You may (or may not) know much about Cuba, that mystical little island that sits about 90 miles off the south coast of Miami. You probably do know about the world’s appetite for the finest Cuban cigars and rum, the latter being the primary ingredient of the perfect Mojito. Maybe you’ve heard that president Obama began easing U.S. trade and travel restrictions with Cuba a few years back. If you’re a little older you may remember the Russian/Cuban Missile Crises, or the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion. And you probably heard that Cuba’s 90 year-old revolutionary dictatorial leader, Fidel Castro, recently passed away. In its heyday, Cuba was nicknamed the “Paris of the Caribbean,” and played host to the rich and famous, the Rat Pack, the mafia, several heavyweight boxing bouts and wealthy vacationers from around the world: an irresistible combination of waterfront hotels, gambling, sunny beaches, rum and cigars.
I have long heard of the crazy car scene down there, where old American cars are held together with bailing wire, tape, and tractor parts, or whatever the resourceful Cuban car enthusiasts can get their hands on in order to keep their cars on the road. I had visions of brightly colored American ragtops, filled with tanned, attractive, Cuban women cruising up and down the waterfront. I’m here to tell you, brother, that it’s all true. American cars used to be freely imported into and sold in Cuba, prior to the United States’ trade embargo beginning in 1959 – this was the American Government’s way of protesting the Cuban Revolution, Communism, and the reign of the Castro family. The last new American cars to legally make it to the island were 1959 and 1960 models. I had to see it for myself, so wife Linda and I went in late 2016, just prior to Fidel’s passing.
Experts estimate that 50-60,000 pre-1960 classic American cars are marooned on the island, as no new American cars are currently being sold there, and it is illegal to export vintage tin off the island for two reasons. The first is that they are now considered national treasures, part of Cuba’s color and history. Secondly, it would be detrimental to the locals who depend on these cars as a means of transportation and often income. Many other countries have free trade with Cuba, so most of the new cars you see are Russian, Italian (primarily Fiat), German, Korean, and Japanese. Any post-1960 American car or truck made it to Cuba via one of several black markets.
On the plane ride from LA to Miami, I was wondering how long I’d have to wait, or how far I’d have to walk, so see cool cars out prowling the island. The answer turned out to be “30-30” that being 30 feet or 30 seconds, whichever came first. I cleared customs and walked out of the charming little airport in Santa Clara (just a few hours outside of Havana) to a parking lot about the size of a baseball diamond, and my camera combusted spontaneously: ’57 Chevys, a couple ’55-56 Fords, a few American trucks, and the absolute most battle-worn ’59 Chrysler Imperial Crown Coupe I’ve seen this side of a wrecking yard.
And it was in this airport lot that I met up with my tour bus driver for the week, Frank. Frank is a tough but friendly local who has been driving taxi for 25 years, and Frank owns, drives, and built, the Blue Whale. The Blue Whale began life as a standard 1948 Ford F-1 panel delivery, which worked its first career for a coffee delivery company. Over the decades, the “Ford, 48!” as Frank calls it, served well but just wore out. Frank picked it up as a tired, but generally complete, non-runner. No problem: Frank had plans. He and a couple buddies cut the old Ford into quarters if you were looking down from the top. They then widened it a little more than a foot, then lengthened it two feet. This major surgery greatly increased the track, comfort, ride quality, and interior dimensions – in the Cuba tour taxi biz, more seats means more income potential.
The frame needed serious expanding and reinforcing to match the newly enlarged bodywork. The guys re-engineered the whole undercarriage and beefed up the suspension. Frank wanted it stable and smooth, which meant dual rear wheels, like any current one-ton “dually” truck would have. So he found a Ford 9-inch rear end, narrowed it, then machined new hubs and axles set up for eight-lug duals out back. No stock powertrain would handle the gaff of up to 10 passengers plus luggage, so Frank and friends latched on to a Toyota four-cylinder diesel truck engine, then hand fabbed motor mounts and a bellhousing adaptor to mate it to a Nissan heavy-duty truck 5-speed, granny low, manual gearbox.
While the boys were at it, they plumbed it up for power steering, brakes, and AC. It took lots of time, money, and some serious sheet metal fortitude and parts scrounging, to fill in all the missing bodywork created by the lengthening and widening job, which Frank and pals did in his driveway. They also added an additional door on the passenger side, and comfy seats and sliding windows commandeered from a boneyard bus. The whole thing got a gray and blue upholstery job inside, and stainless steel trim and running boards out. Frank’s backyard also served as his spraybooth, and he and his pals finished it off in a mid-50s Ford non-metallic blue hue. The Blue Whale indeed. All in it was about a five year build, of mostly nights and weekends as all the guys have families and worked full time. Inside, the AC blows cold, the nav system keeps track, and you can watch DVDs if you want to, but I never did, as the colorful scenery passing by outside was entertainment enough for me. Frank keeps the Blue Whale immaculate at all times, and the big blue bus never overheated, ran warm, neither burped, farted, nor acted up in any way, no matter how many hours a day we ran it. If there’s a cooler way to cruise Cuba than this truck, I never saw it.
As the days rolled by, I learned from Frank (and my American, multi-lingual tour director, also Matt) and observed that there are about four levels of cars plying Cuba’s sometimes great, more often crappy roads.
The top rung are very clean, handsome, nicely restified cars, mostly American convertibles of the 1950s; these are owned by the island’s most ardent enthusiasts and often serve as “tour taxis” down by Havana’s waterfront; plus cars just one level down, that may be converts or sedans. Then another similar layer of cars that don’t do taxi duty of any kind; private enthusiast owned cars.
Then finally a large community of still running semi–beaters that are either privately owned personal transport, or “route taxis” for locals to take to and from work.
I also discovered a bodystyle pecking order; the 50s era American convertible is king; next down from that is a coupe that’s been chopped into a convertible, which may or may not have a folding fabric top. The four door sedans and wagons are next, since they work well as taxis, and finally two door coupes and sedans are the least sought after; less room than the sedans and not as easy to hop in and out of on taxi runs. Expect to see nearly any American brand on the island:
Chevys and Fords are the most popular, Cadillacs and Lincolns are the kings of the hill, plus all of the other GMs like Buick, Olds, and Pontiac, and some Canadian GM and Ford (badged as Mercury) cars and trucks. Every once in a while, you’ll see an old Hudson, Kaiser, or Studebaker come grumbling by. Jeeps and particularly Jeepsters are very popular, as are early Toyota Land Cruisers. I swear that every 1947-1954 Plymouth sedan still running on earth is somewhere in Cuba; most in fair to shabby condition, running local worker taxi routes.
You’ve likely heard that the parts supply down there varies from scarce to non-existant. While some Chinese made reproduction parts filter their way onto the island, you won’t likely find American made or factory replacement parts. You need an OEM rebuild kit for a 283? – forget it. This is one reason so many cars in Cuba boast crazy engine swaps. That and the fact that regular gasoline – at 83 Octane, no less – is about a buck a quart; diesel is cheaper and better quality. And diesel engines are plentiful; most tractors and industrial equipment run on diesel, as do many of the cars. One popular favorite is a Ssangyong inline 5-cylinder diesel – with turbo or without – that’s a near exact Korean copy of a similar Mercedes-Benz passenger I-5 oilburner. As noted, Frank’s Blue Whale ’48 Ford taxi bus runs a Toyota truck I-4 diesel with loads of torque, easy parts supply, and relatively good fuel mileage on the local diesel.
Now Carlos – a hyper Lebanese who retired to Cuba runs a Hyundai turbodiesel engine and 5-speed manual trans in his fabulously red and white ’55 Bel Air convertible, and swears it to be the best upgrade swap there is. He usually works the area around Cuba’s capitol building in Havana, and will take you on a one hour top down tour around all of the city’s hot spots – and talk your ear off in any of the six languages he speaks – for about $40. You can tell the cars that run modern turbodiesels, as they move along pretty briskly with minimal black smoke. Older, nat asp smokers are noisy and smelly, as you’d expect.
Havana’s NostalgiCar survives two ways; the first is by buying and restoring cars which it then operates as classic tour taxis. Or the shop will restore customer cars; the shop owner has found enough black market channels by which to get parts without paying the usual 100% kickback premium, and is also good at fabricating or refubishing/recycling what they can’t buy new. NostalgiCar Cuba rarely performs diesel conversions any more; its restorations are highly authentic and beautifully done. These guys do the heavy metal work — old school cutting, patching, and replacing as opposed to troweling on the Bondo. Their cars look and run great. President and First Lady Obama visited this shop during their tour of Cuba early last year.
Owner Julio Torres also advises that cars like the big blue ’58 Bel Air hardtop sedan he just finished restoring, are more popular with six-cylinder engines than with V-8s. The I-6s are easier to rebuild, require less parts, and run better on the poor quality gas they have on the island.
We did spot a few well restored classics still running authentic engines such as one intensely pink ’54 Plymouth ragtop still powered by its rebuilt, original flathead six. One ’57 Ford we checked out closely still ran a rumbling, healthy sounding Ford Y-block.
In the U.S. we are spoiled to have dozens if not hundreds of great museums and car collections to see; Cuba has one. It’s modest yet interesting. Just a week before my visit, Hurricane Matthew passed near Cuba, dropping torrential rains for several days, and the Museo Automovil was flooded, so the state-owned collection moved to a temporary warehouse location near old Havana. The cars were fine, although the current hopefully temporary display is simple, bereft of the dazzling museum craft we are used to at places like the Petersen Automotive Museum, the Henry Ford, Smithsonian and the others we can all name. Curator Eduardo was happy to get the collection’s modest archives out undamaged. No matter, the cars are cool.
Simple stuff, like Model Ts and Model As. A couple Alfa Romeos, one of them the only “Spider” model on the island. An ‘83 Malibu; a pair of Jags. A few 60s GM sedans, a Rolls-Royce, a Packard, and so forth. Plus a row of 40s and 50s stick-shift Harley-Davidsons that would surely find ready homes with American bike collectors.
The Cuban people are warm, wonderful, and appreciative of our interest in their historic country. You don’t see crime or drugs. The food is inexpensive and superb. The ocean is clean and the beaches pristine. The cars are colorful and interesting. And there is little better than cruising up and down the famous Malecon (the seawall which defines Havana’s ocean border, pronounced Mall-eh-cone) in an old American ragtop with the top down.
Senior – Uno mas Mojito por favor!
Special thanks: Brenda Priddy, Matt Smith, www.DetoursWithMatt.com, Alejandro, Frank.
Please don’t leave, lots more photos just below