HAVANA — I came to Cuba for the old cars — but I was misinformed. It turns out there are also lots of new cars in Cuba — and even, maybe, cars of the future.
The U.S. embargo that began in 1960 means there are still plenty of old cars.
It seemed to me that about a third of the vehicles in Havana are Buicks, Cadillacs, Chevies, Dodges, Fords, Oldsmobiles, Plymouths, Ramblers, Studebakers and Willys from the 1940s and ’50s, as well as British, French and German cars from the same era: Consuls, Hillmans, Land Rovers, MGs, Prefects, Vauxhalls, Zephyrs, Peugeots, and Opel Kadetts.
Many are taxis, but few are original. With no supply of replacement parts, innovation and creativity keep these cars rolling.
I rode in a 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air taxi powered by a Mercedes diesel motor, and later I was in a 1956 Chev Bel Air taxi with a transplanted Toyota truck diesel engine.
Another third of the vehicles are Russian-made Ladas and Moskvitches from the 1970s and ’80s. I rode in a Lada taxi, and I saw a six-door stretch Lada limousine in Old Havana.
I was surprised to see that the other third are vehicles from the 21st Century with familiar nameplates like Audi, BMW, Hummer, Hyundai, Jeep, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and Volkswagen.
There are also lots of cars we don’t see in Canada — but we might someday. These are cars already popular in other parts of the world, like Geely from China, Skoda from the Czech Republic, Peugeot and Citroen from France and SEAT from Spain.
Other cars that might eventually be sold in Canada are models offered by familiar automakers that are smaller than their current offerings in Canada, like the Kia Picanto (just 3,595 mm long), and Hyundai Atos (3,495 mm. long).
Only about 5 per cent of people in Cuba own their own vehicle. Most walk, ride a bicycle, hitchhike or take a bus or taxi to get around.
But that’s slowly starting to change. Under economic reforms by President Raúl Castro, the sale of private vehicles has been permitted since last year. Until then, people could only get cars through the government or their family. The government provided vehicles for high-level government workers and officials, and sports or artistic celebrities; families could pass vehicles down to their children.
I started chatting at a store with one local resident, a man in his 30s, who told me that because his mother is a doctor and his father is an engineer, the government always provided the family with cars.
“We had all kinds of cars when I was growing up, like Mercedes, Peugeots, Citroens — and, of course, Ladas,” he said with a laugh.
“My dad passed down his Lada to me a few years ago. When the government first allowed the sale of cars, I decided to sell the Lada — and I got money for it!”
Although he wouldn’t say just how much money he received, most used Ladas sell for anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 — which is like winning a lottery for most Cubans, who earn $20 to $40 a month, the country’s average wage. However, those who work in the tourist industry and get tips make significantly more.
The Cuban government made another change earlier this year when it began permitting the sale of new cars to individuals — even though the high prices mean that for most people, a car is still so far out of reach they will never own one.
But that doesn’t stop Cubans from dreaming.
I asked a man in his 20s — a vendor at a craft market selling all kinds of hand-made souvenirs, including key chains, paintings and purses — if he had a car.
“I can’t even drive,” he laughed. And that makes him very average in Cuba.
But he quickly added that someday he would like to learn to drive and have his own car — perhaps a 1957 Chevy.
His other favorite cars are not unlike those of many people in their 20s in North America.
“If I could have any car, I’d get a Chevrolet Camaro or a Ford Mustang. I really like the new Camaro. I also like the new Dodge Charger. People from other countries bring their cars with them here to Cuba. There’s a red Camaro that I often see in the embassy area of Havana” he explained.
I also noticed several post-embargo vehicles in Havana, including a Chevrolet Caprice, Chevy Nova, Dodge Caravan, Dodge Neon and Ford Aerostar.
The reality is that for most people in Cuba, in spite of the changes, owning their own car will only happen the old-fashioned way—passed down from generation to generation, like a rare, treasured heirloom.
One of our tour guides, a woman in her 40s who was an engineer before getting into the tourist industry, isn’t thinking about buying her own car because there’s already one in her family — a 1952 Chevrolet.
“My grandfather was very wealthy, but after the revolution most of what he had was taken from him by the Castro government. But he was allowed to keep his Chevrolet,” she explained.
“When he died two years ago, at the age of 93, my father inherited his Chev.”
Although permitting the sale of both used and new cars won’t actually make a difference for most Cubans, just the idea that they can buy and sell vehicles is showing that change, however slow it might be, is indeed coming to Cuba.
Dale Johnson is a freelance writer from Saskatchewan who contributes articles to Toronto Star Wheels on occasion. Email: [email protected]