The Truth About Cuban Cars — Before You Head There Looking to Buy A Classic

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One of Cuba’s most distinct features has been the requirement that Cubans had to made do with the cars that existed on the island prior to 1959. Now that the United States is softening its relationship with Cuba, a whole lot of Americans immediately started thinking about how to get there with a fistful of money and score a well-preserved classic. Not so fast, Yankee.

Since 1959, only officials, doctors and others with government connections or proof of foreign exchange income were allowed to purchase new cars. If you weren’t one of the chosen people, you fixed the cars that were trapped in Cuba at the time Fidel Castro took over in 1959.


Today, President Barack Obama announced a “new chapter” in U.S.-Cuba relations, calling the revisions the “most significant changes in US policy towards Cuba in 50 years.” In his announcement today, President Obama noted that the United States will open an embassy in Havana in the next few months.

The new policy is part of a deal that resulted in the release of American citizen Alan Gross, who had been imprisoned in Cuba for espionage, as well as three Cubans jailed in Florida for the same offense.

The plans detailed by the White House include:

  • Reviewing the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism
  • Easing a travel ban for US citizens
  • Easing financial restrictions
  • Increasing telecommunications links
  • Efforts to lift the 54-year-old trade embargo

The final bullet is the key to how Cuba’s automotive landscape will change in the coming years. Prior to 1959, Cuba was a regular consumer of American-made automobiles.


Raul Castro’s administration has sought to ease restrictions in the last few years. In 2011, individuals could buy new cars if they had permission from authorities, but there was up to a five-year waiting list to get a new vehicle. In 2014, restrictions were eased further, but a heavy tax  – of up to 100% – was in place to fund public transport.


Cuba’s automotive landscape is bound to change as the trade embargo officially lifts in the coming years. Already, the Pontiacs, Studebakers and Oldsmobiles plying Cuba’s roadways compete with newer vehicles from China. No doubt, American manufacturers will push to lift restrictions as quickly as possible, to open a whole new trading market, with 11.7 million new consumers who have experienced a 55 year drought of American cars.

The question for many Americans is “How do I get down there with a fistful of cash to buy those awesome classic cars?”

The answer isn’t exactly what you want to hear. These are 55 year old — and older — automobiles that have been used every single day. They aren’t concours queens tucked in humidity controlled garages.  They’ve been held together with baling wire and gumption since before Kennedy was president.

The ready supply of restoration parts for some American cars in the United States has not been present in Cuba, so cars have been refitted with all manner of orphaned parts. According to a paper by James P. Warren and Marcus P. Enoch, “Mobility, energy, and emissions in Cuba and Florida” in Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, when Cubans traveled in classics, the cars were usually loaded past the maximum allowable weight and were forced ti travel on decaying roads, resulting in even more abuse to the already under maintained vehicles.

An article in the Detroit Free Press from 2011 illustrated the issues with the classics:

“The 1955 Dodge has a 2-liter bottle strapped to the driver’s-side door frame, with a hose leading from the bottle to a hole in the hood.

It is the gas tank. And it works.

Although the aqua car’s interior is stripped, owner Obel Aguado still drives it to work at the Los Jazmines viewpoint snack bar.

‘He’s going to put a Bulgarian diesel engine in it,’ another man said proudly. ‘He has a lot of work to do.'”

“Sometimes you see a pile of rust on four tires, and you’re thinking, how can that thing even move?” said John McElroy of Autoline Detroit, who has been to Cuba. “I saw people who were making their own brake fluid using sap from a bush and mineral spirits.”

Considering what it would cost to buy a car and ship it back to the United States, you might want to look toward a vintage car in Arizona instead.

Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at BestRide.com.

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