Many people dream of classic American cars still on the roads in Cuba. I can't say that it was much of a draw for me, as I'm just not a car guy. Being there gave me an entirely different perspective, though. These are no longer classic American cars. They're now entirely Cuban cars, forged by the people who keep them running.
Trying to Decipher Cuban Cars
I bet some of you think you know this car by its year, make, and model. You're wrong.
One of the first things I learned is that Cuban Cars are disciples of diversity. A car may have started its life as a 1948 Ford, but those days are long past. There are no spare parts for these cars, except for those that the Cubans can build, salvage, or trade from other cars. The notion of finding a pristine, original car in Cuba must be a myth.
Cubans are extremely resourceful. They keep these things running any way they can. If that means using the diesel engine from an old Russian tractor, then they cram it in there. I know, because I rode in one of those cars and the fumes from that diesel came in through the vents.
There is no EPA in Cuba. Expect pollution from the exhaust as these cars pass, or even as you ride inside of them.
Inside Cuban Cars
They aren't exactly luxurious inside, or even safe. Most of the seats I found inside Cuban cars weren't even bolted down. Sit on one side and the other will fly up if there is no counterweight. The upholstery reminds your great-grandmother's sofa, and you just feel the springs underneath. They squeak as the car hits potholes, curbs, or random tourists who didn't get out of the way.
Of course, some are better than others. This old Ford had some pretty comfortable, if also somewhat garish, leather upholstery.
No Color Too Wild for Cuban Cars
You can have anything you want. Turquoise or Neon Green.
Red car, Blue Car.
The quality of tires is optional, though. I found a school bus with tires so worn that several strands of the radial belts under the tread were visible. No EPA, no vehicle inspections. It seems like anything is game if it runs. I even found old cars being hauled by horses and oxen out in Viñales.
At least the taxis are mostly yellow.
I wouldn't own one of these rolling death traps if you paid me. The one that freaked me out the most was the old Chevy with no way to open the door or windows in the rear passenger area. You have to rely on the kindness of others to get out of that thing. I wonder if it was an old Mafia car used when they wanted to take someone out of the picture.
Despite those complaints of the cars as vehicles, they're absolutely wonderful as subjects. You won't see anyone pull up to an identical car in one of these classic beasts. Yes, there are modern cars in Cuba and some of them look the same. They're mostly used by the government because citizens simply cannot afford them.
Those circumstances created amazingly unique vehicles that are as colorful and faded as Cuban architecture. Each car is a vibrant reflection of its owner, making them something worthy of attention when you visit Cuba.