As we drove into Havana after arriving at the airport, we found ourselves transplanted back into the mid 1950’s, The existing architecture is a mix of 30’s art deco, 50’s renovations and 60’s Soviet-style block buildings. All at once your heart skips a few beats as you see flashes of bright color driving down the streets, and you are back at the ice cream drive-in, surrounded by 1956 Chevys, Fords, De Sotos, Edsels, Buicks and the occasional 1955 Cadillac convertible.
Let me share what I learned about the cars in Cuba. They are a prized possession, handed down in families from grandfather to sons to grandsons. Their primary use is for taxi service primarily to tourists, which generates much-needed income for each family and provides revenue to maintain the cars.
During the height of the U.S. embargo, no American cars were exported to Cuba. During the Soviet involvement from the 1960-s through the 1980’s, only Soviet block countries were allowed to export cars and trucks. After the fall of the Soviet block in the 1990’s, all economic support was withdrawn from Cuba and economic hardships were very severe. Cuban citizens were basically on their own and became very creative at finding ways to survive, including maintaining their basic possessions.
In talking to the owners of the cars, I found that most of them do their own repairs and maintenance. If they can, they take out the original engine and transmission and put them into storage so that they can rebuild them to the original specifications some day. Most conversions in the 1960’s were to the 4-cylinder Soviet car & boat engines. Today, they substitute other parts to keep their cars operating, such as using a Mercedes diesel engine on a 1947 or 1955 Chevrolet.