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Classic Car Corner - The Cars of Cuba

  • Written by Tom Berg, Windermere Woodinville

cuba_010In consideration of my many faithful readers I recently ventured forth to Cuba to check out their cars for this, my 12th column of the year. On my way through Miami, I had a free afternoon and went to Ted Vernon Specialty Autos Inc. which is featured on the Discovery channel show “South Beach Classics.”

I met Ted who is a wild and crazy wheeler-dealer who likes cars but could probably sell anything. He has about 300 old cars crammed into dark buildings or sitting out in the sun. Apparently you don’t wash cars on a car lot in Florida? His operation looks a lot better on TV. His prices were quite high and the condition of the cars not so much and he’s not actually in South Beach which is a very trendy, hip, cool part of Miami Beach but  in an industrial area quite a ways away from it.

Cuba is famous for their mid-century American cars.  They had a little revolution and after 1960 imported nothing from the U.S. (our decision, not necessarily theirs). They were apparently very fond of our cars up to that point and still are. It looks as though every car imported from America before 1960 is still there and running. I saw no hulks sitting around and no junk yards. Almost all of the cars are 4-doors, are not excessively dented or rusted and many have newer paint jobs. There was very little customizing but many had chrome or mag-type wheels.  Since there is a real scarcity of parts for these cars you almost have to be a mechanic to own one. It wasn’t uncommon to see one pulled over and someone working on it. I saw no tow trucks; I assume they either fixed their cars on site or towed them away with a horse. All the roads outside of Havana (including the one freeway) were full of hitchhikers and carts being pulled by horses. In the smaller towns there were very few cars, mostly horses, trucks and pedestrians.

cuba_012The cars of Cuba are mostly 1946-1959 of all makes (I even saw some Studebakers, an Edsel and some Willys Wagons but alas, no Corvettes or sports cars of any kind with very few pre-war cars.)  There weren’t many pickups,  but I saw some American  1- or 2-ton type trucks hauling produce or even people much like a bus. They stand ’em up, pack ’em  in like sardines and haul ’em around. I did see several model As that looked real good. Most of the vintage cars in Havana were being used as taxis and were either government owned or independent. This is how the enterprising (capitalistic) Cubans earn real income. Some of the really sharp convertibles were just parked in tourist areas and people were charged to have their pictures taken in them. A doctor earns about $40 per month and a cabbie with his own car could earn that in a day.

It’s not uncommon for a professional such as a doctor to drive a cab whenever he could. The government of Cuba provides housing, medical care, some basic food by rationing and as much education as one wants. Many of their graduate professionals have never worked in their field of training and Cuba even exports doctors to Venezuela in return for oil.

cuba_021One day we caught an independent cab from our hotel to old Havana. It was a 1957 English Ford (we called them Anglias).   It was small and rattled a lot but made the trip OK. The driver had a computer degree but had never worked a day in that field since there were no jobs.

The car had belonged to his grandfather then his father and now him. It has a gas engine and transmission from a Lada which is a Russian car that was often imported when the Russians were helping out the Cubans from 1960 to 1991 when they pulled out of Cuba.

Our return trip was in a 53 Chevy that looked A LOT better than it ran. The best American cars have been converted to diesel engines and can sell for the equivalent of $15,000 which is a lot in a country where the annual income might be $500. It’s only been in the last year that Cubans could even legally sell a car (or a home).

cuba_037In Old Havana I happened upon a car museum so I just had to go in and check it out for my esteemed readers. It was the equivalent of $1.50 to get in or $5 if I wanted to use my camera, so of course I paid the $5. It was dark and dusty inside, and had about 20 very mediocre cars in un-repaired condition. I quickly realized why I was the only one in there — took two bad pictures and was out in about three  minutes. My best picture turned out to be the one I took from outside looking in for free! Perhaps not my worst expenditure but close to it.

In conclusion, I would recommend this trip to anyone who likes to travel, even if cars are not your thing. The history of our neighbor 90 miles to the south, the beauty of the country and the friendliness of its people were all unforgettable.

If you would like to chat about Cuba, cars or even real estate, please call me or just stop by my office at Windermere Real Estate.  Buenos dias.

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