Here's What Cuba's Car Scene Looks Like In 2017
Cuba feels more in flux now than it has in decades. Fidel Castro's
death, the repeal of the "wet foot, dry foot" policy and eased
restrictions on capitalism mean rapid changes for a country distinctly
shaped by a Cold War that ended decades ago. At the same time airplanes
full of tourists are landing in Cuba on direct flights from the U.S. for
the first time in decades, opening up a floodgate of incoming dollars.
So where does that leave Cuba's eclectic assortment of cars?
There's been some progress in expanding access to personal
transportation in Cuba, but it has been halting. In 2014 the government
abolished a system that required citizens to attain a permit to buy a
car, and loosened restrictions on new car imports. The new system fell
flat when markups equating to four to five times the base price left
supposedly cheap cars, like a Peugeot hatchback, with an astronomical
price of $85,000 U.S. In a country where a good state job pays $20 a
month, a new car would not be a realistic goal within 100 lifetimes of
saving for most Cubans.
I went down to Cuba recently, and while I was there I decided to take
stock of the country's famously unique car culture. Roughly the size of
the New York metropolitan area and with a population of 11 million,
there are an estimated 60,000 pre-1959 American cars still plying the
Cuban streets. An easing of the U.S. embargo could could have dramatic
effects on the overall Cuban automotive landscape.
Original American Classics
What I found is that the majority of vehicles in Cuba tend to fall into
five categories: original American classics, non-original American
classics, Russian cars and trucks, newer Chinese/Korean/Japanese
vehicles, and European cars—the latter being the smallest percentage.
Cubans are proud car owners, and yes, to maintain an American car for 50
years or more is a feat worthy of pride. Any given parking lot or square
in Old Havana is a spilled Skittles bag of brightly colored metal, and
every street echoes the deep thrum of Cadillacs, Chevys, Dodges, Buicks,
Fords and more that originally rolled out of Detroit half a century ago.
Most of the best-looking chromed-up convertibles and coupes are on
full-time tourist duty, cruising the Malecon from Old Havana to Miramar
night and day.
Originality is key, since foreign tourists, myself included, always want
the authentic experience. Absorbing the curved and blistered beauty of
these classics, I began to pay more attention to the rougher-looking
classics and the fact that the sound of their engines in many cases was
quite different from the deep GUG-GUG of the originals. Original
American classics are coveted and in most cases are on tourist duty.
Without an official tally it's impossible to know exact numbers of
originals vs non-originals, but to my eye and ear the originals seems to
be more popular in touristy areas (duh).
Regardless of political changes, we can assume these original American
classics will remain part of Cuba's automotive workforce. Like
stagecoaches on a dude ranch, these cars have become a part of Cuba's
identity that visitors want to see and experience. These original cars
also earn well for their owners.
Non-Original American Classics
But there's another, maybe better story beyond the postcard-perfect 1956
Ford Sunliners or the 1957 Chevy Bel Airs. Outside the touristy areas of
Old Havana you see many more American classics, but in much rougher
These are the daily drivers, the backbone of Cuba's personal
transportation fleet. Many do remain with their original engine and
transmissions, but many others have been gutted and adapted in favor of
newer Hyundai diesel engines. And some of those original V8 engines have
been replaced by diesel motors from Russian cars, or even boats. Gas is
very expensive in Cuba while diesel costs only about half as much.
My ear became keenly tuned to the idle sound when encountering any
American classic, more than half the time I was greeted to the
unmistakable clatter of a diesel engine at idle. There were whole shops
dedicated to fitting and fabricating newer, smaller, more efficient
Korean engines and differentials to massive American classics. These
non-originals are more likely to be customized on the interior as well.
A peek inside in many cases revealed a DVD player sitting in the dash
and various festive LED lights, a fascinating intersection of old and
new that would have American classic car purists pulling their hair out.
A dissolved U.S. embargo could flood the Cuban market with relatively
cheap new American cars, which could in turn greatly reduce the numbers
of these pre-revolution Franken-cars. As more new cars enter Cuba these
jerry-rigged American classics will inevitably be passed down and
essentially run into the ground. To think that Cuba's current youth may
find transportation freedom in an inherited or gifted Hyundai powered
1953 Plymouth is a romantic thought indeed.
Russian Cars & Trucks
The age range of Cuba's Russian cars is predictable, falling squarely
between the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and the fall of the Soviet Union in
early '90s. In rural areas or national parks like Parque Guayanara, the
only vehicles intrepid enough to tackle the deep jungle are enormous
Russian ZIL troop transport trucks ferrying tourists out and back from
beautiful natural caves and waterfalls. "Russian limousines," the Cubans
call these behemoths.
Large Russian KraZ semi tractor trailers still haul tobacco and other
cargo around Cuba. But most prevalent is the boxy Lada sedan, which, as
far as I can tell, really didn't get any design updates between 1970 and
1989. Many Ladas, Moskviches, and Volgas are used as taxis for the Cuban
population and many more are used as private vehicles. Most seemed to be
worn but running satisfactorily, but I did a see a few showroom quality
examples of these multi-decade-old Soviet sedans.
A warming of Cuban and American relations is not likely to bring new
Russian vehicle imports into Cuba in the foreseeable future. Who knows,
in thirty years the old Russian cars and trucks could take the role of
the current American classics. Not likely, but anything is possible in
the world where we live today.
Kia and Hyundai seem to be doing well in Cuba. Without having access to
definitive import numbers, it seemed that the highest number of the
newest cars on Cuban roads were Korean. My family and I traveled in a
mid-1990s Kia diesel van for our nine-day trip, and it was tired but did
For our excursion into the Guayanara Parque our required 4x4
transportation was a Hyundai Santa Fe. As we climbed the hills into the
park we sailed past a late '50s Chevrolet Bel Air chugging up the hill
full of passengers at about 1.5 mph, and I understood why we needed the
4x4 crossover. We saw other old American cars paused at the bottom of
hills so the owners could pour cool water on the radiator before making
At one point I was stunned to see what I thought was a Chevrolet Cruze,
but it turned out to be a Chinese built Geely. Sans badges I would have
a very difficult time differentiating the Chevrolet from the Geely; it
was a near carbon copy. Since 2009 the Cuban government has been
importing Geely vehicles for use as police cars, taxis, and rental
vehicles. I spotted one single Mitsubishi Lancer, and a small handful of
classic Toyota Land Cruisers outside Havana. Counter to U.S. market
share, the Japanese seem to have a smaller portion of the pie in Cuba.
Asian automakers seem to have good relations with the Cuban government
regardless of the U.S. embargo. It would be a safe bet to say that
Korean and Chinese manufacturers will continue to expand their imports
into Cuba as more Cubans are financially able to purchase new cars.
The majority of European vehicles spotted in Cuba were older
Mercedes-Benzes. The W123 and W124 Mercedes E-class from the late '80s
and early '90s were the most popular Euros, but still quite rare. The
newest cars I saw in the whole trip were current generation Mercedes
C200s, and most seemed to be rentals.
In Havana on our last night a black E-class deposited some
affluent-looking Russians outside a restaurant. That was probably the
most expensive car seen on the whole trip. One single BMW cruised past
the beach at Playa Giron (The Bay of Pigs)—a red E30 coupe.
Down a quiet alley in Old Havana a B7 Audi A4 sat with sun-damaged hood
paint and body repair on the front fender that was made obvious by the
splash of matte blue primer. I couldn't help but imagine the perfectly
molded Audi front fender repair was likely hand-measured and hammered.
Pre-revolution European cars were rare, limited to Mercedes W120 sedans:
Fiats, mostly 500s. Alfa Romeo seemed to have sent at least one ship
full of cars some time during the '80s; I spotted a few 159s and one
single Milano. French cars and vans from Peugeot and Citroen exist in
small numbers, owned by those willing and able to pay the astronomical
markups following the 2014 change in ownership rules.
I kept having exciting daydreams, hoping to see one of these big old
American original classics doing a tire-slaying smokey burnout in the
middle of the Malecon with waves crashing in the background. But then it
occurred to me that no Cuban in their right mind would waste tires so
frivolously. The simple fact that the roads are in such a state of
decay, to the point that speeds are dictated more by the ruts and
potholes than the marked signs. Most of the best old cars were piloted
around gingerly, 30 to 40mph, by their middle-aged Cuban padrones. When
tourists jump out of classic taxis, the drivers always reach across to
the passenger side to keep the door from being slammed too hard. They
close those doors like it's a baby's bedroom and the kid has just gone
In Cuba, nothing is really what it seems with these Korean-powered
American classics, but it's endearing as hell when you realize this is
about the only place on earth with a car landscape dictated by 60 years
of complex geopolitical jockeying. It should be fascinating to see what
that looks like in the decades to come.
Jonathan "JBH" Harper is a freelance journalist and photographer based
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