Cuba’s Classic American Cars

In 1962 Cuba became isolated from the world when the U.S. placed an embargo blocking all companies from trading with the island. With no new American cars or parts, the Cuban population had to make do with what they already had. This was mainly 1940’s and 50’s era classics. Russia sent shipments of their own vehicles, but these were found to be less reliable than the U.S. made cars.

Finally becoming more accessible to the world, Cuba’s famous car culture is a hot topic for eager collectors and car enthusiasts alike.

But are the cars as classic as their exteriors would suggest?

1956 Chevrolet Bel Air

The Condition of the Cars

Lining the streets, the vintage machines look like the genuine article, with polished chrome accents, and brightly coloured paint schemes. However, when you turn key, the rumbling sound of a V8 is distinctly missing. After with further inspection of the bodywork, it quickly becomes clear these vehicles are not what they seem.

Much of the bodywork has rusted through after decades of use in salty sea air. These cars have been in use for almost 60 years, collecting various bumps and dings. Many pf their panels and trims no longer sit correctly, giving them a subtle wonky appearance.

A worse for wear 1950 Chrysler Windsor

As no replacement parts were available, most repairs were done with body filler and hammers. Some panels are complete hand fabricated replacements. These home made repairs create a pitted shimmer of undulations along its contours.

1958 Buick Special parked with other American cars in Havana

Not Quite an American V8

Once the engine fires up, the next main difference becomes apparent, most of these cars are now running diesel engines. Many of these are newer Hyundai engines, but are also from old Russian cars, trucks, boats and even generators.

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This is because spare parts are in far greater from these engines. Owners struggle to find replacement parts for the half century old American V8 and V6 motors. Diesel fuel also costs about half as much as petrol in Cuba.

A 1958 Edsel Pacer on the streets of Havana.
Image By MiltonPoint CC BY-SA 4.0.

Cuba has entire shops dedicated to converting these vehicles to more available diesel engines and gearboxes.

Amazingly there are still plenty of vehicles with mostly original parts and well-kept condition. A well kept car gains owners good money from ferrying around tourists wanting the most authentic Cuban experience.

A 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air in Trinidad.

The Future

The ‘modernised’ American cars, while loved by their owners, are the workhorses of the island. They are still in use for personal use, taxis and public transport.

Sadly it is a constant fight against nature for the owners to keep them running. The most original cars are the most popular with tourists, so there is motivation to keep these ageing beauties running. The sights of these cars of the past are one of the main attractions for tourists.

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Naturally, these cars will slowly be replaced with less unique modern cars after the relaxation of Cuba’s international relations. Cuba will loose a piece of what makes it so special when the last of these cars disappear.