CC Global: The Immortal (And Frankensteinian) Curbside Classics of Cuba


(first posted 6/13/2016)    As US-Cuba relations keep normalizing, many of us have got to wonder, what might happen to all those iconic classic cars so characteristic to the island? I have no idea, of course. I hope these pre-’59 cars will keep on going on Cuban roads, but I suspect they will be quickly replaced by modern cars, or even recent second-hand cars from the US. Or will these become the equivalent of the Model Ts still ferrying tourists at the Henry Ford Museum’s Greenfield Village?


The few well-preserved classics will then be bought by American collectors and shipped back to the Empire, while all the rest will probably disappear. It makes me sad to think that but make no mistake, I think Cubans deserve decent private motoring after decades of restrictions imposed by communism.


Let’s go back to an era before the Cuba deal… to 2013, when I visited the island and took all the pictures that go with this post. I’m Chilean, so it’s no problem for me to fly directly to the island, as many people here that can travel abroad do. I was expecting to see those famous big gringo cars from the 50’s, and I wasn’t dissapointed. In fact, the quantity of this veterans in daily use everywhere surprised me. I never thought they were so many, and so prevalent.




Being the vacation and gambling destination for rich Americans until 1959, meant that a lot of new cars were sold in the island, like the ’59 Plymouth Fury you see above. In fact, it used to have one of the highest per capita number of vehicles in the world. Of course, the prevailing poverty imposed by Communism  has forced most of those cars from the 50’s to keep on running, becoming a traditional sight of Cuba today.




But what surprised me the most what the great number of cars, period. Those yankee cars are still the most common, but they share the streets with a variety of vehicles way wider than what I expected. And I’m not only speaking of Soviet cars arriving until the 90’s, that are plenty, but also European, Korean and Chinese cars, current and 20 or less years old. Above you see an example of that, a ’53 Chevy sharing the pole position with a new Geely Emgrand EC7, made in China.




But let’s start by the begining: Pre-revolution cars. These are abundant and varied, and include all kind of models, from big Cadillacs to little British Ford, Fiats and even one Isetta. The most prevalent are Chevrolets and Buicks. There are also many Ford, Pontiac and Oldsmobile. And even some De Soto, like the ’54 Diplomat you see here, a nameplate used only for export. The car is basically a Plymouth with a fancy grille. All in all, the car scene in 1959 seems to have been pretty much the same in Cuba that it was in the US, from with the island was almost a colony.




Maybe my favourite find was this Henry J! It took me a while of Googling to learn what it was.



And this is an example of the European cars I was talking about. A Simca Aronde, from France. Of course, it is most likely that below the surface there is even less of what would make these cars original. Like some degree of Soviet mechanicals and the like. I didn’t get the chance to learn more about this part of the story of these cars.




These survivors can be divided between two states, basically. Most have been poorly fixed, which because of the overall poverty and the Embargo of parts, involves the use of many handcrafted solutions.




I saw many such contraptions, cars cleverly customized to not only survive for decades without proper spares, but to also serve new purposes, like homemade wagons or pickups out of old sedans, like this ’57 Buick I showed at the top of this post. Bizarre.




Or this amazing Cadillac Pickup truck! In this case its appropiate to speak about owners, as these pre-Castro vehicles are the only ordinary Cubans can own, buy and sell. As can be seen in the pictures, yellow license plates in Cuba denoted cars owned by individuals, in the color-coded system used before later in 2013 (I was there in March).




In the other category are classics beautifully restored… or so it seems from a distance. But they do look stunning, and among these are most convertibles. Lots of them are taxis targeted to tourists. That is why they are so nice, and how they get the money to keep them that way. Some are owned by the state, as indicated by their blue plates, others are private, but their owners/drivers have to pay huge fees in order to get a permit to use their cars as taxis.




There is no doubt that American cars from before communism are everybody’s favourite. And don’t get me wrong, I love them too, specially those a less familiar to me, like this Rambler Ambassador Custom.




But to me, the most interesting were those cars from the Soviet Union and its satellites that are plenty in Cuba, and that save for Ladas and Kamaz trucks, I don’t get to see in Chile. Moskvich (further above, in front of the Cine Yara), Alekos (the light blue Simca copy you see above)…




…RAF vans from Soviet Latvia…




… or even newer Lada models, sold after the brand left Chile in 1998.




I was so happy to see Soviet trucks, like this ZIL-130, in that typical light blue with a white face. Notice how it is being used to haul people, instead (or probably alongside) cargo.




UAZ off-roaders were present too, here between a Lada and an American car, and in front of a Chinese bus.




And the best of all, this. A GAZ-14 limo, that used to be Fidel’s, before being transfered to Cubataxi, the state taxi corporation. There is a fleet of them in service (the taxi driver said they were 5, but I’ve read that there are more), and to serve as taxis they saw their armour removed, and their engines replaced by diesel Mercedes units. I took a ride on it, and it wasn’t even expensive. I was in heaven…




When I said Soviet cars, I also mean those from its then-satellites. I saw an ARO from Romania, old Skodas (like the white Octavia further above) and more important, there are more than a few Polski Fiat 126, popularly known as “polaquito”, or “the little Polish one”.




When I started wrting this, I almost forgot another “segment” that makes part of Cuba’s traffic: Cars from the time of the revolution, but not of East European origin. They came from Argentina instead! There is still a good amount of Peugeot 404, Ford Falcon, Fiat 125 and Dodge 1500 running on the streets. Here is an Argentine-made Hillman, sold as a Dodge, with a Lada front and Toyota logo. What? Turns out Cubans like to put badges from other brands on their cars, no idea why.




This compatriot suffered the same: Also Argentine, a Ford Falcon with a newer Lada front-end (and a new Kia Morning on the background).




And finally, the newer cars. These surprised me for their numbers, and also for how random the choices seem to be. I don’t know much about their origins, but many of them seem to be bought in bulk by the goverment, like the fleet of Subaru Vivio (that little green thing). Among the most popular brands were Peugeot, with 206 and some 307 models, Hyundai with their Accent, and Skoda and the Fabia. Also, a healthy number of Seat from Spain (you can see a Córdoba, above).




This is the Citroën Xsara, one of the most popular cars from the brand, after they decided to make mostly non-weird cars (luckily, they’ve rectified and even their bread-and-butter models at least look a little odd and charming).





But in terms of new car brand, the darling today (or at least was in 2013) is Geely. One can see their CK in “civilian” guise, but also as taxis and more interestingly, as the new patrol cars of the PNR, “Policía Nacional Revolucionaria”. They are complementing (or maybe replacing) Ladas in that job. This PNR Lada picture I took from the bus, as the officer was attending to the scene of a car crash (involving another Lada).




The bigger Geely Emgrand EC6 and even EC820 were also seen. All I saw from those more luxurious Geely had red plates, which according to Wikipedia meant these were rental cars, for tourists (hence the combination starting with a T).




And lastly, I saw that the Army (FAR) used Beijing-Jeeps.

Did you like this overview? I can go into more detail if you want, on some of these cars. And you can also see the rest of my Cuba car pictures here if you want to: