet. Not only is the proportion of old cars still in use thoroughly surreal, but if you in any other country were ever to experience such a massive assembly of US classics in any one spot, they would no doubt all present in beautiful condition with utterly original cruisers alongside highly modified bruisers. Not so in Cuba. While some are beautifully presented, many classic cars here frankly take patina to a whole new level. They proudly bare the signs of a long life lived on the rough roads of Cuba. When they break, whatever is at hand will be engineered with very simple means to get them back on the road. Nowhere else will you experience a ’53 Chevy Belair struggling with the lack of power from a small Lada engine, or a grand ’58 Buick Riviera exuding heavy black exhaust fumes from its ancient Toyota diesel engine. The concours judges of our western world would no doubt be appalled, but this is real automotive history and it is enticingly charming.

This was just a taster, but I’m hoping for another trip to Cuba in the future. If I’m lucky, that’ll give me a longer stay in the country, so as I have time to get a better taste of the great classic Cuban cars…

3 Responses

  1. Søren Navntoft

    Even your short visit Anders makes me envious. I would like to see the old cars before it’s over. Do you think they get some form of protection as some sort of culture heritage?

  2. Anders Bilidt

    Ib Erik, I believe it’s only a minority of the Cuban classics which remain even remotely original under the skin.

    Søren, to the best of my knowledge, they have now put legislation in place which prevents exporting the classic cars from the island. So even though Cuba will no doubt go through a phase of vast change over the next 5 – 10 years, at least their automotive heritage ought to stay largely unchanged and intact for us to enjoy.


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