One of the first things you notice as you enter Havana is the colorful vintage cars that line the streets. The classic car is as much of a Cuban icon as cigars and Che Guevara and thrills tourists and locals. But why does Cuba have so many old cars? Explore the history of Cuba’s vintage car industry and why the old cars in Cuba are so vital to the Cuban culture.
A History of Cars in Cuba
The story of classic cars in Cuba is full of political and historical significance. This makes Cuban classic cars a beautiful addition to the urban landscape of Cuba and an important cultural artifact.
Cuba has never had a car manufacturing industry, so they relied solely on automotive imports to populate the island’s roads. During the Cuban-Spanish-American War, the first car ever imported to Cuba was a La Parisienne from a little-known French manufacturer in 1898. However, after the turn of the century, Cuba’s primary source of cars and parts was the United States.
By 1919, Cuba was the largest Latin American importer of US cars and parts and was among the countries with the highest number of vehicles per capita in the world. The classic Ford Model T was ubiquitous on Cuba’s streets, fondly referred to as fotingo, which means a clunker or jalopy. Even now, any Cuban car that looks a little run down is called a fotingo.
During the first half of the 20th century, Cuba was used as a test track for many American car manufacturers, meaning that cars were often available in Cuba before being available for sale in the US. Companies such as Ford, Chevrolet, Cadillac, and Chrysler shipped their latest models to the US’s southern-most ports, and the cargo would arrive in Havana within a few days. By 1956, there were more than 140,000 cars in Cuba with approximately 90,000 on the streets of Havana.
The 1959 Cuban Revolution and Import Embargo
The 1959 Cuban Revolution and the beginning of the Cold War saw a change in the island’s automotive industry. As old friends became foes, Fidel Castro placed an embargo on the US and foreign imports, which meant that no American cars were exported to the island. The embargo even extended to include car parts, which had serious implications for Cuban car owners.
With no new cars coming into the country and no parts available to make repairs, car owners had the make a choice: Either let their cars rust in the garage or use what parts they had available and make repairs themselves.
Restoration and Innovation
As car owners needed their cars as a means of transportation or to provide for their families, they needed to become mechanics and create innovative ways to keep their cars running. Unfortunately, as the ban on American cars also included American car parts, Cuban locals were forced to make repairs and restorations using parts gleaned from Russian and Chinese vehicles, primarily from the plethora of Ladas, Volgas, and Geelys that were still readily available.
You can see the range of patched-up cars on display throughout the country, often painted vivid colors to hide the panel work. However, this rolling vintage car museum in Cuba today is a reminder of the ingenuity and revolutionary spirit that lives on in the country.
The Vintage Car Revival
In 2016, Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul Castro, relaxed the need for permission to buy foreign cars and finally lifted the ban on importing American cars and parts. This led to an influx of brand-new cars onto Cuba’s roads.
Many wondered if this would signal the end of Cuba’s classic car industry. While Cubans’ love of vintage cars is ingrained in their culture and makes up a vital part of their tourism industry, there is another reason why you will still see plenty of old cars in Cuba – the cost.
New car imports are still highly regulated, and the pricing makes purchasing a car unrealistic for most Cuban locals. The state still has a monopoly on Cuban car sales, which means prices are high. A Peugeot 508 which typically retails at $29,000, costs a whopping $262,000 in Cuba. With the average Cuban citizen earning around $20 a month, it is unlikely that new imported cars are going to be part of a buying boom.
Take a Ride in a Cuban Classic Car
You can’t visit Cuba’s capital, Havana, without taking a tour in one of the many vividly-colored vintage cars that line the streets. Tourists rush to book rides in classic ‘57 Chevy Bel Air convertibles that cruise slowly through the streets of Havana Vieja and Varadero. Prices for classic car tours are around 25-30 CUC per hour, but the price is worth every penny for the opportunity to experience a slice of authentic Cuban culture.
Many classic car owners happily offer their cars and driving services to hire for tours around the island. One of the most beautiful ways to experience the country is a classic car tour through tobacco growing regions of Pinar del Rio, including Vuelta Abajo, home of the plantation that produces world-famous Bolivar Royal Corona. Make sure to hike some of the most amazing trails you’ll find anywhere in the world.
As of 2019, you can now also rent a classic car for transport around the island. Previously, car owners were prohibited from renting their cars to tourists to drive, and the state had no classic car rental service.
There are a few things to remember when renting a car in Cuba. All car rental companies are government-owned, so you will need to have the appropriate documentation to hire a car. Also, restored classic cars are uncommon and are rented at a higher price than standard cars.
Renting a classic car and driver is a better option for travelers looking for a short tour. They help Cuban car owners to maintain their rides and support the local economy.
Vintage cars in Cuba play an essential role in supporting the local economy and offer a unique way to explore the magical island. They also provide an informative and safe way to travel around Cuba and see the sights. If you are planning a trip to Cuba, book a trip in one of Cuba’s authentic classic cars because you are guaranteed an unforgettable experience.
Daniel Stauffer is a blogger and devout cigar enthusiast who first developed a love for fine tobacco after receiving a box of cigars from a grateful client. He has continued to refine his palate and explore the art of cigar smoking, gaining valuable experience, which he enjoys sharing with other cigar lovers across the globe.
Image Credit: Images 1 & 4: pixabay.com; Images 2&3, Depositephotos.com