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TRAVEL AWARE – STAYING SAFE AND HEALTHY ABROAD (foreign office travel advice)
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Classic cars of Cuba

Along with the colourful buildings of Havana, hand rolled cigars, salsa dancing and rum cocktails, fleets of 1950s American classic cars adorning the streets are an iconic and charming part of Cuba's heritage.


In the 50s, Cuba was a popular holiday destination for Americans, with the Florida coast located a mere 145 kilometres away. A a result lots of American cars were imported from the USA.


Skilled mechanics

After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro imposed a ban on doing business with American companies and citizens were no longer able to import cars or new parts.

This resulted in a necessity to become creative and skilled at keeping the old cars on the road and is the reason behind the 50s Americana car monopoly on the island.

You'll find old classics which could be worth millions rotting under banana trees, rarities beyond repair. Meanwhile, the ones that have made it are lovingly restored and handed down the generations.

As laws change and citizens are allowed to import modern vehicles, so too will the enchanting landscape, but so embedded into the national identity, these iconic classics will forever be a symbol of Cuba.

Modifications

Many of the fabulous old 50s cars are battered beyond belief and due to the American economic sanctions put in place, the old Dodges, Chryslers, Fords and Chevrolets are patched up and repaired with handmade, improvised parts to keep them going.

These old beasts may not be as technically safe as a modern vehicle, but the jumble of modifications means they don't go very fast and so the traffic accident rate in Cuba is well below that of the USA.

Although the innovation of the Cubans has kept these classics running, engine modifications have led to an increased amount of pollution with dense black smoke bellowing from exhausts.

Cuban diesel can be bought at half the price of petrol and with an average monthly wage of $25 a month, the majority of islanders have replaced their original straight-six and V8 petrol engines with old diesel engines, despite the fuel's high sulphur content.


More than just a car

In Cuba, the cars are a matter of livelihood, with many used as taxis, as well as being a key part of the country's tourist appeal. However, they're also a matter of national pride and a visual reminder of Cuba's political past – the working artefacts of the Cold War and the 1960 embargo.

These cars have been nurtured and lovingly restored, handed down families and made to last. They represent the Cuban spirit of survival and although if found in mint condition they could be worth thousands, they also have a unique and mystical value.

Times are changing

Things are changing politically and economically in Cuba and this is reflected on the roads. In 2014 President Raul Castro abolished the need for permission to purchase a foreign car, for the first time since the 1959 Cuban revolution.

Although this new law is fantastic news for Cuban citizens, the excessive price tag on new imports of sometimes three to four times the price you'd pay in the USA means it'll be a long time before all classics are phased out. Now you'll find iconic Chevrolets and Chryslers mixed in with Chinese cars like Kia Picantos and Hyundai Atos, along with a whole fleet of Chinese-made public buses.

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