If you ask just about anyone what they know about Havana, Cuba the top three answers are probably going to be: cigars, rum and 1950s American cars. It is true, there are a lot of 1950s American cars on the road in Cuba. Our cab driver from the airport told us that there are 20,000 vintage American cars still on the road in Havana. I believe it!
I will admit, I am not a big car guy. I like nice cars. I can appreciate classic cars, but beyond that, I don’t know that much about them and it is not my passion. I have friends who are very into cars. One friend is specifically into corvettes and can tell you stuff like, “The 1976 corvette moved the cigarette lighter a half an inch to the right and the pin-striping was three thousandths of an inch narrower.” I am making that up, but you get the idea. I know that the cars I saw in Havana were 1950’s American cars and we even rode in a couple for taxi rides. I couldn’t tell you what year they were or even the make and model. It was cool though, and I got quite a few pictures.
The reason there are so many old American cars in Cuba is that the trade embargo with the USA began in the early 1960s and it was impossible to get new cars into the country at all. You couldn’t just decide to upgrade to the latest model. The only way to keep driving a car was to maintain and keep fixing the only car you had.
Once you step inside most of these cars you can tell that they are “preserved” rather than “restored.” I know from watching various TV shows that American car collectors and enthusiasts will go to great lengths to get original parts or parts that are as true to the original as possible when fixing up old cars. This is not the case for the most part in Cuba.
The first vintage taxi we took looked fairly authentic from the outside, but once you stepped in, you could tell most of the upgrades were not from the period. The vinyl armrests on the doors in the back seat were gone and replaced with crudely cut blocks of wood. A number of the instruments in the instrument panel were stripped out and replaced with individual gauges. A modern digital CD player with digital face-plate was cut into the dash.
The second taxi we took had air-conditioning, which was nice. However, you could tell that someone had taken the air-conditioning controls and blowers from a late model small car like a Toyota or something and had cut it into the dash and made an attempt to make it look nice by spreading putty or bondo around the vents.
In addition to the classic American cars you saw, there were a fair amount of Russian cars such as Ladas from the 1970s and 1980s. The USSR was a major supporter of Cuba and a major trading partner that supplied a lot of goods for a time. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, so did much of the support.
Other vehicles. There are many other “mystery” vehicles (at least to me) that I couldn’t identify. There were numerous “bubble taxis” as I called them.
There were plenty of American 1950s cars. Here is a smattering of the ones we saw. Sorry I can’t identify them like, “Here is a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air in Larkspur Blue with a 283ci V8 with Turboglide transmission.” I am more like, “Cool! Look at that old car.” Enjoy the pics!