Cigar Aficionado

Havana's Auto Heaven

On the Streets of the Gas-Rationed Cuban Capital, '57 Chevys and Classic De Sotos Are Still a Common Sight

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.

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.

For a monthly fee, explains a worker named Raul, many Cubans store their American cars in the underground lot because they simply guzzle too much gasoline (gas costs about $1 a liter--or about $4 a gallon--in Cuba). The owners are waiting until the economy improves. Others are afraid to park on the street because the car might be bumped or the parts stripped. Interestingly enough, there is little fear of the car itself being stolen because, in a country where everyone seems to know everyone else's business, sudden acquisition of a car would be far too suspect.

Raul himself owns a tiny orange Fiat parked near the entrance. Because of its superb mileage, he says, he gets offers to buy it every time he takes it out on the street.

If and when the United States normalizes relations with Cuba and drops travel and trade restrictions, American car collectors doubtless will flock to Havana. It's a classic car paradise, harboring more classic cars per square foot than anywhere else on earth. Despite the U.S. government's continued hostility, Cuban people still love American cars, American culture and American visitors, who are invariably met with big smiles, handshakes and greetings of Bienvienidos--Welcome.

Bill Strubbe is a freelance writer living in California. He has visited Cuba numerous times.