); Detroit dowagers: Running on a wing and a prayer | Visit Cuba

Vintage Cars

Detroit dowagers: Running on a wing and a prayer

By Christopher P Baker / Posted January 9, 2012

 Time itself seemed to have stopped on the carretera midway between Bayamo and Veguitas.

Broken-down cars from the 1950s are part of the Cuban reality; classic pre-revolutionary autos number about one in every eight passenger vehicles in Cuba. Only a rare handful are shining examples of museum quality. The majority are barely able to hang on to their homemade parts as they clatter down the highways on worn-to-the-fabric, under-inflated tires.

Forget spare parts dealers or Yellow Pages. There hasn’t been an American car parts distributor in Cuba for decades. Nor are there web-sites. The island is a giant swap meet, with antiquated parts traded by word of mouth. Abandoned vehicles are picked clean.

Most cars are oddball parts stitched together, like Frankenstein’s monster. Czech carburetors. Polish pistons. Other parts cannibalized off cars from the Soviet bloc. Need a piston for your fifties Chrysler? The pistons of a Soviet GAZ-51 truck will do – their engines were cloned from a Detroit engine. Many jalopies have long since been fitted with tractor or other diesel engines.

“¡No fue fácil!” Alcides Pardo told me, explaining how he managed to Houdini a tractor engine under the hood of his 1956 Chrysler Imperial. It wasn’t easy! Cubans are geniuses of eclectic invention.

“El cubano inventa, chico,” Frank Enrique added. The grime-stained mechanic was hunched inside the wheel well of a 1952 sky-blue Buick Riviera, haloed by a shower of sparks. His wife sat nearby, snipping out an engine gasket from the base of a rubberized bath mat. Pieces from the disassembled engine were arranged on a rug in the yard, which was crammed with engine blocks, shock absorbers, dented gas tanks, and other scrap metal items waiting to be modified into homemade auto parts. “Hecho en Cuba, chico!”

When your car breaks down, you’re on your own. Improvisation is key – Cuban car owners even concoct their own hydraulic fluids from shampoo, or left-over cooking oil. Repairs are performed alfresco, in the street or wherever a car happens to fizzle and die.

Chrome is a particular problem. The Caribbean salt air plays havoc on the acres of brightwork, much of which rusted away years ago to be replaced by “Arkansas chrome” (silver paint). Cuenta-propistas (self-employed craftsmen) earn their living restoring upholstery, using ingenuity and whatever fabric comes to hand. As for tires…new tires—American made, embargo or no embargo—are available at Servi-Cupet gas stations but cost about $100 each. Many Cubans have resorted to stuffing grass in their threadbare tires to keep them rolling.

Every Cuban dreams of owning a car, though the chances are slim. All cars imported since the Revolution, are essentially company cars for senior management or sports stars and musicians. Owners of pre-1961 cars, however, can sell them freely to anyone with the money to buy. The cost is usually exorbitantly high. Hence, Cubans have no choice but to keep their weary cacharros running with resourcefulness, ingenuity, and indefatigable good humour.

For VisitCuba”s Vintage Car Photo Album Drive over here (click)

Christopher P Baker

Christopher P. Baker is one of the world’s leading travel writers & photographers,
Lowell Thomas Award 2008 ‘Travel Journalist of the Year’, 
author of award-winning guidebooks, travel books, and guides about California, Costa Rica, Cuba, Panama, the Caribbean