The Classic Cars of Cuba

The Classic Cars of Cuba
May 21, 2013


Cuba is famous for its old cars and trucks, which can be seen in daily use throughout the country. For the first part of the 20th century, most new vehicles came to Cuba from the United States. The flow stopped in late 1959 when economic reforms by the then-new government of Fidel Castro prevented Cubans from buying cars on credit. A subsequent U.S. trade embargo, instituted in October 1960 in response to Cuba’s seizure of U.S.-owned properties, not only ensured that new vehicle exports would remain halted, but also denied Cuban motorists a direct source of replacement parts. As a result, Cubans became expert at adapting or fabricating parts to keep on the road cars that in other countries would long since have been recycled.

As well, the Castro government found an alternate source for vehicles in its new patron, the Soviet Union, which supplied the island with Volgas, Moskvich 1500s, Ladas and other Eastern Bloc cars, mainly for state use. The Soviet Union also sent heavy trucks such as the ubiquitous ZIL and the rugged KrAZ. Cars also trickled in from Europe and, in later years, Asia. Since 2009, Cuba has imported sedans from Chinese automaker Geely to serve as police cars, taxis and rental vehicles.

While many older Soviet and European cars remain in service in Cuba, they are largely eclipsed by the island’s great 1950s Cadillacs, Packards, De Sotos and similar products from one of the most ornate styling periods in U.S. auto history. Their pastel colours, tall fins and extensive chrome make them a favourite subject for tourist photographs.

As many as 60,000 American vehicles are in use on the island, nearly all in private hands. Pre-1960 vehicles remain the property of their original owners and descendants, and can be sold to other Cubans providing the proper traspaso certificate is in place. Such transactions can be difficult, but in 2010, reforms approved by a Communist Party congress were expected to legalize the sale between Cuban citizens of all cars, as well as real estate.

Of Cuba’s vintage American cars, many have been modified with newer engines, disc brakes and other parts, often scavenged from Soviet cars, and most bear the marks of decades of use. Others, however, have been lovingly preserved in their original condition, and would be coveted by collectors in other countries. Apart from a brief period in the 1990s, however, the Castro government has forbidden the sale of Cuban vehicles to foreigners.

Pictures by Robin Thom