The very first things everyone mentions when you say you are going to Cuba are "cars and cigars". There were lots of things about Cuba that were surprising, a lot that is controversial, but one thing that knows no politics is the interest Americans have with the "cars and cigars" of Cuba.
Not only are the old cars the first thing mentioned by many folks I told them about my trip, but they were also mentioned as one of the first things that will change with the opening of relations between Cuba and the United States. For more about the changes see my post "We CanAll Agree On Change"
(A disclaimer: what I know about cars could fit in the tip of a spark plug! That a car has spark plugs may, in fact, be the sum total of my car knowledge! So while I've done my best to identify the cars from photos and notes of what the owners told me, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of makes and models- I'll leave that the real car buffs!)
When I placed my call to book our Insight Cuba "Jazz in Havana" people to people exchange, the staff member I spoke with mentioned that her friends in Cuba (who are lucky enough to own one!) were anxious to get rid of their "old cars", and she was certain that collectors would be happy to get their hands on them! Even for the biggest gear head, the constant struggle to upkeep these vehicles with little means and ability to import parts is a challenge, and most folks are ready for newer, easier to maintain vehicles- if they can afford one at all. Of course, most of the better preserved mid century American cars are owned by the government or private owners and serve as taxis for tourists, and given the "branding" of Cuba with old American cars, the government and those private owners supplementing their income with private taxi service are not likely to give those up!
There were several things about the cars in Cuba that surprised me.
1- Most people have heard about the "old cars" in Cuba. What comes to mind are the often photographed American classics from the 1950s. What was surprising are all the 20+ year old cars, mostly simple stripped down diesel Ladas imported from communist Russia in the 1980s and early 90s.
2- Ordinary Cubans can buy cars. This is a more recent development, but most Cubans still cannot afford them. Oftentimes, a handful of partners will pool their resources and buy a used car and share the revenue operating it as a taxi outside of their regular government jobs. If you spot the very rare brand new vehicle, it is almost always owned by an ambassador or one of the embassies in Havana.
3- Most engines in the old American cars have been replaced to operate on diesel fuel which was what was available from the Russians before the 1990s. This is the old diesel and not the new cleaner diesel used in the U.S. and Europe today, and I noticed a difference in the air quality with the old diesel and gasoline engines being used. Below is a photo essay of the Chevy we took on a tour around Havana. We were with a group of about 6 similar taxis, only 2 of them had the original engines.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all, was just how few cars there are at all in the city of Havana. Usually one thinks of large cities as places with traffic jams, even in palces where relatively little of the population owns cars, they still dominate the major cities! But in Cuba, because of the 50+ year embargo and the only very recent rule change allowing Cubans to own cars, there are very few cars on the road. At "rush hour" on a major ring road around the city, no more than a 1/2 dozen cars make their way down the road over the course of a few minutes. The good news is there were no traffic jams while we were there! We were able to walk across the 4 lane highway from our hotel to the Malecon with little concern for our safety and almost no waiting.
We noticed that there is a lot of infrastructure for vehicles in Havana, wide roads with multiple lanes, newer constructed bridges and tunnels, but there was hardly any traffic using them. While buildings and sidewalks in Havana were often in poor condition due to lack of resources, the roads and bridges seemed to be in good shape, largely due to lack of use.
Toward the end of our stay, Jeff decided to go stand on the traffic island in the middle of the 4 lane road that parallels the Malecon (sea wall) in the Vedado section of Havana. Despite it being a busy Saturday evening along the Malecon, patience was required to wait for a vehicle to go by to photograph! For contrast: several days earlier we had been in South Beach Miami, along Ocean Ave on a Saturday night. The traffic ground to a near halt, with people showboating in their vehicles bumper to bumper up and down the strip.
Overall, the "old cars" we expected to see in Cuba did not disappoint- in the city there some beautifully preserved old cars operating as tourist taxis, and lots of intersting older cars families have owned for 50 or more years and keep running with a lot of creativity and determination. And while we enjoyed traveling in and by some of those old cars during our stay, we learned that most of the people in Havana take the bus!
(Next post: Cigars)