Cuba has been called the world’s greatest living car museum. American cars were shipped in great numbers during the half century before the revolution. Cuba imported more Cadillacs than any other country in the world. There were also DeSotos, Edsels, Kaisers, Hudsons, Studebakers, and many other brands that most younger Americans haven’t heard of. Today they can be found everywhere, along with other cars from the 40’s and 50’s, including Ford Fairlanes, Oldsmobile Golden Rockets, and Chevy Bel Airs. Some have been cherried out and look like the first day they arrived in Havana. Others look really beat-up and seem to be kept running with duct tape and bailing wire.
Since replacement parts have been difficult to obtain, old American cars have often been rebuilt with parts cannibalized from other vehicles. On our last trip we saw a Cadillac Eldorado that had its huge engine replaced by a Russian-made diesel. When an exact replacement part is required, owners sometimes wait several months until that specific part is hand-carried from Miami by a relative on a charter flight. In Cuban customs, that part may be taxed at whatever rate seems appropriate that day to the customs official.
It was really fun walking around Havana and Varadero taking photographs of vintage American cars. Cubans love to show them off, and it is easy to find a car owner who will pop his hood for you. He will either want to show off how he has maintained his car in mint condition, or how he has rebuilt and repainted it, piece by piece. Others love to show off their ingenuity and innovative ideas to keep these vehicles running. I remember looking under the hoods of several vintage American automobiles on our last trip. I just couldn’t understand how they could possibly start, much less how they could roll down the road under their own power. More Cuban miracles….