Cuba's coveted vintage fleet

A tourist in Havana posing for a photo beside one of the many vintage cars in Cuba.
A tourist in Havana posing for a photo beside one of the many vintage cars in Cuba. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

American cars from the 1950s that ply the roads in Havana have become a matter of national pride

HAVANA, CUBA • Well-heeled Americans eager to check off Cuba on their bucket lists can take home Cuban cigars, small-batch rum and handicrafts. But if they fancy one of the vintage '57 Chevys tooling the streets of Havana, that dream may go unrealised.

Thousands of American cars pre-dating the 1960 trade embargo still chug along on Cuba's ramshackle roads, a half century later. Many of them are points of pride for owners who are not eager to sell. Among the many hurdles to acquiring one of those rolling antiques are questions about their real value.

"People call me all the time and say, 'How can we buy one of these?"' said Ms Brenda Priddy, a car photographer who leads tours to Cuba focused on the country's cars. "I say, why would you want to do that? It costs so much more to restore a vehicle in Cuba. Why wouldn't you just restore one here?"

President Barack Obama has made restoring United States relations with Cuba a centrepiece of his second-term foreign policy, raising the prospect of greater economic exchanges between the countries, including increased tourism and fewer restrictions on purchasing Cuban products. The vintage US cars in the island's automotive fleet, though, seem likely to stay put for the foreseeable future.

US trade regulations effectively bar cars from Cuba because most vehicles that would interest collectors were made by Detroit carmakers before 1960. Regulations under the embargo allow American travellers to bring back items made in Cuba.

On the island, the cars are both a matter of livelihood and national pride. Driver Cristian Paez said he has no intention of letting go of his 1956 purple and beige Bel Air convertible, purchased long ago by his grandfather.

"Not possible," declares the burly 40-year-old, not for any price. "I love driving this car." He gave up his job as a primary school teacher four years ago to drive full-time. On weekdays he arrives with his vehicle at Havana's palm-lined Parque Central by 8am, ready to hire out to tourists as a driver. Most Sundays, he is at the Hotel Nacional, proudly participating in a weekly procession of antique cars.

The journey may begin by fiddling under the hood. He putters along the streets at speeds of no more than 32kmh.

Despite many costly replacement parts acquired with the help of friends and family abroad, the vehicle shows its age. The steering wheel is worn down to metal at the edges and the driver's door handle is missing. A strand of orange twine holds the glove compartment shut.

Car collectors in the US especially love the iconic 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, still popular on Cuban streets. In the US, a restored Chevy of that vintage sells for US$80,000 (S$110,000) to $120,000 depending on its quality, said Mr Mark Lizewskie, executive director of the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Slab-sided shoebox Fords from the late 1940s and early 1950s also have a large fan base, as do other cars from the late 1950s.

"You're looking for something that's fairly complete, has a good percentage of original parts, something that if it needs restoration isn't a complete basket case," he said.

In Cuba, most cars do not fit that description. The US embargo banned the export of all American products including cars and parts. Because of their age and the fact that Cubans have kept them running out of necessity, the cars have jerry-rigged modifications. Ms Priddy says she sees snow tyres, boat engines under the hood and many petrol-powered cars that have been converted to run on diesel.

Part of the "unique customs experience" of travelling to Cuba is seeing fellow travellers with car parts jammed into their bags, said Mr Max Horwitz, senior programme officer at the Business Council for International Understanding. "Bringing in car parts is one of the largest requests from anyone in Cuba," he said. "Having a fantastic car in Cuba is so widely noticed and respected."

American museums may be interested in obtaining Cuban cars that have been kept running through the decades, Mr Lizewskie said.

"If it was a '50s Chevy somebody had found in an alley in Chicago or Miami and it had a diesel engine in it, people probably wouldn't look twice at it," he said. "But these have a mystique. Something that has a unique ownership history does command a little more money."

Because Cuban per-capita income is less than US$20 a day, according to the World Bank, cars from other countries are rare too. Russian Ladas from the 1980s, a few Chinese cars and the occasional newer Hyundai or Toyota assumed to be paid for by the Cuban government make up the rest of the island's fleet.

About 60,000 vintage American cars are left in Cuba, according to Mr Toni Rothman, a board member of the Hershey museum who just returned from leading a car tour to Cuba.

Even if the Cuban cars are not ideal for most US collectors, there is "a relatively thin market" because of their provenance, said Mr McKeel Hagerty, chief executive officer of Hagerty Insurance Agency, which publishes a price guide for collector vehicles and is the world's largest provider of collector car insurance.

"Collectors interested in cars from Cuba will seek them out more for their cultural appeal and less for the actual cars," he said. "The cars are now heavily modified and will be prized mostly as historical artefacts of the Cold War."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2016, with the headline 'Cuba's coveted vintage fleet'. Print Edition | Subscribe