I was actually very excited to hear the announcement that relations with Cuba would be normalized, for two reasons, neither of which involve cigars. First, my dad was born and raised in Cuba, and second, Cuba has one of the most interesting car ecosystems on the planet. But I'll be honest — I'm a little worried about those cars.
My father and I talked for years about one day going to Havana and hunting down the neighborhood where he grew up. Sadly, he died before we got to realize these plans, but I'm not ashamed to admit that at least half of why I wanted to go had to do with the famous cars of Cuba. I think my dad understood that a few days of poking around in old neighborhoods would be interesting, but I'd hit my limit. And then I'd drag him around to look at '59 Buicks with Lada engines and things like that. We had an understanding.
Now that travel to Cuba is looking to become relatively easy once again, I really hope I can take a trip down there, and, again, for the same reasons as before: see where my dad was from, and poke around at a lot of very interesting cars.
I feel like I should try and do this sooner rather than later, because Cuba's unique car ecosystem will likely soon enter a very precarious phase. The whole reason Cuba developed the car culture it has was from the necessity of its unusual isolation and circumstances. If it had been like any other Caribbean nation, not totally shut off from the west, chances are those old 50s American land yachts would have died off just like they did everywhere else.
But that's not what happened. Those old cars were forced to hang on, kept alive with novel and very clever transplants from Soviet/Russian cars. There's literally no where else in the world you're going to find a 1954 Buick with a Lada engine, for example. It's estimated that there's about 50,000 vintage American cars lumbering around Cuba still, and collectively they make up a huge part of the island's character.
People in Cuba have been able to buy some new cars for a while, but while the country was still relatively isolated, lack of parts and support kept this option off the table for most. But, that looks like it'll change.
My fear is that as people and money come in, these cars will suffer one of two fates: first, finally being retired and left to decay, as many people who are using the cars for transportation would really be much happier and better served with something modern. The other fate is that some of the more collectible cars may be bought and restored to their original glory. That may not sound like a bad fate, but in doing so what makes the car uniquely Cuban would be lost.
The cars that I'd consider to be the real Cuban vintage cars are the ones that perhaps are the most lacking in conventional appeal. The ones with the most Soviet parts, the ones most clearly patched and improvised and makeshift. The real beauty and character of these cars come from the incredible ingenuity of the Cuban mechanics, who out of both love and need kept these cars going no matter what.
What I hope is that there will be efforts taken to preserve as many of these ramshackle automotive jewels as possible. I hope there's collectors out there who will appreciate the unique character a survivor Cuban car has, with its handmade parts and Lada lighting, and respect these cars for that they are.
Ideally, I hope a good number of these stay on the road, and remain in use as long as possible. For those Cubans who just want something new and reliable, I hope American automotive museums appreciate what these cars are and place some in their collections, as the cars are right now.
I guess what I'm saying is I love their ramshackle cars just as imperfect and makeshift as they are, and I hope there's many others who do too.