Cars of Cuba (March 2019)

                        Prior to the Revolution, before the US embargo, cars from the United States were imported into Cuba for about 50 years. In some cases, manufacturers sent new cars first to Cuba to use as a test market before releasing them to the general public in North America. At that time most all cars were imported from the United States since it was the closest source and Cuba’s main trading partner. Of course all that has changed and many of those cars, an estimated 60,000 of them, have become Cuba’s rolling Car Museum. To break it down….it’s estimated that half of those classic cars are from the 50’s, a quarter from the 40’s and the remainder from the 30’s. But Classic American cars aren’t the only vehicles on the road, with the Russian influence came the Lada, approximately 250,000 of them are on Cuban roads today (not to mention the Moskvitch, Volgas among others). By the 1980’s approximately one out of every three cars was a Lada…most Police Cars and Taxis were produced by the Russian manufacturer. You will also find a mishmash of some weird stuff and some things you haven’t seen in some time…I saw a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia and Fiat 600 from the 50’s on this trip as well as (like always) a bunch of cars that I’ve never seen before.
                     There was a time, before the necessity of tourism, when Classic American cars became more a problem than a solution. Gasoline was scarce and they needed a lot of it to get around….and because of the embargo, replacement parts were next to impossible to get without breaking a law. However, with the arrival of tourism in the early 90’s, more and more of the Classics emerged from their hiding places to be used to taxi tourists around. Today, travelers can take driving tours in classic cars, you can find them parked and waiting in several spots around Havana. However, not all these cars are in mint condition, actually very few of them are. The better ones are used for the tourists at about $25-$50 an hour but the majority of them are used to taxi locals around. These jalopies aren’t in the greatest of conditions and most have been fitted with a diesel engine (regular gasoline costs about $1.20 per litre while diesel costs a little less than half that) as well as other parts from an array of different vehicles, they are affectionately referred to as “Frankensteins.” Every Cuban that owns a car must be an amateur mechanic as most of these older cars are often breaking down, sometimes in the middle of the most inappropriate locations. Environmentally, the carbon footprint due to the exhaust from these diesel monsters is enormous….I know of many Cubans who have asthma which is probably directly influenced by the air quality of the city (there are no emissions controls in Cuba).
                     Cuba stopped importing Ladas from 2005 to 2017 but there has recently been a resurgence of that brand with imports of their latest models. Until recently all cars were owned by the state but as of 2011 all that changed when the government allowed Cubans to own cars and therefore creating a market. Older model Ladas can fetch up to $15,000 or more while a newer car like a Peugeot or an Aston Mini Cooper can go for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Recently the Chinese Geelys have entered the Cuban market mostly as rental cars as well as French Citroëns, Japanese Nissans, South Korean Hyundai and English MGs.
                    Although American Car Enthusiasts would love to get their hands on one of these Cuban Classics, it’s highly unlikely it will ever happen. Besides, most of these cars are hardly worth the trouble as most of them have been contorted out of shape so much that it would be impossible to refit then with their original parts. Even if the trade embargo was lifted, there’s a law in Cuba that disallows the cars from leaving the island. These cars are part of the Cuban identity and without them on the streets the landscape, or how we as tourists view it, would change dramatically and the government knows that.