Cubans can't get enough of classic American cars

Although we keep trading in our wheels for newer models, Cubans are still driving cars that are more than 45 years old.

By Bill McFarland

Northeast Times Staff Writer

(HAVANA) — Generally speaking, many Cubans are not particularly happy about American policy toward their nation. A May 17 (2005) anti-American demonstration took hours as more than 1 million Cubans marched past the building that houses the American Interests Section in Havana.

On an individual basis, however, Cubans are fascinated by almost all things American, and one of the most obvious examples of this phenomenon is their love affair with old American cars.

Since the trade embargo began in 1960, no American manufacturer has been permitted to export automobiles to Cuba, but that hasn't stopped folks from driving the ones that were there before that year. A visit to the island nation is like stepping back in time because the streets in the cities and towns are filled with cars that Americans only see these days in old movies or at antique car shows.

In Havana, a visitor can see an endless parade of autos from the 1940s and '50s — Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, Cadillacs, Plymouths, Fords, Dodges, Mercurys and even cars that long ago vanished from the American landscape, such as Hudsons and Studebakers.

"We love these cars," said Pepe, who didn't give his last name.

Pepe lives in Mirimar, a western suburb of Havana, and he has a 1954 Chrysler DeSoto that looks like it just rolled off the assembly line.

"A friend of mine bought it here in Cuba in 1954, and he sold it to me about ten or fifteen years ago," Pepe explained.

Although many of these cars are more than a little beat up — after all, the newest model is at least 45 years old — others are in good shape. Since the embargo also included auto parts, it's somewhat amazing that these cars are still running, let alone looking good.

"There are some very smart guys here in Cuba," Pepe began to explain. "They've made molds for body parts from original samples. For engines, there are people who can build pistons and cylinders, and you can buy parts from them. And some people have family (members) or friends bring them engine parts from the United States."

Acquiring needed accessories has been a challenge that demonstrates the ingenuity of car lovers in Cuba. Pepe's next-door neighbor, Manuel, has a 1957 Chevrolet Belair that is sitting in his garage because it needs a part that Manuel has not yet been able to find. Pepe explains some options.

"Some people with old American cars change the engines, and we'll buy parts from the engine that's no longer in the car," he said. "For example, somebody might want the water pump or the carburetor. We'll keep those things as spare parts. In Cuba, people share and sell spare parts.

"Sometimes people will take similar parts from other engines — like a Russian car or a German car — and they'll make these parts work for their engine. Sometimes you'll see (engines with) parts from many different kinds of cars. Very few people have all original parts."

Pepe claims to be the exception. He popped the hood of his DeSoto and said everything was original except the alternator. Since his car was manufactured before this writer was born, this assertion could not be verified.

According to DeSaga: A Brief History of DeSoto by Dave Duricy, Chrysler introduced the car in 1928. The model that Pepe owns is the last of its line because the design was changed drastically in 1955. Chrysler stopped making DeSotos at the end of 1960 when the last of the 1961 models were manufactured.

Since it's not likely that repair manuals from the 1950s still exist, one wonders how Cubans learn to fix such old cars.

"There are old mechanics, like mine, who studied when he was a young man in the 1950s," Pepe said. "He specializes in fixing these old cars. A lot of people do their own work, and we learn by watching what the mechanics do when they are changing the brakes or cleaning a carburetor."

There was also an American source of information for Pepe.

"I saw a program from HBO where they had these mechanics explain how to fix these cars," he added. "It was very interesting. My friend had a (video) cassette of this program, but he didn't know what anyone was saying because it was in English, so I translated it into Spanish for him. They explained in this documentary how Cubans can fix cars."

Some necessities for cars were always hard to come by in Cuba, such as brake fluid, but that situation seems to be changing these days.

"There are people who manufacture brake fluid," Pepe explained. "Now you can buy it at the market. And they sell tires here in Cuba. We can also buy them at the store — tires, wheels, rims, brake fluid, light bulbs.

"Gasoline is very expensive. You don't use your car every day. You use it from time to time, mostly for emergencies."

When you experience the passion that Cubans have for such American icons, one would think that exporting some auto parts wouldn't be such a big deal, but Pepe is not optimistic that it will happen anytime soon, considering the current political climate.

"That would depend on the relationship between Cuba and the United States," he said. "I think if the embargo is ended, it would bring a lot of things to Cuba — like food and medical supplies. I think car parts will be the last thing (to be imported) because we need those other things first. They are more important."

Editor's note: The following story appeared as a sidebar with the above article.

Havana museum is dedicated to an American icon

By Bill McFarland

Northeast Times Staff Writer

(HAVANA) — Considering the love affair that Cubans have with cars, particularly old American cars, it wasn't surprising to learn that there is a museum dedicated to them in Havana.

The Deposito del Automovil is at #13 Calle de los Oficios in Old Havana, and it houses a collection that would be the envy of anyone. The place is basically two large rooms and has more of a warehouse setting than that of a museum.

Two things that stand out immediately are a 1918 Ford Model T and a 1930 LaSalle, which looks just like something that you would see in an old gangster movie. Alongside them were a 1924 Dodge hearse and a 1930 Ford Model A coupe with a rumble seat in the back.

In the same room were a 1930 Cadillac limousine and a Packard and Rolls Royce from around the same era. The latter two had spare-tire mounts on the running boards on both sides of the cars. Two cars from the 1960s, which weren't identified, seemed out of place in the same display.

In the other room were a Chevrolet from the late 1940s or early '50s, assorted British cars, several motorcycles from different eras and a few trucks.

One of the trucks looked like the antique model that actor Eddie Albert drove in the 1960s TV sitcom Green Acres. It probably dated to the 1940s and was definitely for farm use, because the bed looked exactly like trucks seen in old films where farmers are hauling either harvested crops or livestock.

Next to the farm truck was a Mack truck from 1915. It was very big and obviously meant for hauling large and/or heavy cargo. It looked like a predecessor to the modern-day tractor trailers. There was also a 1901 fire truck, although the term "truck" is loosely defined here. This one had a steam engine to power the water pump, but there was no engine to propel itself. In those days, fire trucks were hitched to teams of horses.

The museum does it up a little with car-related items, such as several gas pumps, two of which date to the 1950s or earlier, and one that looked more like it was from the 1930s or '40s. There was also a traffic signal from 1930. It had two sets of lights at 90-degree angles and a control box. The manufacturer was the Eagle Signal Corp. of Moline, Ill.

Of course, the souvenir stand included car-themed items, the most conspicuous being toy cars made from assorted beer and soda cans. These sold for $9 to $12.

The automobile museum charges $1 for admission and another $2 if you want to take photos.

These stories were published on July 13, 2005, in the Northeast Times in Philadelphia, which owns the copyright. They may not be reproduced anywhere else without permission.


Return to home