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Havana's Auto Heaven

On the Streets of the Gas-Rationed Cuban Capital, '57 Chevys and Classic De Sotos Are Still a Common Sight
Bruce Strubbe
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, Mar/Apr 98

(continued from page 1)

Under the hood, Randon insists, the engine parts are original, except for the air filter. When the car acts up, he takes it to one of a number of older Cuban men who were mechanics before the Revolution. Until 1995, these black market repairs were illegal, but with Cuba's newly altered economic policy, individuals are allowed to operate some 140 small businesses, such as hair styling, manicures, bicycle tire repairs, produce sales, food vending and car repairs.

Remarking on the preponderance of fine-looking '57 Bel Airs around town, Randon says, "That model was an exclusive car when it came out. It had the first 'seamless' side windows when rolled down, the lines were elegant and it was economical. It was very popular in Cuba. They were always prized and sought after, even now. Consequently, they tend to be well kept up."

When a nice Cadillac convertible rolls past, I ask if he'd rather have that one. "No. Definitely, no," he says. "I like my Bel Air, and besides, it gets good mileage." At 14 miles a gallon, "good mileage" is relative.

A tip on getting about in Havana: Before stepping into a "freelance" cab, check the tires. Unfortunately, I learn that lesson halfway to my destination in a battered Plymouth I'd hired at the train station. Not one, but two flat tires within 20 seconds. Upon inspection, I discover that three out of four tires are as smooth as a baby's bottom, without a trace of tread. Then, in what seems a gross misunderstanding of a free-market economy, the driver expects payment anyway! After that my Cuban friends wonder why I always circle a car before getting in.

I stick my thumb out and eventually reach my destination--the government-run Cubalse Enterprise car lot. In dire need of U.S. dollars to buy medicine, food and technical equipment on the international market, the government buys or trades Cuba's fuel-guzzling American cars for more economical Soviet Ladas or European cars. Because of the gas shortages, pragmatism often outweighs sentiment, and a hundred or so cars a year move onto the lot. On this day it contains a pair of two-seat Thunderbirds side by side, a wounded '58 Impala that must have been a beauty in its day, a couple of Volkswagens and dozens of other makes.

Apparently all the automobiles are in reasonable running condition, though their exteriors look as if they'd weathered a few hurricanes and counterrevolutions. Foreign diplomats, European collectors and embargo-defying Americans (slipping into Cuba through Canada and Mexico to visit the lot) expecting to find buffed classics are usually disappointed. But a restorer less concerned with cosmetics would drool at all the potential rehabs shimmering under the tropical sun.

Thousands of Americans visit Cuba each year despite the U.S. government's travel ban, and the car lot manager assures me that a handful buy cars and find a way to ship them back through a third country--usually Mexico--to the United States to be restored to their original glory.

Apparently, Fidel Castro was something of a car enthusiast himself. In 1967, a car museum at 13 Oficios Street was opened to the public with about three dozen cars, a number of which had originally been presented as gifts to Castro. Cars on display range from a fine 1902 Cadillac and early Fords and Lincolns to classics from the '40s and '50s and a couple of midget cars. Two cars of particular note are a 1960 Oldsmobile formerly driven by Camilo Cienfuegos, a general in the Cuban Revolution, and a green 1959 Chevrolet covered with Revolution stickers, once owned by none other than the revered Che Guevara himself. Admission to the museum is free.

The numerous parks and squares interspersed throughout Havana's grid of streets provide oases of green and tranquility amid the din and dust of the city. Noticing that Havana Plaza in the old part of town was peculiarly raised five or six feet above the street, I was delighted to discover that underneath lay a gold mine of old classics in storage.

Taped to a pillar near the entrance of the underground garage is a vintage 1960s poster warning citizens to report signs of impending U.S. invasion or attack--parachutes dropping out of the sky, American planes overhead, loud explosions--the flip-side of my own Cold War-era childhood memories. Although only two light bulbs illuminate the garage's cavernous expanse, the sight is anything but disappointing: a white-and-magenta 1954 Pontiac with black convertible top; a black-and-gold '57 Ford Fairlane, its original vinyl interior intact, gleaming in a dark corner; a cream-colored '55 Buick that reminds me of my parents' car, which I used to pretend to drive as a kid; and several more Bel Airs, including a black '57 and a yellow-and-white '56.

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