Havana has a widely known reputation as an everyday rolling classic car show, but Cuba is not the only country where political and economic conditions have created an environment filled with decades-old cars that remain well maintained and in daily use. Another such place is Lima, capital of Peru, wracked by civil war and burdened by international debts during the 1980s and 1990s but peaceful and experiencing rapid economic growth since 2000. Its streets have a remarkable number of survivors from the 1950s through the early 1980s, demonstrating that in any place with a lot of people and relatively few machines, people will take very good care of each machine and extract the maximum useful life from it.
A good place to start is with a classic found in daily use worldwide, the Mercedes W123 sedan. The green W123 seen in the background of the first photo is an example of the most basic model, never imported into the U.S.: a 200 with manual transmission and crank windows. The cheapest way to buy a non-diesel Mercedes from 1976 to 1985, it would have been a good choice for a prosperous buyer looking for a high quality car and with no need for blazing speed. This one is a 20-footer that is rougher than it appears at a distance but appears well maintained and remains in everyday use.
Your eyes were not deceiving you in the previous photograph when you thought that you saw a Starbuck’s and a Chili’s in the background. With Peruvian cuisine (ceviche, etc.) becoming trendy worldwide, it is amusing to note that the cool kids in Peru are consuming the exotic cuisine native to the land of American Suburbia. Your eyes also were not deceiving you when you thought that you saw a white Lada waiting to make a left turn in the lower right of this photo. It is one of numerous examples of this Soviet version of the Fiat 124 in Peru. With its four headlights and grille extending beyond the headlights, it appears to be the VAZ-2103 export model, produced from 1972 to 1984. The Soviet Union exported this upgraded Lada in substantial numbers to Europe and South America, where they were the cheapest new cars available, and they are an everyday sight in Lima 30 years after the last one arrived.
Speaking of collisions between the United States and the Soviet Union, looking straight out of a car chase scene from The Americans, this Chrysler M-Body Dodge Diplomat or Plymouth Gran Fury survives in taxi usage after at least a quarter century. It and a surprising number of Mopars from the 1960s and 1970s, including a 1964 full-size Dodge, a late 1960s Dart, and a late 1970s Dodge Monaco or Plymouth Fury in the exact same color scheme as the 1978 Monaco profiled earlier, appear to represent most of the American car contingent on the streets of Lima.
The 1950s American cars that abound in Havana are seldom seem in Lima, but the few on the streets appear to be in superior condition. With Cuba and Peru at opposite ends of the economic prosperity scale in Latin America during the 1950s, these cars would have been far less common in Lima, but the few that exist appear to be considered to be classics and treated appropriately. This 1958 Chevrolet is a example that I was able to photograph. If it was imported as a new car into Peru, it must have been an imposing luxury car back then, and its current owner clearly treats it with respect.
By the 1980s, though, the worldwide hegemony of Mercedes-Benz over the luxury car market had been established, and even Peru did not escape from it. If that 1958 Chevrolet was exclusive and impressive when new, then this W126 S-Class (debadged and therefore not possible to identified more precisely) would have been otherworldly.
The Ultimate Driving Machine apparently also made an appearance in small numbers in Peru during the same era. This nicely preserved BMW 5-Series from the E28 generation of 1981-88 sports a period European custom style with body colored bumpers. Debadged and modified, its original model and age were difficult to determine. It and the yellow Toyota Corolla in the first photo regularly parked side by side on the same street.
Speaking of that yellow Corolla, here is a frontal view of it. A Liftback from the 1979-87 fourth generation of Corollas, it wears its over quarter century of use well. It has faded paint and a misaligned hood, but its straight and rust free body and ongoing daily usage indicate that it is ready for many more years of driving. Corolla sedans from this generation and each that followed abound in Lima and are the cars most commonly used as taxis.
The Corolla competed with the established small car of South America, the Volkswagen Beetle, most likely imported from Brazil. Lima’s ubiquitous surviving Beetles show signs that their owners continue to prize them and try to make them stand out, with Minilite-like aftermarket wheels (seen on the red car) and other custom touches quite common. The blue example on the left was on original steel wheels and apparently unmodified but had “BOSCH” and “MANN FILTERS” emblems on the windows and dashboard, demonstrating that German originality is always a big deal to car people, no matter which country you are in or how modest the car may be.
The everyday classic car show on the streets of Lima may be coming to an end, though, as economic growth and rising living standards have resulted in an influx of new Japanese and Korean cars. This street scene may become representative of the curbside view of the future in Lima, and if it does, a voice in your head will tell you, “These aren’t the classics you are looking for. You can go about your business.” So if you go to Peru, on your way to Macchu Picchu, enjoy the street scene in Lima while it lasts.