Before we arrived in Cuba we wondered how common the classic 1940s and ’50s American cars would be, given that the newest would be 57 years old by now and their maintenance would have been severely hampered by post-Revolution trade embargoes. The fuel shortages during the Special Period of the 1990s meant many vehicles sat unused as people took to bicycles and public transport.
However, we soon learned that the resourceful Cubans have worked miracles to keep so many of them running, their tough life evident in a patchwork of dints, bumps, scrapes, makeshift repairs and resprays which only added to the charm, and complemented the dilapidation of their surroundings.
The thing we noticed most was the size of the classic American cars – they’re huge!
The modest tail fin puts this Ford in the mid to late 1950s, when pointed tailfins and chrome were the futuristic fashion – America was in the Space Race with the USSR at the time
At first glance, this de-badged 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air Coupe looked abandoned
But its bright red interior and new seats mean someone’s looking after it and it’s slowly being restored
Unlike this 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air Sedan, which is how I imagined I would see a lot of the cars in Cuba; up on stilts, patiently waiting for its owner’s fortunes to change
The oldest car we saw was this 1921 Ford Model T Touring which sadly doesn’t work anymore and sits in the back of a pottery factory in Trinidad
The largest ‘sedan’ we saw was this monstrous late 1950s Lincoln Premiere – even the 2-door version sits 6 people!
Many people took to cycling as their mode of transport in during the economic crisis known as the Special Period and “bici-taxis” or bicycle taxis are still a popular form of employment and transport today. They typically have a simple roof providing shelter from the sun and the rain, but we loved the unique design and colourful artwork on these bici-taxis in Camagüey
Slightly larger than a bici-taxi and unique to Cuba are CoCo-taxis, small motorised vehicles that get their name because they resemble the shape of a coconut
We made use of private taxis for bus station transfers and the odd half-day excursion. Typically they’d be Ladas which were pretty common on the roads of every Cuban city we visited. I’d say about half of them had been modified, sporting huge drain-pipe or even sewer-pipe sized exhausts!
Lovely examples of the more original, unmodified Ladas we saw. From front to back, I think they’re an AvtoVAZ VAZ-2103 (exported from Serbia as the Lada 1500); It’s precursor and first AvtoVAZ car the VAZ-2101 (Lada 1200/1300); and the yellow one at the back is likely an earlier revision still, as it more closely resembles the car the other 2 are based on, the Fiat 124. 3 generations in a street!
Familiar to us from our travels in Russia is the Russian brand Kamaz. We saw plenty of their trucks on the main roads
There are mechanical garage services like we have here in the UK, but we also saw a bit of roadside maintenance being carried out in the street too..
An advantage of a huge car is the boot can hold all the tools for an owner’s workshop, like this one in a back street in Havana’s Old Town
We also saw a couple of chassis that had been stripped and resprayed, though I’m not sure this particular shade was one of the manufacture’s original swatches..
The result of the restorations are amazing – even though we were in Cuba for 6 weeks, we never tired of looking at them and we never saw two cars exactly alike either..
A 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air 2-door Hardtop in a lovely metallic baby-blue
Unsurprisingly, the cars in the best condition were to be found nearest the tourist money in Havana and Varadero. We found that the main road along the Varadero peninsula was ideal for classic car spotting..
A two-tone pink and white Pontiac
There were very few non-American classics from the 1950s, but we did spot this Mercedes-Benz W120
We spotted this near pristine Oldsmobile 98 sitting in a back street in Holguin. It looked even better when the sun came out!
I really liked seeing the whitewall tyres, and they’re a lovely complement to the paintwork on this beautiful Ford Fairlane 500
And speaking of paintwork, there was always a line up of gleaming, vibrant motorcars at the end of Parque Central opposite the Gran Teatro de la Habana
Havana’s Malecón was another great place to spot cars as it’s on the itinerary of all the classic car tours