Cuba never fails to amaze me. I was once running with my motorcycle (see Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro's Cuba ) beneath Pico Turquino, the island's highest peak. The blacktop had petered down to a coastal trail wrinkling up into sharp curves, clawing over great headlands and plunging into deep valleys. I tweaked the throttle to power up a steep hill, then backed off the gas near the top to keep the tires from spinning loose on the jarring piste of loose scree.
As I crested the ridge, my jaw dropped as an old Chrysler New Yorker came chugging up the hill in the other direction, oblivious to the gnarly terrain.
Cruising through the isle in quest of vintage American autos feels like a twilight zone form of time travel. Eisenhower era automobiles are everywhere. Corpulent Chevys. Chrome-laden Chryslers. Big-boned Cadillacs wallowing through the streets on sagging tires. Even Studebakers, Edsels, and Hudsons. Marques that disappeared from American highways decades ago still rumble down potholed streets throughout the isle. Reason enough to visit!
Classic pre-revolutionary autos number about one in every eight passenger vehicles in Cuba. Only a very rare handful are shining examples of museum quality. The majority are barely able to hang on to their homemade parts as they clatter down the highways on worn-to-the-fabric, under-inflated tires, their decades-old joints creaking and rattling rheumatically.
The tough reality of caring for vintage cars in the modern age of embargo and shortage poses challenges we can’t even think of. Forget spare parts dealers, classified advertising, or Yellow Pages. They don’t exist. There hasn’t been a car parts distributor in Cuba for decades. Nor are there Internet web-sites to help frustrated owners locate that desperately needed crank pin for a 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser. The island operates like a giant swap meet, with antiquated parts traded by word of mouth. Abandoned vehicles are picked clean until only the skeletons remain.
Most cars are a medley of oddball parts stitched together, like Frankenstein’s monster. Czech carburetors. Polish pistons. And other parts cannibalized off cars from the Soviet bloc. Need a new piston for your early fifties Chrysler? The pistons of a Soviet GAZ-51 truck will do just fine, as their engines were cloned from a Detroit engine. Many jalopies have long since been fitted with tractor or other diesel engines. Cubans are geniuses of eclectic invention. The most impossible conjugations will leave you amazed. Cuban car owners even concoct their own hydraulic fluids from shampoo, washing-up liquid, and left-over cooking oil mixed in a blender.
As for tow trucks or AAA, forget it. When your car breaks down, you’re on your own. Repairs are performed alfresco, in the street or wherever a car happens to fizzle and die. You get under the hood and find a way to cobble a solution from whatever the situation allows. If all else fails, Cubans invoke the help of Elegguá, the Yoruban orisha, or god, of destiny and the guardian of roads in the Cuban santería religion.
To read more, order my award-winning coffee-table book, Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles .