We’ve all seen photos of Cuba’s vintage car-fleet chugging along in the sunshine through colourful, cobbled streets, but there’s far more to these nostalgic, ancient engines than meets the eye. As a constant reminder of the frosty relations between America and Cuba, these beautiful beasts date back to before 1960 when the first trade embargo was put in place and Cuban’s were initially banned from importing new cars. The deserted tourist imports from the 1950s fast became the island’s leading mode of transport and a casual reminder of the country’s political position.
With thousands of collectors cars adorning the roads, you’d think Cuba were sitting on an automobile gold mine. While you can find some of the rarest vintage cars in the world, most of them have been subject to extensive modification or have simply left to rust and rot away, meaning in monetary terms they are worthless. Their existence is a testimony to the ingenuity of Cuban mechanics who have used everything from boat engines to shampoo for brake fluid.
The most common classic you will come across is the Chevy Bel Air, locally known as ‘cacharros’ meaning ‘piece of junk’. With the majority dating back to 1955/1957, you’ll recognise these beasts by their distinctive tail fin, tri-coloured body and chrome accents.
Another easily recognisable engine is the Ford Fairlane which was manufactured between 1955 and 1969. The original design came with a full-sized Ford body but later convertibles, retractables and a series of engine options came into play. This classic features in the Bond film, Die Another Day, where Pierce Brosnan drives a convertible model in a brown and cream colour.
Finally the distinctive Chevy Impala. Similar to the Bel Air, you’ll spot these collectors favourites by their chrome ornaments across the hood which come in a range of two and four door models and both hard top and convertible. This auto icon has been used across the world in film and television, graphics and toys.
Take a ride
Many Soviet-made limousines have been decommissioned by the government and are used as taxi’s across Havana. The most famous in the capital is the vehicle that was used Fidel Castro and former President Jimmy Carter in 2002. Known as ‘commandante’s’, the fleet of black, boxy ZIL-111 convertible models are still comprised of their original aesthetics with faux-wood inlay and cigar stained leather seats.
You’ll also find many private taxis’ offering fares in their old American cars and a host of rental companies offering services from airport pick ups to guided city tours. For the ultimate road trip, hire your own classic and explore the island at your own pace.
With a relaxation in import regulations and the car market having been opened up to all citizens, there’s concern the antique transportation system may soon be a thing of the past. Chinese-made public buses are a common sight as are modern, air-conditioned taxis but while Cuban citizens can now legally buy foreign cars, they come at a hefty fee. In a country where it’s hard to save money, it might take some time before the old classics are completely phased out.
Book a holiday to Cuba and take a ride in one of these charming cars.
Melia Marina Varadero
Varadero, Caribbean, Cuba
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