In October of this year, President Obama announced a new round of executive actions designed to increase trade and travel with the communist island of Cuba. This action built upon the work he made a priority two years ago which resulted in the lifting of restrictions on Cuban Americans relating to travel and sending remittances to their families. Additionally, he tasked Secretary John Kerry to establish diplomatic relations which had been severed since January of 1961.
As a result, Cuba was thought to be much better off than it had been only a decade earlier when Secretary of State, John Bolton, accused Cuba of trying to develop biological weapons, adding the country to Washington’s list of “axis of evil” countries.
With the announcement over the weekend that longtime Cuban President, Fidel Castro, had passed away, many saw it as a sign that relations between the island and the West would only continue to improve.
For those that have visited Cuba or even just seen photographs, the everlasting image of the icy relationship between the two countries has come to be represented by the classic – and not-so-classic – Cuban cars that populate the streets of cities like Havana, Santa Clara, Santiago de Cuba, Bayamo and Cienfuegos.
Importing new American cars has been disallowed since 1960 when President Eisenhower put the first embargo in place – which covered all U.S. exports to Cuba except for medicine and some foods – and was expanded upon by President John F. Kennedy to cover U.S. imports from Cuba and which was made permanent on February 7, 1962.
The cars that were already in country – like the Chevrolet Bel Air, Ford Fairlane and Ford Falcon – became the last remnants of the mutually-beneficial trade between countries before Fidel Castro overthrew the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
With no indication that relations would ever improve, the aforementioned cars – as well as foreign imports from countries willing to do business with a communist nation – had to last as long as possible.
Consider this; in 1995, the average car lasted eight years in the United States. In 2011, that average climbed three more years.
Conversely, most Cuban cars are at least 30 years old, with thousands still running from that fateful year that the embargo was put in place.
In 2014, Cuban policy removed limits on auto purchases for the first time in half a century. But most saw the measure/gesture as completely empty based on sticker prices. A Peugeot dealership in Havana was pricing its 2013 model 206 at $91,000 USD when the new rules came into effect, and it wanted $262,000 USD for the sportier 508. At the time, most state workers made around $20 USD a month.
The 11 national Cuban car dealerships sold just 50 cars and four motorcycles in the first half of the year under the new law.
Reuters spoke to one man in Havana who perfectly summed up the impact of the change, stating, “Yeah, I can buy it, but with what? Unfortunately our economy doesn’t allow us to save money to be able to buy it.”
It remains to be seen if Cuba will be allowed to update their antiquated transportation – or if they even want to given the pride that people take in their “yank tanks” in which they turn to shampoo for brake fluid, iron pipes for piston rings, Coca-Cola to loosen bolts, and toothpaste to buff paint.
Should the island undergo a transportation renaissance, there are 10 makes/models that will always represent this icy diplomatic period for Cuba based on the tastes of the working class as well as notable public figures like Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Ernest Hemingway.
Chevrolet Bel Air
From 1950-1958 the number of cars in Cuba more than doubled – from 70,000 to 167,000. Although there is no definitive number as to how many classic American cars roam the Cuban streets today, there were still 60,000 in working order as of 2004.
Known as “cacharros,” or less commonly as “bartavias,” many Chevy Bel Airs from the 1955-1957 era (Tri-Five) – albeit with Frankensteined parts with European roots – have come to represent the time capsule that is Cuban transpiration thanks to its distinct tail fin, tri-colored body and chrome accents which were all popular a half-century ago.
According to Autoblog, “the Chevy Bel Air is the king of the road here [Cuba], by some margin.”
Many of the old cars have been reappropriated for usage as taxi cabs in Havana. But perhaps the most famous taxi in the city is the livery vehicle that once was used both by Fidel Castro as well as former President Jimmy Carter, when he visited back in 2002.
Known as “comandante’s” cars – a fleet of black, boxy, Soviet-made limousines – the ZIL-111 convertible model was the first of its kind to roll off the assembly line, and also a personal gift to Castro from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
Moises Suarez, who drives for state-owned Cubataxi, told the Associated Press, “When I tell [travelers] where the car came from, they sit in the seat back there and…stretch their legs and say, ‘I can’t believe it!'”
“A lot of drivers pull up next to me at stoplights,” Suarez added. “They start laughing and they say, ‘You never imagined you would be driving the comandante’s car, eh?’ ‘You have a great car in your hands.'”
Much of the vehicle is still comprised of its original aesthetics – from the chipped faux wood inlay to the stereo with buttons and radio knobs labelled in Cyrillic lettering.
According to Autoweek, Ford sedans from the first half of the 1950s are among the most common classic American cars in Cuba – alongside Chevrolets and Mercurys – whose popularity actually predates Fidel Castro’s rise to power.
The Fairlane itself was manufactured between 1955-1969. The original body design was the full-sized Ford body which started out as a family vehicle and slowly evolved into many different available models and body styles. Specifically, The 1957 introduced the very popular convertibles and retractables with folding tops into the trunk and it came available with a handful of engine options including the 223, 292, 332, and the powerful 352 Thunderbird V-8 with 300 horsepower.
In a pop culture context, in the movie Die Another Day, James Bond drives around Cuba in a 1957 Ford Fairlane convertible in a brown and cream color and pays homage to Thunderball where villain Count Lippe drives a 1957 Ford Fairlane Skyliner.
For his 2004 book Che’s Chevrolet, Fidel’s Oldsmobile: On the Road in Cuba, journalist and author, Richard Schweid, traveled throughout the island nation researching its automotive history.
While there, he discovered Che Guevara’s love for his 1960, mint green Chevy Impala with V-8 engine, automatic transmission, white upholstery, and an AM radio (sadly, this lo-res photo is all that exists).
Of course, the relationship between Guevara and Castro is well documented. After meeting in Mexico, they led a group of 82 rebels who landed in Cuba and launched their armed struggle to overthrow Baptista’s regime.
While the exact make of the car is still unknown to this day, a 1957 Plymouth figured prominently in the kidnapping of world famous racecar driver, Juan Manuel Fangio, by Cuban rebels led by Fidel Castro.
In 1958, President Fulgencio Batista was attempting to maintain a look of normalcy despite Castro’s guerrilla forces growing by the hundreds in the mountains and rioters who were becoming more aggressive in the streets.
Thus, Batista vowed to continue his Cuban Grand Prix – a road race with drivers from 11 different countries which took place on the Malecon, a stretch of road that runs alongside the sea in the city. The debut race a year earlier had been won by Juan Manuel Fangio – the number one driver of the era.
“Racing along the waterfront on the Malecon in the vibrant city of Havana was a remarkable experience,” said Stirling Moss, Fangio’s main rival. “The atmosphere was incredible and the competition intense and the hospitality beyond words. The fans loved it.”
On the eve of the race, Fangio walked into the lobby of the luxurious Hotel Lincoln when he was confronted by a man with a pistol who pushed him into a nearby black Plymouth and stated, “Fangio, you must come with me. I am a member of the 26th of July revolutionary movement.”
“We were having a conversation when suddenly a person in a leather jacket approached us,” Fangio remembered. “He had an automatic pistol in his hand and told us all in a firm and decisive voice that we should not move or he would kill us all.”
The kidnapper, Oscar Lucero Moya, had been hired by Faustino Perez, who led Castro’s clandestine operations.
“I found out later that there were three cars involved,” Fangio said. “They drove slowly through the streets so as not to attract attention. The people who I was travelling with me apologized for what they were doing and said that all they wanted to do was to draw the world’s attention to their cause.”
According to ESPN, “The motive was simple, by capturing the biggest name in motorsport the rebels were showing up the government and attracting worldwide publicity to their cause. But despite the shocking news spreading across the globe, Batista would not be outdone and ordered the race to continue as usual while a crack team of police hunted down the kidnappers.”
Fangio quickly understood that he wasn’t in mortal danger when his captors fed him a steak dinner and allowed him to listen to the race the next day on the radio.
“I became a little sentimental,” he said. “I did not want to listen because I felt nostalgic.”
Despite the otherwise festive atmosphere, the race was marred by tragedy. Local driver Armando Garcia Cifuentes lost control of his yellow and black Ferrari and went head-on into a bunch of spectators lining the circuit. 40 people were injured and seven died as a result.
Fangio was eventually turned over to the Argentine embassy. Of the ordeal, he said, “It was one more adventure. If what the rebels did was in a good cause, then I, as an Argentine, accept it.”
After Castro rose to power, motor sports returned a single time at a race at the Camp Columbia military airfield in 1960.
According to ESPN, “Over the following years organized motor racing ceased on the island, never to return. Despite its popularity, the sport was considered too bourgeois by the communist regime. Put simply, it no longer matched the politics.”
Chrysler New Yorker
In 1940, Ernest Hemingway and his new wife, Martha, purchased a home outside Havana, Cuba. He would live there for the next 20 years – naming the site “Finca Vigia,” or “lookout farm.”
Although he had notable assignments in China and Europe during this period, Cuba proved to be the locale for the creation of his most famous work, The Old Man and the Sea, originally published in 1952 in its entirety in a single issue of Life magazine, which garnered Hemingway a Pulitzer Prize in 1953 as well as the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.
In 1955, the writer traded in his 1947 Buick Roadmaster for a two-toned Chrysler New Yorker in Navajo Orange and Desert Sand that he paid $3,924 USD for. Although he stayed in the country longer than many Americans chose to after relations between Cuba and the United States began to deteriorate, Hemingway fled after the revolution and instructed his driver, Augustín Nuñez Gutiérrez, to hide the car.
In 1961, suffering from depression and physical ailments, Hemingway committed suicide at his home in Ketchum, Idaho.
The New Yorker’s whereabouts remained a mystery for 50 years until 2011, when it was miraculously found and verified by information on an insurance certificate in Hemingway’s name.
According to Edmonds, the New Yorker now is undergoing a total restoration in Cuba – with he 331-cubic-inch Hemi V8 being returned to working condition – where it will then be put on display at Finca Vigia which has since become museum dedicated to the legendary writer.
Fidel Castro and The New York Times had a memorable relationship since the aforementioned leader took power. On December 2, 1956, the United Press filed a story from Havana that The Times ran at the top of Page 1: “Cuba Wipes Out Invaders; Leader Is Among 40 Dead.”
The piece stated, “Cuban planes and ground troops wiped out a force of 40 exiled revolutionaries who landed on the coast of Oriente Province tonight. Government military leaders said Fidel Castro, leader of a revolt against President Fulgencio Batista, was among those killed.”
It wasn’t until February 24, 1957 that the world knew that Castro was still alive after correspondent Herbert L. Matthews posed as a rich American sugar planter to avoid suspicion at army checkpoints in order to reach a well-hidden encampment deep in a tropical forest to confirm that Castro was alive and fighting in the Sierra Maestra.
“This is the first sure news that Fidel Castro is still alive and still in Cuba,” Matthews wrote.
Much of what the United States knew about Fidel Castro came from the reporting by The New York Times. In fact, it was one of the few publications that seemed to want to peek behind the terrifying veil of communism and look to explore what made Castro tick as a man rather than just as a politician.
In a piece by Richard Eder entitled, “Cuba Lives by Castro’s Moods,” photographer Jack Manning managed to capture an iconic photograph of Castro in the front seat of an Oldsmobile 98 with an AK-47 wedged in the space between the front and backseats and with Eder attentively taking notes.
Some have speculated that the shutter opened and closed at the precise moment when Eder noted that Castro said, “Even your agriculture in the United States will be less scientific than ours,’ he boasted, swinging around in his seat.”
Cuba’s close ties with the former-Soviet Union – which was strengthened by their shared Communist ideals – also meant that there’s a large fleet of Russian Ladas from the 1970s and 1980s that populate the roads and outnumber the more well known and aesthetically appealing older American models.
There are an estimated 100,000 Ladas in Cuba and at its peak represented more than 30% of the cars used in the country. Used primarily as police vehicles and taxis, people embraced the more modern technology available under the hood and the design which was based on the Fiat FIA.MI 124 from the 1960s.
“I do not think it will be easy to displace the Lada,” said David Pena, a 39-year-old mechanic who founded Cuba’s Russian Automobile Club. “For us this car is like a family member.”
“Our wives often complain because we dedicate so much time and money to our Ladas,” said Manuel Ares, technical vice president of the same Russian Automobile Club.
For those who got permission, a new, basic Lada could be bought for the equivalent of about $5,000 USD in 2009.
Geely Emgrand EC7
Despite the above sentiments, as of 2015, almost 60 percent of government-owned vehicles in Cuba are supplied by Chinese multinational automotive manufacturing company, Geely Auto, who have exported more than 12,000 vehicles to Cuba since 2008 for usage by the police, civil service, and rental market who favored the smooth hydraulics of the modern sedan based on a Daewoo design and powered by a 1.5-liter engine licensed from Toyota Motor.
While the cars are popular in the tourism industry – accounting for 80 percent of rental cars there – they are imported from the Geely plant in Uruguay, making them too expensive for most Cubans.
“They are changing” the Ladas for Geelys, “but I don’t think the Chinese cars will be as resistant as the Lada,” said a police officer. “Only time will tell.”
Although it will never come close to matching the aesthetic beauty of the old American classics, the Russian-built Moskvitch 2141 – constructed in the same Russian factory as AK-47s before production stopped in 1976 – proved vital for Cuba as the USSR was one of Cuba’s largest trading partners throughout the 1980s.
Featuring innovative features at the time like front-wheel drive, hatchback body style, MacPherson strut front suspension and torsion-crank rear suspension, the Moskvitch proved useful to the Cuban people but still provided as many headaches as the American cars because of the scarcity of Russian auto parts available.
- Featured/Main Image: Desmond Boylan/Reuters