Cuban classic cars are not just old cars but part of Cuban culture and heritage, and, most importantly, part of Cubans’ everyday life. They generally have been kept out of necessity, but it is surprisingly common to find proud owners who say that they would not change their “almendron” for a new model of the 2000s. Some Cubans have a taste for vintage cars. Here are some things to know about Cuba’s one-of-a-kind ‘car museum’.
1.Cuba holds the world record for classic cars traveling the country’s roads. There were 143 thousand American cars on Cuban roads back in 1956. More than 70 thousand of them are still functioning today as taxis, private means of transportation, rentals for tourists looking for a ride around the city or other forms of public transport. This isn’t an official number, but it is easily verifiable by just being in Havana and looking at streets crowding with vintage cars.
2.“Boteros” (Spanish for boatmen) do not operate boats in Havana, they are the men driving “almendrones” (big almonds), which is how Havana residents call vintage American cars. Boteros drive old cars turned into taxis, which in many cases have been modified to run on diesel engines and to accommodate more passengers. Some of these look a bit dilapidated.
The ones destined for tourist rides on the other hand look shiny & new and are painted in vivid colours, they have air conditioning and interiors full of original ornaments. Still, there is a third group, an authentic elite: these are cars preserved as relics by their owners, unmodified valuable museum pieces that keep original parts and even paint and wheels. They are rarely used, and only for a ride with the family, a public parade of classic cars or a luxury ride for tourists willing to pay an extra money for exclusiveness.
3.Why there are so many vintage cars in Cuba? It is a long story. In the 1920s, Cuba was the number one importer of US cars in Latin America. The latest models from American brands such as Chevrolet, Ford, Cadillac, Dodge, Buick and Chrysler would arrive early to Cuban roads. Cars were taken from the factories to US southern ports and then to Port of Havana just in a few days, and some models would touch Cuban pavement even before being for sale in the US, because Cuban roads ended up as a sort of test track for American car companies.
For this reason Americans who wanted the newest experimental models would buy their cars in Havana from authorized dealers and take them to US. Even though they arrived from the US just a few days before!
Then came the Cuban Revolution and the American embargo in the early 60s. More than 150 thousand American cars stayed in Cuba, but the factories they had come from stayed in the US, on the other side of the Cold War. New cars or spares would ever come again from the US to Cuba, nor even a screw. American classics remain being essential for Cubans, who learned how to fix them and keep them running in repair shops where LADAs, Moskvitchs, Volgas and Polish Fiats imported from the USSR and the Socialist Block were also taken care of.
And then came the 1990s, the collapse of the Socialist Block and the economic crisis. Cuba reopened its doors to the travel industry and a few market reforms. Tourists from capitalist countries returned to the island, and the use of the dollar was legalized. Classic cars became a profitable asset; tourists were crazy about them, and still are.
4.Ernest Hemingway lived and worked for twenty years in Cuba. The famous writer was drinking mojitos at La Bodeguita del Medio and Daiquiris at El Floridita when he was not fishing out in La Corriente del Golfo or writing at Finca Vigía. But those were not his only hobbies.
Hemingway enjoyed cars. He came to have seven cars at his Finca Vigía, in the outskirts of Havana city: a grey 1940 Buick Sedan Coupe convertible; a black 1941 Lincoln Cabriolet Continental 56.125 “W.B”; a grey 1941 Plymouth Deluxe Special Wagon, and a blue 1947 Buick Super Road Master convertible.
Also, he had a 1950 Buick Super 50-59 Station Wagon, a yellow 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook convertible, used by his wife Mary, and a luxurious red and white 1955 Chrysler New Yorker De Luxe convertible, one of the two cars of the model imported into Cuba (and one of the 59 manufactured for export).
This latter car was found a few years ago, taken back to Finca Vigía, a renowned museum on Hemingway, and since then Cuban and American enthusiasts have been working to restore it.
5.Old American Cars are today part of Cuban heritage. There are specialized mechanics who keep them running, and some owners can ask their relatives living at Florida to buy original parts in the United States and send them to Cuba. Also, Cubans started a few years ago, the business of buying original parts in the States (where certain companies are still manufacturing parts and components for classic models) and importing them into the island.
Cuba authorities want them staying in Cuba. A law from 2010 prevents foreigners from exporting cars from Cuba. Within frontiers, Cuban classic cars can be bought by Cubans and foreigners who are permanent or temporary residents.
WHYNOTCUBA (link to www.whynotcuba.com) We are an international network of Cubans and Cuba lovers dedicated to sharing travel inspiration and up-to-date travel advice about visiting the island.