Cuba feels more in flux now than it has in decades. Fidel Castro’s death, the repeal of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy and eased restrictions on capitalism mean rapid changes for a country distinctly shaped by a Cold War that ended decades ago. At the same time airplanes full of tourists are landing in Cuba on direct flights from the U.S. for the first time in decades, opening up a floodgate of incoming dollars. So where does that leave Cuba’s eclectic assortment of cars?
There’s been some progress in expanding access to personal transportation in Cuba, but it has been halting. In 2014 the government abolished a system that required citizens to attain a permit to buy a car, and loosened restrictions on new car imports. The new system fell flat when markups equating to four to five times the base price left supposedly cheap cars, like a Peugeot hatchback, with an astronomical price of $85,000 U.S. In a country where a good state job pays $20 a month, a new car would not be a realistic goal within 100 lifetimes of saving for most Cubans.
I went down to Cuba recently, and while I was there I decided to take stock of the country’s famously unique car culture. Roughly the three times the size of the New York metropolitan area and with a population of 11 million, there are an estimated 60,000 pre-1959 American cars still plying the Cuban streets. An easing of the U.S. embargo could could have dramatic effects on the overall Cuban automotive landscape.
Original American Classics
What I found is that the majority of vehicles in Cuba tend to fall into five categories: original American classics, non-original American classics, Russian cars and trucks, newer Chinese/Korean/Japanese vehicles, and European cars—the latter being the smallest percentage.
Cubans are proud car owners, and yes, to maintain an American car for 50 years or more is a feat worthy of pride. Any given parking lot or square in Old Havana is a spilled Skittles bag of brightly colored metal, and every street echoes the deep thrum of Cadillacs, Chevys, Dodges, Buicks, Fords and more that originally rolled out of Detroit half a century ago. Most of the best-looking chromed-up convertibles and coupes are on full-time tourist duty, cruising the Malecon from Old Havana to Miramar night and day.
Originality is key, since foreign tourists, myself included, always want the authentic experience. Absorbing the curved and blistered beauty of these classics, I began to pay more attention to the rougher-looking classics and the fact that the sound of their engines in many cases was quite different from the deep GUG-GUG of the originals. Original American classics are coveted and in most cases are on tourist duty. Without an official tally it’s impossible to know exact numbers of originals vs non-originals, but to my eye and ear the originals seems to be more popular in touristy areas (duh).
Regardless of political changes, we can assume these original American classics will remain part of Cuba’s automotive workforce. Like stagecoaches on a dude ranch, these cars have become a part of Cuba’s identity that visitors want to see and experience. These original cars also earn well for their owners.
Non-Original American Classics
But there’s another, maybe better story beyond the postcard-perfect 1956 Ford Sunliners or the 1957 Chevy Bel Airs. Outside the touristy areas of Old Havana you see many more American classics, but in much rougher condition.
These are the daily drivers, the backbone of Cuba’s personal transportation fleet. Many do remain with their original engine and transmissions, but many others have been gutted and adapted in favor of newer Hyundai diesel engines. And some of those original V8 engines have been replaced by diesel motors from Russian cars, or even boats. Gas is very expensive in Cuba while diesel costs only about half as much.
My ear became keenly tuned to the idle sound when encountering any American classic, more than half the time I was greeted to the unmistakable clatter of a diesel engine at idle. There were whole shops dedicated to fitting and fabricating newer, smaller, more efficient Korean engines and differentials to massive American classics. These non-originals are more likely to be customized on the interior as well. A peek inside in many cases revealed a DVD player sitting in the dash and various festive LED lights, a fascinating intersection of old and new that would have American classic car purists pulling their hair out.
A dissolved U.S. embargo could flood the Cuban market with relatively cheap new American cars, which could in turn greatly reduce the numbers of these pre-revolution Franken-cars. As more new cars enter Cuba these jerry-rigged American classics will inevitably be passed down and essentially run into the ground. To think that Cuba’s current youth may find transportation freedom in an inherited or gifted Hyundai powered 1953 Plymouth is a romantic thought indeed.
Russian Cars & Trucks
The age range of Cuba’s Russian cars is predictable, falling squarely between the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the fall of the Soviet Union in early ‘90s. In rural areas or national parks like Parque Guayanara, the only vehicles intrepid enough to tackle the deep jungle are enormous Russian ZIL troop transport trucks ferrying tourists out and back from beautiful natural caves and waterfalls. “Russian limousines,” the Cubans call these behemoths.
Large Russian KraZ semi tractor trailers still haul tobacco and other cargo around Cuba. But most prevalent is the boxy Lada sedan, which, as far as I can tell, really didn’t get any design updates between 1970 and 1989. Many Ladas, Moskviches, and Volgas are used as taxis for the Cuban population and many more are used as private vehicles. Most seemed to be worn but running satisfactorily, but I did a see a few showroom quality examples of these multi-decade-old Soviet sedans.
A warming of Cuban and American relations is not likely to bring new Russian vehicle imports into Cuba in the foreseeable future. Who knows, in thirty years the old Russian cars and trucks could take the role of the current American classics. Not likely, but anything is possible in the world where we live today.
Kia and Hyundai seem to be doing well in Cuba. Without having access to definitive import numbers, it seemed that the highest number of the newest cars on Cuban roads were Korean. My family and I traveled in a mid-1990s Kia diesel van for our nine-day trip, and it was tired but did the job.
For our excursion into the Guayanara Parque our required 4x4 transportation was a Hyundai Santa Fe. As we climbed the hills into the park we sailed past a late ’50s Chevrolet Bel Air chugging up the hill full of passengers at about 1.5 mph, and I understood why we needed the 4x4 crossover. We saw other old American cars paused at the bottom of hills so the owners could pour cool water on the radiator before making the climb.
At one point I was stunned to see what I thought was a Chevrolet Cruze, but it turned out to be a Chinese built Geely. Sans badges I would have a very difficult time differentiating the Chevrolet from the Geely; it was a near carbon copy. Since 2009 the Cuban government has been importing Geely vehicles for use as police cars, taxis, and rental vehicles. I spotted one single Mitsubishi Lancer, and a small handful of classic Toyota Land Cruisers outside Havana. Counter to U.S. market share, the Japanese seem to have a smaller portion of the pie in Cuba.
Asian automakers seem to have good relations with the Cuban government regardless of the U.S. embargo. It would be a safe bet to say that Korean and Chinese manufacturers will continue to expand their imports into Cuba as more Cubans are financially able to purchase new cars.
The majority of European vehicles spotted in Cuba were older Mercedes-Benzes. The W123 and W124 Mercedes E-class from the late ’80s and early ’90s were the most popular Euros, but still quite rare. The newest cars I saw in the whole trip were current generation Mercedes C200s, and most seemed to be rentals.
In Havana on our last night a black E-class deposited some affluent-looking Russians outside a restaurant. That was probably the most expensive car seen on the whole trip. One single BMW cruised past the beach at Playa Giron (The Bay of Pigs)—a red E30 coupe.
Down a quiet alley in Old Havana a B7 Audi A4 sat with sun-damaged hood paint and body repair on the front fender that was made obvious by the splash of matte blue primer. I couldn’t help but imagine the perfectly molded Audi front fender repair was likely hand-measured and hammered.
Pre-revolution European cars were rare, limited to Mercedes W120 sedans: Fiats, mostly 500s. Alfa Romeo seemed to have sent at least one ship full of cars some time during the ’80s; I spotted a few 159s and one single Milano. French cars and vans from Peugeot and Citroen exist in small numbers, owned by those willing and able to pay the astronomical markups following the 2014 change in ownership rules.
I kept having exciting daydreams, hoping to see one of these big old American original classics doing a tire-slaying smokey burnout in the middle of the Malecon with waves crashing in the background. But then it occurred to me that no Cuban in their right mind would waste tires so frivolously. The simple fact that the roads are in such a state of decay, to the point that speeds are dictated more by the ruts and potholes than the marked signs. Most of the best old cars were piloted around gingerly, 30 to 40mph, by their middle-aged Cuban padrones. When tourists jump out of classic taxis, the drivers always reach across to the passenger side to keep the door from being slammed too hard. They close those doors like it’s a baby’s bedroom and the kid has just gone to sleep.
In Cuba, nothing is really what it seems with these Korean-powered American classics, but it’s endearing as hell when you realize this is about the only place on earth with a car landscape dictated by 60 years of complex geopolitical jockeying. It should be fascinating to see what that looks like in the decades to come.
Jonathan “JBH” Harper is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Los Angeles. Follow JBH on Instagram and his website.