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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

Stepping into the Havana airport parking lot is like stepping out of a time machine. Amid tinny Soviet Ladas and occasional Volkswagen Beetles in the glaring sun, nosed to the curb are dozens of pre-1959 American classics: a couple of plump late '40s Buicks, a chrome-laden De Soto alongside a '56 Plymouth Fury and even a "Woody," a station wagon of indeterminate make with splintered vestiges of its side panels still intact.

Ernesto grabs the bags and leads a visitor to what appears to be a Chevy 150 sedan, a salesman's no-frills special when it rolled off the assembly line in 1956 and with even fewer frills now. The shattered back window sports a hole the size of a baseball, one headlight socket gapes empty and tape holds the passenger door shut. "Mi Bebé! La Rouge," he exclaims proudly. "She was my grandfather's. We try to find a new tire for her birthday." Ernesto kicks the front wheel and reaches through the window to open the driver's door with the inside handle; a passenger must climb in through the same side.

Welcome to Cuba!

Havana is best seen in the morning as the city stumbles into gear. A woman in white tosses her Yemaya (a local sea goddess) offering into the sea, crammed buses jostle over pot-holed streets and a symphony of thousands of bicycle chimes and roosters crowing from laundry-laced balconies resounds off faded walls smoldering golden in the morning sun. Ubiquitous American relics from the '40s and '50s--Buicks, Chevys, Oldsmobiles, Fords, Plymouths--are seen chugging up the streets like stranded flotsam and jetsam from a long-receded political high tide. After U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Havana in 1959 and Cuba's revolutionary government gravitated into Soviet orbit, the United States severed diplomatic ties with its island neighbor. The subsequent U.S. trade embargo, Bay of Pigs fiasco, missile crisis and continued enmity hermetically sealed Cuba from any new American-produced consumer goods for decades to follow. But the decades of animosity between the two nations never doused the Cubans' love affair with American cars. Lacking proper tools and replacement parts, ever-resourceful Cubans are adept at cajoling and coaxing just one more kilometer out of their patched-up classics. While most of Cuba's vintage cars are little more than battered hulks, one does occasionally spot a shining specimen, a minor miracle of devotion, improvisation and ingenuity--traits that Cubans have honed over the years in the face of chronic shortages and adversity.

Even ingenuity is thwarted in the face of rough roads. En route to famed Varadero Beach, the taxi driver accuses me of brujeria, witchcraft, banishing me to the rear seat after our second blowout. True, my track record in Cuba was incriminating--five automobile and seven bicycle flats--but that is more attributable to worn tires and bad roads than jinxed luck.

The heart and soul of Havana is the Malecón, the promenade gracing the city's waterfront. Because of the dearth of gasoline, motorized traffic on the Malecón is sparse, teeming instead with thousands of Flying Pigeon model bicycles (Cuba has imported millions of them from China). Here and there along the Malecón, parked cars boom out salsa and rumba tunes, helping keep Cubans' irrepressible spirits nourished despite the perennial food shortages.

Parked in the shadow of the recently restored five-star Hotel Nacional, on a cliff overlooking the Malecón and the sea, is a well-kept black-and-gray 1957 Chevy Bel Air. Thirty-year-old Vladimir says he bought the car several years ago from an old man who had owned it since the early '60s. A car in fine condition such as his requires a vast fortune by Cuban standards. Vladimir says he was able to buy the car because his merchant marine sailor's salary is far higher than most Cubans', which range from 160 to 320 pesos--roughly $6.50 to $16--a month. (Cubans receive subsidized food and free housing, medical care and education.)

Finding replacement parts in Cuba is akin to a complicated scavenger hunt that often ends in frustration. If the part can be found, its cost is exorbitant. A windshield, for example, might run about $2,000, while a windshield wiper is about $100. New tires are available for $100 to $150, but only at stores for diplomats (which only accept U.S. currency). "Do you know how hard it is to find a decent tire on the black market? That would be like dreaming," Vladimir says with a laugh.

We drive across town to a government-run car wash, and as we chat outside Vladimir suddenly becomes nervous and beckons me back inside. "I want to keep an eye on the car," he whispers, "because I'm afraid the attendant might steal something off it."

Two blocks from the Plaza de la Catedral I spot a lovely, steel-blue Chevy--another '57 Bel Air--as it turns the corner and parks across the street. Its owner, Lazaro Randon, is an electronics technician who lives outside of Havana. His father was the original owner of the car. Last year, Randon boasts, he accelerated the Chevy to 110 miles-per-hour. He says that in city driving the car manages 14 to 21 miles a gallon. Although its tank holds about 16 gallons, Randon's ration is about five gallons a month; not much to get around on. Though he did not say so himself, almost all Cuban car owners supplement their gas rations with fuel from the black market.

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