Cuba’s car culture is founded on a society that was once a democracy and has undergone a Communist takeover in more recent years. This oppression has limited the import and export of many products such as cars and car parts from the United States. The trade restrictions imposed by the US for the last five decades have left Cuba stuck in 1959. Classic American cars such as Chevy Bel Air’s, Ford Model A’s, and a variety of Soviet era automobiles grace the streets of Cuba’s Capitol city, Havana.
Visiting Havana is like taking a time machine back 60 years. I however, feel that this nostalgia only beautifies what Cuba has grown to become over the last five decades. The island nation’s air is thick and humid, with the smell of burnt oil and fresh cuisine. The buildings in Havana are decorated eccentrically with bright pink walls, blue roofs, and a palate of other colors catching the morning sun. The influence of classic Americana and Communism, is reflected by the cuisine, the culture, and the cars that adorn the streets of Havana. Cuba is more than just old cars, but their car culture is truly unique from any other place in the world.
Imports to Cuba have increased over the last several years resulting in an influx of 1980’s and 1990’s European cars with some new Chinese and Korean vehicles making it to Cuba’s shores as well. These newer cars are prized by Cubans who have historically only had older American cars and Soviet Lada’s at their disposal. Companies such as Citroen and Fiat have dealerships in Havana, yet most Cuban’s cannot afford to spend enough money to buy a new C4 or a 500. The average Cuban makes about $20.00 a month while a gallon of gas costs about $4.00 for 83 octane. As a result, many Cuban’s choose to repair older cars any way that they can.
It is estimated that there are some 50,000 plus pre-1960 American cars roaming the streets of Cuba. Up until 2002, only American and Soviet cars existed in the country. The American cars create a strong sense of pride for older Cuban’s while the underpinnings of the cars are likely an amalgamation of homemade parts and modified pieces that enable these old cars to run properly. Many of the American cars have received Four-cylinder transplants from Fiats as a way to combat high gas prices. Another popular modification is a trunk mounted propane tank which enables the vehicle to be powered by a cheaper alternative to gasoline. Since few replacement parts exist, Cuban’s have turned to harvesting old Volvo’s for their comfortable seats and have been recognized for their ability to transplant fluorescent tubes in place of halogen bulbs. Although Cuba does not produce their own automobiles, they should be recognized for their continued innovations as a result of their culture that has necessitated innovation and modernism.
The video below highlights some of the common cars found on Havana’s streets: