Cuba is just about the greatest place on the planet for classic car enthusiasts. It’s almost like one big car show, where automobiles from the 1940s and 1950s drive along the streets and highways. The cars there run the gamut from mint condition to downright dilapidated. There are well-preserved cars with exteriors that boast shiny chrome and new, freshly polished paint jobs, while the worse-off autos are held together with tractor parts and scrap metal.
The reason for this is, of course, the trade embargo with Cuba, which in 1960, had the effect of instantly separating thousands of classic Detroit-built cars from their spare parts supply.
In the past, nicer cars were reserved for doctors, officials, sports stars, and no one else. After a while, the government started allowing pre-revolutionary cars to be bought and sold freely, which has now been going on for several decades. As of 2011, Cubans have been permitted to buy and sell cars freely. However, the government tightly controls the new car market and charges extremely high prices. For example, a Volkswagen might cost the equivalent of $70,000, while a new Peugeot might sell for $250,000. Needless to say, this is completely unaffordable for most Cubans, who earn about $20 per month.
This means that for now, these old classics will still have to make do for the majority of the population, and even if they look like they're about to break down at any minute—and they probably will—they are actually loved and cherished as an important part of Cuba's culture.
Underneath these layers of dust and grime, there's a left-hand-drive 1958 Aston Martin DB 2/4. But the entire dash and steering column, as well as the engine, comes from an old Lada. According to Aston Martin, this car was one of two built with the race-spec engine, but no matter how rare it is, it won't be restored any time soon. The Aston is in such rough shape it barely makes sense to restore it at all, let alone do it in a country where there aren't any parts available. As far as exporting it goes, well, it is illegal to export any vehicle from 1959 or older out of Cuba, as they are protected as national treasures.
This old Studebaker used to be a mean green driving machine, but that was then.
These days, its title as champion is nothing but a distant memory. There's virtually nothing left to remind us why this car was one of the best-selling Studebakers out there, and the different shades of green make it look like the car is trying to camouflage itself from being spotted. Once capable of winning the Mobilgas Economy Run, this old Champion probably doesn't even have an engine anymore... and if it does, it's most likely something out of an old Soviet-built vehicle.
Here we have a rusted car from Italy that isn't working...just like most other cars from Italy. While it is impossible to tell from the pic, this is actually the double-bubble coupe version. This Abarth Zagato is actually for sale at a mere $20,000. Did anyone say that's a great deal? Nope! This poor thing is in need of a total restoration. It doesn't matter that the owner claims he has all the interior pieces, it's just too far gone to make any reasonable attempt at restoring it... especially at that price.
In the early 1950s, Chrysler and the design firm Ghia formed an unlikely partnership. The two companies would team up for development of a handful of successful concept and production vehicles. This model, the Chrysler Ghia Special Coupe, was one of the most unique. Only 18 examples of the vehicle were built between 1951 and 1953, each based on a New Yorker Deluxe chassis. A car in mint condition, previously owned by collector, Le Mans racer, and Chrysler’s French importer, Leon Coulibeuf, was up for sale for a whopping $575,000. The Chrysler Ghia in Cuba is also for sale...for $500,000 as it stands in need of a complete restoration.
Hispano-Suiza was a luxury car maker back in the day, but there really isn't anything luxurious about this one. A car you won't even find in most museums can be seen sitting in the middle of a field in Cuba, where it's just been left behind to rust until it's all gone. The Hispano-Suiza is just another victim of the revolution. In most parts of the world, it would be in the hands of a private collector or on display in a museum by now, instead of broken down and alone in a field.
There used to be quite a few Jaguars in Cuba, and some of them can still be found on the roads there—the Jaguar hasn't gone extinct yet—but those that remain use parts from all kinds of vehicles just to keep them running on a daily basis. Clearly, they weren't able to keep this sad Jag running anymore. Now it just sits there, stripped of all parts that could be used elsewhere. At least, it received some fame when it was featured in Piotr Degler's book, 'Carros de Cuba'.
It's such a shame to see a car like this. At least, the kids growing up in the neighborhood will have the coolest playground toy for miles. And who knows, maybe some of them will find inspiration to learn how to fix and restore cars when they get older? Imagine how bad of shape the car has to be for it to be deemed too much work to keep it running in Cuba, a country where fuel pumps are substituted for pumps used in fish tanks and pieces of pipe have been cut down to make piston rings.
Photographer Piotr Degler got wind of a ‘legendary’ Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing. Rumored by locals to lay somewhere on the island, Degler went hunting high and low for a month, traveling two thousand miles in the process. Only a few days before he was due to depart, he spotted the 300SL’s still-priceless silver remains hiding under a banana tree. Because the car had been transported and stored poorly, it's almost broken in half, which is sad enough to break our hearts and bring us to tears.
This 300SL roadster was actually featured in Clarkson’s Motorworld, and apparently, the owner has the intention to restore it...but without proper parts, it will just be another Cuban Special, ridiculously overpriced and nowhere near as good as an original car. We pretty much know that's going to be the fate of the 300SL, seeing as it now has VW Beetle taillights in place of the original ones, and under the hood, we find a Chevy engine. It almost begs the question whether it's worth "restoring" at all?
Cars left next to the road, either parked like a normal car or up on bricks or jacks, aren't a particularly uncommon sight in Cuba. These machines are old and they break down. Often. Then there's the matter of fuel, which is expensive, so if it runs out, the car might be left behind for a while. Whatever the case is for leaving a car behind, it will now be vulnerable for being stripped and siphoned for fuel. There seem to be quite a few parts missing on this car, though, so we question whether it will ever be back on the road.
In some cases, Cubans have had to create materials from scratch to keep their car alive. Cars from Russia—usually Ladas and Volgas—are dissected into their useful parts and hood ornaments are sometimes handmade from scrap metal. Cuban mechanics are like MacGyvers of the automotive world. On many older cars, the original engines are almost always tweaked, and many cars have Soviet engines powered by diesel. If a car is unable to be fixed, it can be broken down into component parts, which are then used to restore other classic cars. The car in the pic is the perfect example of what happens when a vehicle has served its purpose.
Importing new cars from the US has been disallowed since 1960, when President Eisenhower put the first embargo in place. The cars that were already in the country became the last remnants of the mutually-beneficial trade between countries before Fidel Castro overthrew the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Of the 60,000 classic cars still running in Cuba, experts estimate that half of them are from the 1950s, and the other half is equally split between the 40s and 30s. Consider this: in 1995, the average car lasted eight years in the United States. In 2011, that average climbed three more years.
After having dutifully served its owner's for decades, this old-timer has now been kicked to the curb. A car would have to be severely broken in order to be left like this in Cuba. Cars are family heirlooms, they're passed on from one generation to the next and can sometimes cost more than a house. We've all seen the images of those really nice classic Detroit cars in Cuba, however, most of the cars in Cuba have not received the best care and there are plenty of running cars that look just as bad as this one.
This seems to be the end of the road for this Detroit classic. There isn't a straight body panel to be found on the entire car and pieces of trim are missing left and right. None of those are essential to keep it running, though. Being held up by bricks, we can see a large puddle underneath the car. While we can't tell if it's water or oil, our bet would be that the oil pan got banged up when driving through those potholes.
It's hard to tell whether this car is being repaired or stripped for parts, but judging from the missing windows and other parts, we're guessing this car has played its role and will now be picked apart to help keep other cars on the road. Driving around Cuba, you’ll see men hunched over cars, repairing engines and fixing exhaust systems. Since the country lacks replacement parts and, in some cases, the necessary tools for fixing the vehicles, the locals are extremely crafty and adept in their repairs.
At first glance, this old Ford might look a bit unloved. Take a second look, and you'll realize this car has been built specifically to go fast. In a country where the average person earns $20 per month, fuel prices are on par with Europe, and sourcing parts can be excruciatingly slow, so owning a machine like this takes more passion than most of us could ever imagine. Sure, this isn't a matching-numbers classic; it's more of a Frankenstein, built through craft and ingenuity by fixing, reusing, and repurposing any and all part they can get their hands on.
Hidden in a garage behind a restaurant, there's a Mercedes 220S coupe—a rare bird in beautiful shape! The old Mercedes was not by any means a cheap car back when it was new and knowing what the revolutionaries did to those who had enough money to own such a vehicle... Let's just say we hope they made it out in time. It is quite surprising that a car like this has made it until today. Most were confiscated by the government and then proceeded to be used and abused until they were so far gone they were beyond repair.
We wonder if it's just a coincidence that this car was photographed in front of this building. The colors of both the car and the background seem to be exactly the same and there's a perfectly good explanation for this. People who live without many luxuries often develop uncanny ingenuity. Nowhere is this truer than in Cuba, where mechanics and tinkerers use whatever materials they can find. Old train parts have been known to replace irreparably corroded or broken auto parts, house paint will be used to cover the hand-beaten fenders, even brake fluid and other necessities can be concocted from common household ingredients.
The very name "Edsel" became a symbol and synonym for commercial failure, perhaps that's why the communists in Cuba let this one live? As a celebration of the failures of capitalism? Ford invested heavily in leading consumers to believe that Edsels were the cars of the future. However, after being unveiled to the public, they were considered to be unattractive, overpriced, and overhyped—which, ironically, is a bit like communism.
It doesn't matter whether one is a commie pinko or a capitalist pig, the Edsel was a universal failure.
After the 1958 Cuban GP, racing was banned entirely by the government. That ban ended in 2013 when Cuba’s first legally sanctioned race meet for 55 years took place at the Artemisa drag strip, an event detailed in the documentary, Havana Motor Club. Piti is the owner of the world’s loudest black 1951 Chevy, with a 300 hp Ford V8 transplant. Luis and his pristine, banana-colored 1955 Chevy Bel Air run a supercharged small-block V8 good for 400 horses. Then, there's Rey Tito’s red and white 1955 Chevy Bel Air, the fastest car on the island. Running the same engine as the yellow car but with more boost, it has 500 horsepower and enough decibels to make your ears ring for days.
According to Autoblog, “the Chevy Bel Air is the king of the road in Cuba, by some margin.” From 1950 to 1958, the number of cars in Cuba more than doubled, from 70,000 to 167,000. Although there is no definitive number as to how many classic Detroit cars roam the Cuban streets today, there were still 60,000 in working order as of 2004. Known as “cacharros” or less commonly as “bartavias,” many Chevy Bel Airs from the 1955-1957 era, albeit with Frankensteined parts, have come to represent the time capsule that is Cuba, thanks to its distinct tail fin, tri-colored body, and chrome accents, which were all popular a half-century ago.
Since the American trade embargo began in 1960, there have been no US-made cars exported to what was one of Detroit’s most enthusiastic customer bases. GM’s presence was huge and even today, Cadillacs, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and Chevrolets outnumber Ford and Chrysler products four to one on the island. Convertibles were always popular, thanks to year-round tropical weather. Given the age of Cuba’s passenger car fleet and the fact that they have been cut off from factory support for 50 years, mechanical ingenuity is highly developed. This Buick probably has more handmade Cuban parts now than it has Detroit factory-made components.
Looking at this classic Bel Air, we can see that there's some trickery going on. Did someone smuggle in some Super Street magazines from the mid-2000s that ended up being the inspiration for this build? Other than the weird Lambo door conversion, we spy some rims that are far from original and not from one of the more modern cars either—hiding behind the rims we find some cross-drilled brake discs. The interior has benefitted from a pair of racing seats, giving the occupants an illusion of safety when racing on the roads of Cuba.
This old Chevy seems to be in great condition; all the body panels look nice and straight, all the chrome trim is in place. There really aren't many cars in Cuba with bodywork as clean as this which, more than likely, is one of the government-owned cars on the island. If you are planning on visiting Cuba, the good news is that, according to the sticker on the windshield, this is a taxi, so tourists will actually be able to get a ride around town in this piece of automotive history.
Cubans often use restored cars for special celebrations. For transportation, locals get around in shabby, unrestored older cabs known as “machinas” and they pay considerably less than tourists, who cruise around in shiny vintage vehicles. The vintage Detroit taxis are a common sight and some are in a very decent condition, but those are mostly government-owned. You will recognize them by them ‘Gran Car’ markings. Then you have the Tourist Taxis, which are government-run, official taxis—usually a Korean car that's been painted yellow and fitted with a meter. It's actually illegal to haggle on the price in these taxis.
Sources: Top Gear, Road & Track, Hemmings, Anywhere, and Autoblog.