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 remember 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.