Cuban classic cars – a dying breed?
Cuban classic cars: a dying breed?
Andrew English, motoring correspondent
27 JUNE 2016 • 4:53PM
Cuba’s roads are crowded with Fifties Americana due mainly to US
sanctions. But as things change politically and economically, is Cuba
about to lose a charming part of its heritage?
Visitors to Cuba return with stories of the dance music, the
cocktails and the fabulous old Fifties American cars, most of them
battered beyond belief but still plying their trades as cabs on Havana’s
streets. For 54 years, American economic sanctions made new vehicles
virtually unobtainable, which meant that the old Dodges, Chryslers,
Fords and Chevrolets from the pre-Castro days are constantly mended and
modified to keep them going.
Under dictator Fulgencio Batista in the Fifties, Cuba was a holiday
destination for America and the mob and lots of American cars were
imported from the US, which is only 90 miles away. After Fidel Castro’s
revolution they remained in aspic and on a recent trip to the island we
counted endless examples, including some British rarities such as a
Morris Minor and an Austin A35.
While these old hulks are not as safe as a modern supermini, they don’t
go very fast and Cuba maintains Draconian penalties for traffic
offences, and the traffic accident rate is below that of the US. They
aren’t particularly environmental, however, and while Cuba is quite
small (42,000 square miles with a population of 11.2 million), the cars
throw out a lot of pollution either from their old straight-six and V8
petrol engines or the old diesels with which they are converted.
It’s been a cottage industry converting these old cars and keeping them
on the road, and one of the foremost restorers is Jorge Hernandez, who
has been working on American cars in a small village near Havana for 20
“We only work on American cars because we have the tools and the
experience to do it,” he says. “I think we are very good at working on
Hernandez has a team of six mechanics/restorers and can do anything from
a simple service to a full restoration and an engine transplant. Petrol
costs about $1.20 a litre in Cuba, diesel is about half that, but with
average wages at $25 a month, a lot of taxi drivers opt to have a
secondhand diesel engine transplanted in place of the original petrol
“We sometimes import the whole front half of a [diesel] car,” says
Hernandez, “with 200,000km on the clock. We sell the parts and keep the
diesel engines and transmissions, which we repair and fit to the cars.”
Hernandez says it breaks his heart to fit these diesel engines, but
“Personally I find it painful to remove the original motor, but it’s
economics,” he says. His firm keeps the old engine and transmission just
in case a customer decides he wants to return the car to the original
There is a rub here, however. With an average sulphur content of 4,000
parts per million, Cuban diesel would quickly poison most modern
turbodiesel engines. The EU limits sulphur in diesel to 350ppm, while
Cuban limits are up to 8,000ppm and you can see the results in the form
of noxious black smoke from the exhausts of buses and trucks.
Particulate levels are so sky high, I was forced to pull up from an
early-morning run in Havana coughing and spluttering.
To cope with this grotty fuel, the most suitable oil-burners are robust,
older SsangYong/Mercedes five-cylinder units, as well as those from
early Hyundais and Toyota Landcruisers, though some Peugeot units are
used, which are cheaper, but take more work to install. The state
permits the importation of these old engines, but takes a hefty cut when
they are sold on – and a half-decent SsangYong/Merc engine and
transmission can cost up to $4,000.
“Hyundai, SsangYong, good,” said my cab driver in a 1966 Chevrolet Bel
Air. His was fitted with a tiny Hyundai unit which could barely keep
pace with the demands of its air conditioning let alone keep up with the
Hernandez says he has fully restored about 130 cars and 90 per cent of
them have had the original motor replaced.
It’s not just the punitive import duties on parts that hamper his work,
but in many cases the bits for these old cars simply aren’t available.
While a lot of the old cars on Cuban roads bear the scars of battle and
the fight to keep them going, there are also some stunningly restored
old motors out there.
The Cuban classic scene has strict standards for its concours
competitions. While diesel transplants are allowed, they are relegated
to the third and lowest judging category, the second category must have
original motors and the first and most prestigious group must have its
original driveline, trim, brakes and interior. The ingenuity used to
recreate their past glory is simply amazing. Hernandez explains that the
old trim is taken off, painstakingly restored and rechromed or
“The new reproduction stuff is too shiny and it doesn’t carry the
correct serial number of the car,” he says.
Panels are welded up with new metal let in where corrosion has taken
hold and the seats and cabins are retrimmed. But what about the glass,
Hernandez explains that the original Fifties compound-curved glass is
almost impossible to get these days, so instead his team have made a
special jig into which they feed a more readily available Moskvich
windscreen, heat it up and remould the glass to the correct shape.
A full restoration takes Hernandez’s team about six to seven months and
costs $10,000, although he admits that a lot of the delay is in getting
the right parts imported and “the economic condition of the customer”.
With all the right bits in place together, with the money, Hernandez
says he could do a full restoration in two to three months.
“For us, these are more than just classic cars,” he says. “They are more
than a hobby, they are part of a family tradition.”
He says his favorites are the 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air models. “This is
the most beautiful American car. It was one of the most imported cars
into Cuba and it’s also one of the most expensive to repair. A lot of
owners wouldn’t swap their old classic Chevrolets for a modern car.”
But with interest rates, stocks and bonds giving low returns, the values
of classic cars as investments has spiralled around the world. Hernandez
must know the value of these cars through word of mouth. So what happens
in six months when there are 15 flights a week from America bringing
monied tourists with a desire to make quick buck out of the old cars?
“This is a question of pride,” he says. “We are not going to sell our
cars to Americans. They are to blame for the poor state of these cars;
we look after them, they destroy them.
“I don’t think they will come,” he says. “We wouldn’t sell our cars
cheap and I don’t think they’ll want to buy them back. Besides, Europe
will want them too, and their prices will be better.”
It’s easy to make judgments about Cuba and its natives – which are
usually wrong. We rich Europeans arrive there with all our stuff and
compare ourselves with the seemingly happy and self-contained but
dirt-poor Cubans. But you don’t need much to live in Cuba and Castro,
for all his faults, made sure that the education and public health
systems were reasonably well funded even if some households only have
water once every two days and on many parts of the island water is
delivered by truck.
Equally it’s too easy to eulogise the Cuban way of life, which is like a
throwback to the days before we gorged ourselves on burgers and sugary
coffee, seemingly incapable of not looking at our mobile telephones for
more than a minute. The smiling faces, simple pleasures of dancing,
talking and walking seem hugely attractive to us, but Cuba is
desperately in need of some kind of investment, if the West doesn’t do
it, the Chinese surely will.
Nothing is going to be the same in Cuba and that includes those glorious
Source: Cuban classic cars: a dying breed? –