Old American Cars in Cuba

1952 Chevy, Havana, 2018 looks to be in better condition than mine in 1966

Alie asked why there were so many “hot rods” in Southwest Florida.  I replied that many men who were teenagers in the 1960s remember when it was cool to take a twenty year-old car and “soup it up.”  But most couldn’t afford to do it.  Many, now retired, can afford an homage to their youth.  The same age group has a particular nostalgia for the automobiles of the 1950s, an era when the car companies made styling changes every year.  You could not only tell a Chevy from a Ford, you could tell a 1956 Chevy from a 1957 Chevy.  Those Chevys and Fords are still on the streets in Cuba.

Cuban officials will say it is because of the U.S. trade “blockade.”  They are mostly right. After Cuba started seizing private property including farms and factories from American owners, President Kennedy imposed an embargo.  [Am I cynical to believe the execution of several hundred “counter-revolutionaries was not enough reason?]  The embargo, however, did not apply to automobiles.  In retaliation however, Fidel Castro prohibited the importation of North American automobiles.

The Cuban state controlled almost everything, but private ownership and sale of used cars was still possible.  Today, these old cars are a monument to the ingenuity of the average Cuban citizen.

Parts were no longer available when cars were damaged or needed repairs.  Cubans call today’s vehicles “United Nations” cars because inside they have parts from all over the world.  Diesel fuel is half as expensive as gasoline in Cuba, so most now have diesel engines, often from Hyundai.  Soviet Union Latas and Volgas, which were not as reliable, were dissected for parts.   In some cases, parts were fabricated on site.

There are an estimated 60,000 classic U.S. cars in Cuba, fifty percent from the 1950s and the rest from the 40s and 30s.

When the embargo began to be relaxed, U.S. automobile aficionados salivated at the thought of getting their hands on the cars.  But reality has intervened.  At auction, a Chevrolet Bel Air with original parts might fetch $50,000.  The same “U.N.” car from Cuba would be unlikely to fetch more than $5,000.

Classic cars do it all in Cuba: personal use; taxis; and public transportation.  Tourists love them, especially the taxis in Havana that have better maintained bodies and interiors.  An hour tour costs about fifty U.S. dollars and is often in a convertible, perfect for taking pictures.  While taxis for Cubans are restricted to certain routes much like a bus, tourists may take them on a negotiated basis.  It is good for the Cuban economy and is certainly good for the drivers in a country where the average income is between twenty and thirty dollars per month.

BBC reported last year the state has modified its monopoly on new cars sales.  Formerly, permits to buy were issued only to a few privileged officials, artists and athletes.  Permits were traded on the black market for cash.  Raul Castro has now opened permits for non-U.S. cars to the general public.

My’52 Chevy “Jennifer” in 1966

However, the state still has a monopoly on sales and sets the price.  According to the BBC report, a Peugeot 508 listed at $29,000 is available for $262,000.  But others sell for less, and the government says profits will be used to develop public transport.  Considering the Cuban average income, it is hard to imagine there will be much profit — but, of course, Cuba is socialist, not capitalist.

Dates of our visit: 12 to 19 December 2018.

Click on photos to enlarge; click the back arrow to return to the post.

About ralietravels

Ray and Alie (Ralie) are a retired couple who love to travel. Even during our working years, we squeezed a trip in whenever we could, often when we had to stretch the budget to do so. We have been fortunate to vacation in all 50 states, all the provinces of Canada and one territory and a little more than 50 countries. We like to drive, but we particularly love to travel back roads to find unusual sights, people, and experiences.
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14 Responses to Old American Cars in Cuba

  1. leggypeggy says:

    The cars in Cuba are fabulous.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. N N says:

    So interesting and great pics!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. JohnRH says:

    Great! Very informative, as usual. My first car ever was a ’53 Ford convertible, 3-speed stick, repainted a bright green with a white top. Loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Joan Anfinsen says:

    This post brought back memories of my ’52 Ford Victoria, robin’s egg blue with a cream top. Wish I still had it!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Keith Beckman says:

    Absolutely beautiful cars.  Had read an article on them before but another lool is always great.  Thanks a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The Log Cabin Sage says:

    Great photos! My first car was an old Rambler – and boy did that body ‘ramble’ when I drove it down the street. Thanks for your fun & informative article. My wife and I enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ralietravels says:

      I have wondered if we have inspired you to get “out on the road.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Log Cabin Sage says:

        Actually, you have. We usually stick to the interstates, but you mentioned some things in your Ohio River Valley post (2014), so we’ve decided to take some back roads and see some of these towns this fall when we head out to South Bend to visit Notre Dame.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Dave Ply says:

    Sounds like it may be more difficult to go to Cuba these days. Nice you were able to experience it, and scope out all those old cars.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ray, we haven’t been to Cuba, but have seen lots of photos of the classic cars there. I’ve heard about the US/Cuba issue of course, but when it comes to imports from other countries, are there restrictions, and if so, what are they? I’ve seen lots of posts on the romantic side of Cuba, but there are an equal number of posts (and coverage in the press) on the deprivations the citizens suffer almost constantly. What was your experience? ~James


    • ralietravels says:

      I don’t know what restrictions there are on imports from other countries. As noted above, many of the “classics” now have Hyundai engines, and one can import a Peugeot, so I think the restrictions are just on trade with the U.S. It is a planned economy, however, with all the inefficiencies that includes [the line for apples we saw and the education/jobs imbalance reported in a previous post]. They were long supported by Soviet Union subsidies; when that collapsed, there was near starvation for a while. Then Venezuela began to subsidize them with almost free oil; now that too has collapsed. I hope the current problems can be resolved.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Old American Cars in Cuba — RalieTravels – Truth Troubles

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