One of my favorite mechanics, Ray Magliozzi from Car Talk, visited Havana Cuba to meet the mechanics, owners and drivers who keep the fleet of classic American cars that populate the streets of Havana alive. An article in ‘Cigar Afficionado’,captured the essence of the classic car scene in Cuba. I have copied liberally from the article since it says better than I ever could the history and culture of the classic cars in Cuba. “The 1930s-, '40s- and '50s-era Studebakers, Hudsons, Chrysler Crown Imperials, Buick Century Rivieras, Chevy Bel Airs and Styleline Deluxes, Ford Edsels and Fairlanes, among so many other long-extinct Detroit models, are alive and well in Cuba. These so-called "yank tanks" have long been a ubiquitous part of Cuba's national landscape and cultural identity—and are now emerging as a critical component of the nation's steady evolution away from strict socialism toward a mixed market economy.”
Further, it says that “During visits to restoration garages and auto shops Magliozzi compared notes with fellow Cuban mechanics on make-shift clutches, jerry-rigged exhaust manifolds, front-end alignments, master cylinders and bell cranks—all repaired without access to original parts or modern machinery. "I've been constantly impressed by the cleverness and the sheer determination of the people who keep these cars going," he marvels. "It's amazing."” This is what we experienced during our visit to NostalgiCar, seemingly a must-do stop on a lot of people-to-people tours for Americans in Cuba. On the day of our visit, we watched for an hour or so as they worked in the heat
trying to straighten the frame of a classic car, welding various parts to get it exactly right. Each adaptation was followed by some discussion as to what the next step might be. It’s a process of constant adaptation. It didn’t hurt my photographic focus that this man was pretty easy on the eyes and made goggle downright sexy!
“An estimated 60,000 American-made cars are on the island—almost all of them dating back to the early and mid-20th century heyday of the big three Detroit automakers. "The narrow old streets are jammed with big American automobiles," The Nation magazine reported in January 1928 when President Calvin Coolidge became the first, and, until Obama, the last U.S. president to visit the island. By the 1940s and '50s when Cuba had become a playground for the American rich and famous, as well as the U.S. mafia, the country also became a national showroom for shiny, new, Detroit-manufactured automobiles. Ford, Chrysler, Chevrolet and Cadillac dealerships lined Havana's leafy Prado boulevard. Indeed, Cuba gained the dubious distinction of importing more Caddys—Fleetwood convertibles, DeVilles, Eldorado Broughams—than any other nation in the world.”
But after the American embargo, this all ended. “Initially, as Magliozzi points out, the Cubans had spare parts on the island to repair cars. After those were used up, he says, Cuban mechanics cannibalized other American cars that were there "and when they ran out of what could be scavenged, they ran into ingenuity." For years, Cubans have molded and manufactured car parts by hand, using sheet metals, re-melted iron and plastic, even wood.” To me it recalls an era when we didn’t have so many new things so readily available. We all made do and fixed things the best we could to keep things functioning. Nevertheless, many of the old cars on the road are unsafe and dangerous from a health standpoint! I stood on a street corner for a couple of house to take photos of the old cars passing by and ended up with a budding case of bronchitis from the exhaust fumes. But the best of the vintage cars, lovingly restored, are less uncomfortable and dangerous and every tourist seems to want at least one ride in one.
To read the fascinating article in Cigar Afficionado, check here: http://www.cigaraficionado.com/webfeatures/show/id/cubas-classic-car-detente-18861