Cuba’s Classic American Cars

In 1962 Cuba became isolated from the world when the U.S. placed the 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 parts and vehicles they already had, mainly 1940’s and 50’s era classics.

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

Lining the streets, the vintage machines look like the genuine article with polished chrome accents, and brightly coloured paint schemes. However when the key is turned and one pays a closer look to the body work, it is clear these vehicles are not what they seem. Much of the bodywork has been rusted through after decades of use in salty sea air, and after various bumps and dings, many panels no longer sit correctly, giving the car a subtle wonky appearance. As no replacement parts were available, most repairs were done with body filler and hammers, some panels even being complete hand fabricated replacements. This leaves the car with a pitted shimmer of undulations along its contours.

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1958 Buick Special parked in Havana

Once the engine is fired up, the next main difference becomes apparent. Most of these cars are now running diesel engines, many with newer Hyundai ones, but also diesels picked from old Russian cars, trucks, boats and even generators. This is because of the far greater supply of parts for these engines compared to the half century old American V8 and V6 motors, along with diesel costing half as much as petrol in Cuba. There are entire shops dedicated to converting these vehicles to diesel engines and drive-trains. Russia sent shipments of their own vehicles, but these were found to be less reliable than the U.S. cars.

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A worse for wear 1950 Chrysler Windsor

Amazingly there are still plenty of vehicles with mostly original parts and well-kept condition, an intentional choice as these cars gain owners good money from ferrying around tourists wanting the most authentic Cuban experience. The ‘modernised’ cars, while loved by their owners, are the workhorses of the island, being used for personal use, taxis and public transport. The owners sadly being unable to maintain the car properly, resorting to replacing parts with whatever could be found on the island. Cars with original engines and well looked after interiors and exteriors are used almost solely for tourists.

Classic American cars litter the streets
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As Cuba becomes more and more open to the outside world much speculation had been made about collectors jumping at the chance to grab these now valuable classic American automobiles. However interest has started leaning towards 60’s and 70’s muscle like the Ford Mustang and Dodge Challengers, and after discovering the condition of these vehicles and the slim chances of finding a mostly original car, collectors have little interest owning this entirely different breed of Cuban-American car. Auctioneers value a perfect condition Chevrolet Bel Air with original parts at around $50,000, while the exact same model from Cuba is valued at $5000. Interestingly it is believed those who will buy these cars will mainly consist of Cuban exiles who want to own a piece of their past.

Car park in Cuba. Author: Helene84 CC BY-SA 3.0

What we can all agree on, is the skill and ingenuity of the Cuban population to keep these cars running 60 years on.

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How Henry Ford Kick-Started Car Production In The Soviet Union

In the early 1920’s, the Soviet Union completely lacked an automotive industry, importing nearly all of its cars, something the country wanted to change. The Soviet industrial machine was plagued with issues however – poorly disciplined labour, high production costs and low quality materials stunted the newly formed state’s dream of large scale automobile construction. To cure the broken system, it was going to need a complete re-invigoration, and for this, the Soviets looked West.

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Before the bitter rivalry that the two nations are known for, the Soviet Union expressed great admiration for the manufacturing prowess that America possessed. During the 20’s, Soviet political figures, economic officials and even the mass-media exhibited considerable interest in the exploits of industrial America, and more specifically, Henry Ford. The Soviet Union’s intentions of receiving American industrial practices was validated by Ford and other big business men, so the Soviets began scouting Ford and other big auto companies such as General Motors.

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