Cuba’s rainbow of classic cars

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One of the fascinating things about Cuba is how necessity, in the form of chronic shortages and restrictions, creates resourcefulness, the ability to do a lot with very little. The other is the Cuban people’s irrepressible urge to create art in any way possible. Strangely, both these forces come together in one of the most unlikely ways — their classic cars.

If you’ve been to Cuba, you know that every street is a car show, a parade of vintage autos so old that you have to be a baby boomer to Havana at nightremember them cruising the streets of North America. Fords, Chevies, Oldsmobiles, Cadillacs, deSotos — they’re all here, many of them in what looks like showroom condition, and painted in a rainbow of colours the manufacturers never dreamed of. Some have been converted into taxis so tourists can cruise the streets like old-time gangsters; others are someone’s pride and joy, endlessly repaired and tinkered over.

The reason for this car collage is less light-hearted, of course. For decades, the government allowed only pre-revolutionary cars to be freely bought and sold. And tight restrictions on imports mean that new cars are unaffordable — in some cases, over $200,000 for an ordinary imported sedan. So if you want a car, you get an old one.

But how to keep these classic cars running? That’s where the ingenuity comes in. Even the flashy-looking showpieces gliding along the streets of Havana are generally a jigsaw puzzle of spare parts and body filler, bound together with baling wire and sheer ingenuity. Owners replace the original gas-guzzling engine with a Toyota diesel unit — they’re cheaper to run. Then they bolt on a fender or a door from another car, patch a bit here and there, manufacture a spring or two, and add a hood ornament to replace the original — or maybe two or three.

Then, the paint job, in whatever colour catches the eye. A classy white and wine red seems a popular choice, but after that, it’s a wild, crazy spectrum of lemon yellows, deep oranges, bright reds, robin’s-egg blues and candy-colour pinks — just about anything the owner can get his hands on. “Sometimes you’ll see cars covered with 10 layers of house paint,” one expert says.

Some day the new cars will come in, and these old relics will become collector’s items. But today, they stand as a monument to the human will to create, even while making the best of trying conditions. And meanwhile, they’re a heck of a show.

Orange vintage car in havana

Yellow car Havana

Pink roadster Cuba

two old cars Havana

Old jalopy Varadero cuba

Classic car Cuba

Old car on Varadero street

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

4 Comments

    • Thanks for commenting, Noel — I like your shots. Santiago is another part of Cuba I’d like to see. The video on Aurelio’s website reminds me of our day birding around Cayo Coco — he even got some shots of the Disappointing Warbler ;). Hope you have a great New Year too.

  1. Cuba is one of those places I wanted to visit really soon. It’s truly a place rich in history and old culture. About the cars, I also read it somewhere that until 2011, there was an import ban on cars in Cuba. Majority of the cars on the road were classic cars from the 50s. For sure it’s lovely to see streets filled with those old cards.
    Ron@MichiganHousesOnline recently posted…75 Year Old Man and Family Travels World with An Incredible House TruckMy Profile

  2. Looks like it won’t be too long before Americans can visit Cuba, Ron: already, a lot are going there on special tours with some kind of cultural or educational theme. Yes, there was a ban on car imports for a long time, and while you see some new Japanese and Korean cars there now, you don’t see any new American cars. On the good side, these political situations sometimes produce fascinating spectacles, like this living car museum.
    Paul Marshman recently posted…Market day in the Andes: Otavalo, EcuadorMy Profile

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