There is one place on Earth where you can walk into the street and feel like you’re stepping back in time. Cuba is choc-a-bloc with stunning American vintage vehicles from the 30s, 40s, and 50s — a genuine blast from the past.
Havana is a potent mixture of the old and the new. Modern office buildings punctuate the skyline alongside deteriorating Eastern European residential towers. Ancient vehicles, some with more rust than paint, share the road with newer, shinier models, while horse-drawn carts mingle with motorcycles. Flea markets display Cuba holiday mementos – wooden models of cars built in the 1950s, which are still seen on Cuban streets.
‘Yank tank’, ‘maquina’, ‘cacharro’, and ‘bartavia’ are all words used to describe the American classic cars in Cuba. It is the only place where history and circumstance have combined to enable a whole society to preserve these amazing vehicles and turn them into a national treasure.
About 150,000 classic cars existed at the time of the 1959 Cuban Revolution when the U.S. imposed a trade embargo on Cuba. After this, international trade was made very difficult, so the cars that were present at the time have been nurtured and cared for ever since.
Of the 60,000 classic cars in Cuba, about half are from the 50s, another 25 percent from the 40s, and a similar number from the 30s. Brands include Chevrolet, Ford, Cadillac, Buick, Plymouth, Chrysler, Dodge, Willy’s, Oldsmobile, and De Soto — vintage models of all of these can be seen on Cuba’s roads today.
As a clash of cultures and ideologies, few experiences compare with that of rounding a corner in the heart of Old Havana with its crumbling baroque buildings and coming face to face with a gleaming 1955 Thunderbird that looks as if it had just been driven off the lot.
Cubans are increasingly aware of the value of classic cars, particularly when visiting Americans who become nostalgic about them. They realize that there is business to be made from hiring them out, and it is, therefore, possible for those on holiday to Cuba to hire out a classic car for the duration of their stay.
Although there are more classic cars in the US overall, an American would have to go to Cuba to see a concentration of the cars filling the streets like a snapshot of 50s USA come to life.
Cuba holiday makers feel they have stepped into a time warp to that perhaps more innocent age, when Americans sported prim and proper outfits and drove shiny, sparkly-wheeled cars in brilliant colours with fins and chrome bumpers. The cars made driving feel special. The size of them and the comfort gave a calm feeling for a time when people were able to take their time and enjoy the good things in life.
Care & Attention
While classic cars are still used for daily transportation, often as taxis, they have also become cherished heirlooms handed down from generation to generation within families, in some cases going all the way back to the 30s.
Most owners of classic cars spend hours applying waxes and polishes and basking in the praise and admiration of passers-by. Some even reminisce about a time when their cars were new, and life itself seemed brighter and as inviting as an open highway.
To own one of these vintages defines who you are, how you spend your time, and how you wish to be known, and Cubans will go to incredible lengths to keep their classic cars running. 1950’s bumpers and tailpipes are recreated and myriad other parts are adapted.
Steering wheels carved from wood, hub cabs made from aluminum cans, and plastic sheets for windows are common. While such shortcuts would be frowned upon in the United States, classic car lovers admire the Cubans’ ingenuity and their ability to keep the cars running.
The Future for Classic Cars in Cuba
Each day these cars get closer to extinction. They are now outnumbered by boxy Russian Ladas, Volga sedans and more recent Eastern European and Japanese imports. But the biggest threats to Cuba’s classic cars are the scarcity of parts and lack of original factory literature to maintain them with uniform standards.
Hopefully they will still be preserved for years to come, even if they become increasingly temperamental with all the alterations they go through. If you’re thinking of hiring a classic car on your Cuba holiday make sure to make a ceremonial splash of rum on the car’s floorboard for good luck!
About the Author: Emma Lelliott is the general manager of Captivating Cuba (http://www.captivatingcuba.com), an independent Cuba holiday specialist.