Classic Cuban Cars are American Vintage Cars Frozen in 1959

As an island peppered with 1950’s American Fords, Chevrolets, Plymouths and Buicks, many associate Cuba with a car industry frozen in 1959. When Fidel Castro came to power, he banned the purchase of imported vehicles including new parts, cementing the classic Cuban cars legacy. Cubans are scrappy MacGyver car owners, keeping these 50-year-old American vintage cars chugging along (but unfortunately not equipped with seat belts). In lieu of catalytic converters I imagine duct tape and bubble gum under the hoods and I wonder if this vision is not that far off. Don’t be fooled by my pretty photos, many look like mid-century beaters on the outside as well.

American Vintage Cars in Cuba: Their Beauty is Only Skin Deep

For me, the nostalgic novelty of these American vintage cars in Havana diminished with my first bite of thick, black exhaust. If you have sinus issues, bring your nasal steroid and saline spray. I found the wider boulevards of the Centro neighborhood, Avenida 23 and Neptuno to be the leading offenders. While I highly recommend sitting at Avenida 23 where it meets Infanta, a block from the Malicón for early evening people watching, get ready for Melisandre’s shadow child assassin to pay you a visit. With that said Cuba lies in the bottom third of countries for cars per capita. Fewer cars means less compounding smog. I was relieved to find the neighborhoods of Habana Vieja, Vedado and Miramar much more tolerable.

Why Aren’t Cubans Buying New Cars?

While Raul Castro lifted the new car permit requirement and loosened import restrictions three years ago, buying cars is cost prohibitive for most Cubans. Take a new car price anywhere else in the world, double the price or add a zero and that’s the sticker price of a new car in Cuba; as much as a new home in the US. The average state salary in Cuba is $25 USD per month. Those working in tourism make significantly more but not nearly enough to buy a new car. Contributing to these unattainable prices are the absurd state mark ups (supposedly for public transportation development) and the US embargo forcing Cuba to import cars from faraway markets.

Alternative Forms of Transportation in Cuba

To get from point A to point B, Cubans walk or take the bus, a taxi collectivo or a non-collectivo taxi. The stunning convertibles are tourist attractions and not commuting vehicles. This New Yorker enjoys a long walk and thus I often walked from my casa particular in the Centro to Habana Vieja and back at night whether it was 10 pm or 3 am. Trained in the art of haggling by my Mexican mother, I negotiated taxi prices down significantly from what was initially offered but when hanging out with Cubans, we paid even less. This is not due to different local prices as often suggested but simply because locals know the baseline pirce. If you’re willing to walk to a major boulevard the taxi collectivo can significantly reduce your transportation costs. In front of the Hotel Habana Libre for example, you’ll notice people crowding in and out of very old jeeps. Taxi collectivos can also look like any other taxi car. I was first made aware of the collectivos as Cubans tried to flag down my taxi even though they could see me in the car. The taxi driver explained the system to me, whereas a taxi will pick you up and drop you off anywhere, the collectivos follow set routes and pick up multiple people.

While my feelings towards these classic cars are ambivalent, as my photos demonstrate they contribute unequivocally to Cuba’s unique visual appeal.