How Are Those Classic Cars Still Even Running?

Good question, so we asked some mechanics in Havana

Because there hasn’t been any modernization or importation of automobiles since the US embargo in the early 1960s, Cubans have created a culture wherein cars are treated as tenderly and preciously as first loves, and, in the words of one mechanic, much like wives, because “they’ll be stuck with them for awhile”.


Cubans have always loved the American muscle car. However, by now, given the extraordinary vintage of some of these vehicles, many parts have been replaced with newer pieces, either manufactured in Cuba or salvaged from old Soviet vehicles.


With the embargo lifted, why haven’t the Cubans moved on to newer cars? A few have, especially given that those oldies have the MPG of a drunken snail, making them quite costly. But as anyone with the faintest knowledge of cars can tell you (or anyone whose had to pay an arm a leg and a second mortgage to have their car fixed), most modern vehicles require specialized parts that are invariably dealer specified. This limits a new car owner, since the parts aren’t readily available yet, and not likely to be for a while. So it’s actually easier to stick with the classics.


They’re gloriously photogenic and characterful, and strut around Cuba like magnificent, gleaming metal peacocks. But, in truth an American car collector wouldn’t want to touch a Cuban car. Very little of them remains original, some are, quite literally, held together by duct tape and twine.


After the embargo, Cubans could no longer import from America, so time stopped for road vehicles, and replacement parts were out of the question. (Then Castro decreed that Cubans couldn’t buy cars anyway, only get them from the government. Of course, since the government had no money, that didn’t really work out.) The Soviet Union sent Cuba some Ladas, but those didn’t last long and wound up mainly cannibalised for parts.  


One mechanic explained the kind of home remedies common for fixing a car. Say you had a leaky radiator, what then? “We squeeze guava and banana pieces to plug the cracks.” Some people use eggs, which acts as a liquid to get in the cracks, then cooks as they drove, and, solidifying, fills the cracks.