Much has been made of the plethora of American classic cars in Cuba – cars that survive, against all odds in communist Cuba. Better known for its illustrious cigars and revolutionaries, as irony would have it the Communist country of Cuba, run according to Marxist/Leninist ideals may just possess the greatest jewels to have come out of the United States of America, the great protagonist of capitalist enterprise – American vintage cars. There are literally tens of thousands of US vintage cars distributed across the nation of Cuba. These are all cars that were manufactured prior to Cuba’s revolution in 1959 and associated US embargo enforced from 1960. This has helped Cuba become a veritable museum or sanctuary for pre-1960 US cars, meaning that for the past fifty years the streets of Havana have seen more vintage car action than Detroit.

classic cars

Of course there have been no imported vehicles entering the country since 1960 so it has been thanks to the diligence and determination of owners and mechanics that these historic vehicles remain ‘roadworthy’. Owing to the complete lack of OEM parts or even cheap imitations repairs often border on the Rube Goldberg. It is thanks to such repairs that despite the incredible nostalgia associated with this hotbed of American automobile history many of these cars may not actually be the treasure trove that it could have been.

Lisa Leonardelli Flickr

The main reason that Cuba’s proliferation of American vintage cars has hit the news of late is that President Barrack Obama is in the middle of changes in legislation that would reverse the ban on the import of Cuban goods – meaning open season on vintage cars. But any gleam in the collector’s eye should be tempered by the fact that all is not as it seems. These cars have not been conserved as collector’s items, but rather driven daily, exposed to the everyday stresses and strains that a car kept pristine in a showroom would never experience. In addition, as previously mentioned, most of Cuba’s vintage cars have been repaired using anything but original parts and a huge amount of the value of a historic vehicle is dependent on its original parts.

Marco Zanferrari Flickr

Of course, it may remain worthwhile to purchase the car and restore it with original parts but according to vintage car appraiser Steve Linden such a restoration would typically cost anywhere between $40,000 and $80,000, making it a risky decision.
In many ways this caveat is heartening news. It has taken a huge amount of ingenuity, improvisation – blood, sweat and gears if you like – to keep some of these antiquated autos on the road and it would be a real shame should the vultures swoop in and ship them off to be dusted down, refitted and filed away like rare paintings in vault-like garages in Long Island or Westchester County. What has happened in Cuba has been the very antithesis of the hoarding, collector mentality afforded to wealthy Western people looking for a way to spice up their comfortable lives.

Gerry Zambonini Flickr
This is a phenomenon born out of necessity – the hard grind – which has not preserved these cars out of sentimentality, but rather formed hybrids; relics of a bygone era fused with the survivalist improvisational qualities that many of us have long forgotten or even needed.


Geoff Birchenal