This month, we traveled to Cuba with the folks from Car Talk on an excursion to Havana to see first-hand how the people there have managed to get around without one of the biggest car producing nations on earth. What we saw was beyond inspiring.
American visits to Cuba have skyrocketed in the last year. Yahoo! Travel and Reuters noted that by the third quarter of 2015, more Americans had visited Cuba than in the entire year before. A lot of those Americans are riding around in air-conditioned Chinese tour buses, but we thought it was perfect timing to provide a list of lessons we learned about Cuba’s cars, its car culture, and the people who have kept these things running all these years. Cuba’s cars make it unique, but it won’t be this way forever.
Our guide for the tour of Cuba’s car culture was Peter Kornbluh, author of many books on Cuban-American relations, including the great history Back Channel to Cuba: the Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.
He’s a regular contributor to The Nation, and he’s the director of the National Security Archive‘s Chile Documentation Project and of the Cuba Documentation Project.
He’s also a Car Talk fan, and invited Ray Magliozzi, Car Talk’s staff and BestRide to Havana to get an inside look at Cuba’s car culture and the often superhuman effort Cubans put into keeping their cars running.
From the outset, almost everything we assumed about Cuba was incorrect. For example, we were surprised to note that we weren’t the only Americans there. Americans are flooding to Cuba by the thousands, thanks to educational groups that are running tours there. Our host, Peter noted that The Nation runs its own tour. Even a local theater on Cape Cod is running educational tours to Cuba now.
First, a bit of history:
On January 1, 1959, the socialist government of Fidel Castro overthrew a US-backed dictator who was friendly to American business interests. Almost immediately, the new Castro government became a thorn in the USA’s side. By March of that year, the Eisenhower administration was making overt attempts to oust Castro, and Cuban-American relations spiraled downward to their nadir during the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in April of 1961, through the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962.
Beginning on October 19 of 1960, the United States imposed a commercial, economic and financial embargo on Cuba, after Castro nationalized American interests in Cuba without compensation.
From 1960 to the present day, Cubans have been barred from buying American products, including automobiles, auto parts and supplies. Prior to 1960, though, this island just 90 miles from Key West in Florida was a destination for American tourists, and a business center for American captains of industry.
When Castro nationalized American interests and closed (temporarily, at least) Havana’s many casinos, all those cars meant to service Americans on the island were left behind. They became the most basic form of transport for Cuban citizens, and since the embargo has been in force, they’ve represented a large part of the transportation network.
Lesson 1: Cuba Has a Lot Fewer pre-1959 Fords and Chevrolets Than You’d Think
We expected to see a lot of Fords and Chevrolets, and there were a lot cruising the streets of Havana. But not as many as you might think, considering they represented a significant share of cars on American roads.
What we saw more than any other car on the road were late 1940s to late 1960s Buicks. Their prevalence makes sense if you think about who was coming to Cuba in the 1950s: tourists with wallets packed full of cash, and well-heeled American businessmen, ready to spend it at Cuba’s many casinos and nightclubs. These were people who expected a certain level of luxury, and as a result, Buicks are pretty well represented here.
In 2014, the Cuban government relaxed regulations that once barred ordinary Cubans from purchasing brand new cars. It even authorized a new car dealership, with Peugeot as the only franchise.
After six months in business, though, just 50 people had purchased cars from the dealership. The average Cuban earns about $20 a month, and new Peugeots were running around $90,000 thatks to a government edict, putting them way out of reach of just about anyone.
Lesson 3: A Large Percentage of Cubans Are Driving Cars From the 1970s
By far, the most plentiful cars in Havana are Ladas, copies of the Fiat 124 produced by the Russian manufacturer AutoVAZ based in Tolyatti, Samara Oblast. AutoVAZ exported more than 60% of the Ladas it produced, to every Western nation with the notable exception of the United States.
Forty years after the Soviet Union started exporting these stout little sedans and wagons to Cuba, they still represent 30 percent of all the cars on the road.
Lesson 4: A Lot of Those 1960s and 1970s Cars Are Russian
Along with the Ladas, other brands from the Eastern Bloc include GAZ-24 Volga and Moskovich. We spied a particularly lovely GAZ-24 Volga Estate. You can think of these cars as kind of a Russian Volvo 240. In their native country, Russians called them “Barja,” Russian for “Barge.”
Russia only built about 100 GAZ Chaika Limousines a year between 1977 and the late 1980s.
The GAZ Chaika was Russia’s mid-level town car in the 1970s, slotted beneath the more elite ZIL. In the early 1980s, Russia shipped 10 GAZ Chaikas to Cuba for use by the Cuban government.
A handful of them are still in use now as taxis, and for short money, you can pack seven people inside one to see the sights. Two are in regular residence right outside the Hotel Capri.
(Just a quick side note: The Hotel Capri was originally built by American gangster Meyer Lansky in 1957 as a casino. If you’ve ever seen the Alec Guinness film Our Man in Havana, the opening sequence features a shot of the hotel’s rooftop pool, the only one in Havana at the time.)
Photo Credit: A Sharper Focus, Essays on Film by Norman Holland
Lesson 5: Cuba Has Access to Parts, But Not Much
There was a lot of misconception about what’s available in terms of parts. Cuba has robust trade with Russia and China. It also has a fair amount of trade with Canada, which supplies things like body filler and paint.
A lot of the parts required to repair those imported Ladas, for example, were pretty plentiful. In the garage tour video below, Ray Magliozzi found out from Paul Gómez at Planta de Direcciones Automotrices that the Lada flexible driveshaft coupling or “guibo” from the Soviet era was a lot more reliable part than the ones that showed up after the Soviet Union collapsed.
VIDEO: Car Talk’s Ray Magliozzi Visits A Havana Repair Shop
Lesson 6: What Parts Cubans Don’t Have, They Make
Say you’re a car collector in the United States and you’ve got a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air with a rusty fender. You grab a copy of Hemmings Motor News, or pick up a catalog from Classic Industries or any number of parts suppliers, place a quick phone call and a few days later, Mr. Brownpants arrives in his UPS truck with a perfect replacement, drop-shipped to your door.
That’s not happening in Cuba. Not yet, anyway. Cubans like Julio Álvarez and his wife Nidialys Acosta at NostalgiCar are building their own parts from scratch. NostalgiaCar is a vintage car-hire service that can shuttle you everyplace you need to go when you’re in Havana.
Julio showed Ray the jig he made that he uses to bend sheetmetal into a rough approximation of a 1957 Chevrolet fender.
Lesson 7: Cuban Cars Don’t Usually Have Their Original Engines
We had the expectation that we’d arrive in Cuba and find a lot of cars still running around on their flathead V-8s, but in our five days in Cuba, we only drove in one car that had a gas engine from the same era in which the car was built.
The vast majority of Cuban cars have been retrofitted with much later model four-cylinder, naturally aspirated diesel engines from Hyundai and Kia, mated to a five-speed manual transmission.
During the 1990s, Cuba went through what the government euphemistically called the “Special Period.,” a difficult economic period when aid from the Soviet Union dried up. Cuba had lost its greatest patron and as a result, needed to make some serious changes. One of them was an attempt to protect Cubans from the rising price of gasoline.
To help, the government purchased tens of thousands of Kia and Hyundai diesel engines and sold them to the ordinary Cubans who drove cars from the 1950s. They retrofitted their American cars to accept the small diesels. Our driver Edel Garcias from NostalgiCar noted that most cars still ran their original rear differentials, which weren’t optimized to power a big car in the city. He — and many other cubans — were waiting for friends to return from the United States with 4.10:1 ring and pinion sets so they could get better acceleration in the city.
Lesson 8: The Roads Are A Lot Better Than We Expected
We also assumed that the roads in Cuba were degraded to the point of impassability, but that’s not the case at all. Our driver Edel did say, “In Cuba we don’t have potholes, we have tank holes,” but the main roads were a lot nicer than we expected them to be.
The secondary roads deep in the city had issues, for sure, but the major highways were concrete, and probably poured in the 1950s some time. They were in remarkably good condition for their age.
Lesson 9: Cuba Has a Significant Pollution Problem
From the moment we arrived to the second we left, Havana was cloaked in a constant haze of black diesel smoke, so thick you could taste it. It’s a country that’s begging for an influx of decent used cars from the late 1990s and early 2000s to step up to modern safety and emissions standards.
Lesson 10: Cuban Mechanics Will Survive the Zombie Apocalypse
There’s no issue finding things like SAE wrenches and screwdrivers, but specialized automotive tools are hard to come by in Cuba. Ray Magliozzi adjusted the valves on a ’58 Chevrolet Impala and when Julio Álvarez at NostalgiaCar handed him a set of feeler gauges, all the numbers were worn off.
When Paul Gómez at Planta de Direcciones Automotrices — a great shop specializing in auto service — showed us the drill press he was so proud of, it was because he’d replaced a broken return spring with a stack of gears that acted as counterweights on the back of the drill motor to return the press to the start position.
His brother Felix showed us the reference manual for the Bear alignment rack. It had to be from 1956, and he had to have his daughter translate it because he doesn’t read English.
Every time we curse the gods for hiding a 10mm socket, we’ll remember what these guys had to go through just to align a front end.
Seeing the lengths these proud, hard-working people have gone to in order to keep their cars running was an inspiration. If Cubans can wring decades of use out of a Lada from the 1970s, we should be thinking about our own disposable culture and how we can extract as much use out of a car as possible.
VIDEO: The Car Culture of Havana: A Tour with BestRide.com
If you’re planning to go to Cuba in the near future on an educational excursion, there are some things you don’t want to miss:
There’s no better way to get around the city than in one of these great vintage cars. Get in touch with NostalgiaCar at their website.
Hitch a ride with the Havana Model T club. We drove around with Fernando, Rafael, Juan, Reiby, and Nelys in a bunch of vintage Fords from the 1914 to the 1930s.
You’ll find these folks all over the city, especially if you visit Plaza de la Catedral in Havana, one of the five main squares in Old Havana. Look for them at the taxi stand near the cruise ship port.
CLICK ANY OF THE IMAGES BELOW FOR A GALLERY OF PHOTOS FROM THE TRIP