Where old cars live forever

By Liz Campbell

“That’s a 1947 Hudson!” exclaims Edward. My friend is referring to a dinosaur extinct since 1957 on this continent. “The cars in this country are amazing. And they’re in such great shape!”

A little further down the road, a Woody – those station wagons, which the Beach Boys made famous – sends my friend into rhapsodies. “My dad drove one of those when I was a kid,” he sighs.

For classic car buffs, Cuba is a paradise filled with chrome-studded Studebakers and Chevrolets, flying-finned Fords and boxy Buicks. Indeed, as Detroit’s ‘Big Three’ struggle to stay afloat against a tidal wave of imports, a still-rolling tribute to their earliest efforts continues to flourish in Cuba.

The extraordinary thing is the condition in which these appear to remain. Like automotive Dorian Grays, these aging beauties remain youthful, their polish and chrome gleaming and the engines still apparently in running order. But are they?

In conversation with one taxi driver, whose sixties vintage, red Buick is a huge draw for visitors, I learn that a Russian engine has long since replaced its original, gas-guzzling V-8. This Buick now uses cheaper diesel, much more affordable for the average Cuban.

Indeed, most owners are incredibly resourceful at finding – or making – much needed replacement parts, not easily available since American trade was cut off. You see, Cubans love cars and take them as seriously as the average American does his hamburger. The toppings and accoutrements are as important as the basic burger, and so it is with the classic car in Cuba. For car lovers, finding authentic parts is the goal; making them as close to the original, the next best thing. Like cheap ketchup, Russian replacements are considered the inferior option.

Interestingly enough, the first cars to be imported to Cuba came from France at the end of the 19th century. But it wasn’t long before American cars started to appear. An especial favourite was the Model T. The action of pushing down the gas was referred to as ‘footing’ and Ford’s advertising promoted these as being as easy to drive as “foot and go.” Cubans grabbed the phrase; thus the word fotingo has become another word for old cars. More commonly they call them cacharros.

In pre-Castro days, Cuba imported American cars on a grand scale, but once the embargo on exports to Cuba was in place, time stood still. Sure, a lot of Russian autos have been brought to the island, but somehow, it’s the American behemoths that continue to be cherished.

No one seems able to estimate the exact number of these on Cuban soil, but numbers like 60,000 plus are bandied about. Certainly, it’s not unusual to see cars that date as far back as the 1920s, still being driven in almost every city and town.

If you really want to get your classic car junkie drooling, visit the Depósito del Automóvil. This old car collection at the Museo de la Ciudad in Old Havana, features a substantial collection of classics, some as old as a 1905 Cadillac.

Cuba was once the playground of gangsters like Al Capone; he imported some pretty fancy wheels to use while he stayed in Varadero (his home is now a restaurant called – aptly enough – Al’s Place).

A ride in one of these antiquated vehicles – many are now working taxis – sends Edward into rhapsodies. We keep taking taxi rides just to experience them.

“Wow! Feel the suspension! And look at these seats!” he squeals, looking around our turquoise and white, 1957 Chevrolet Belair taxi. “They don’t make seats like this anymore.” Looking at the somewhat dilapidated, bumpy plastic seats, I am, frankly, grateful. However, there’s undoubtedly a nostalgia even I can’t resist. And turquoise! Why don’t they make turquoise cars anymore?

By the way, if you’re thinking you’d like to buy one of these classics and ship it home, you will discover, as others have done, that while you can own a classic car, you can’t take it off the island. The government considers these a part of the patrimony of the country and their removal is verboten.

As an alternative, join other classic car buffs in one of several La Escudería de Autos Clásicos y Antiguos. They organize competitions in parking, braking, reversing (surely basic functions in any car?), as well as shiny car and best family car.

You can join the glitterati and explore Havana or Varadero from the seat of a beautifully restored convertible or sedan. How about a 1955 Oldsmobile Deluxe? Word has it that Paris Hilton, Beyoncé, and Naomi Campbell have all taken tours in a turquoise model. Or you might prefer a 1953 Buick Eight, or a 1955 Cadillac Eldorado, or my favourite, a 1929 Ford A. There are a lot of choices in car heaven.