It is difficult to imagine Cuba or Havana without conjuring up images of classic cars. The cars are synonymous with the Caribbean island and a major part of the culture, a throwback to a time when the rich and the famous partied here. The cars were in their prime then, beautiful examples of automobile art, the fashionable motorised chariots of the time.
This post is overdue; possibly the one most expected from any trip to the country. Here it is then, produced so imagination isn’t required any longer.
The cars known locally as cacharros and sometimes bartavias are often in a poor state of repair. The drivers are less enamoured with their vehicles than tourists are, merely unable to replace them due to American sanctions. Similarly parts are difficult to come by, if their pride and joy needs a repair it isn’t possible to pop down the local auto parts shop for spares. Cubans are inventive, they need to improvise.
Coping with rust and replacing simple items like spark plugs, windscreen wipers or dashboard dials might not task them too greatly but clutches or gearboxes will need more invention.
Shortage however generates opportunity, a cottage industry has sprung up fabricating the spare parts required to keep the vehicles on the road. Chrome bumpers or low-profile alloys being manufactured on front lawns by backyard entrepreneurs.
Most of these classic vehicles are held together by duct tape and bits of cord. They may have plastic fuel tanks, rubberised brake pads and it is likely windows won’t open, brake lights don’t work and rear-view mirrors are missing.
It is westerners that become romantic about the vehicles, describing them in terms such as classic. We become poetic in our descriptions of their flowing lines and symmetrical curves. There are books that rhapsodise about them, magazines that feature them, mountains of photographs and pages of prose written about them. The casual observer maybe mistaken into believing that stunning cacharros fill the Cuban roads.
The variety of makes is as impressive as the colours available; there are Cadillacs, Buicks, Plymouths, Chevrolets, Dodges and even Studebakers in all shades of red, green, blue, maroon, pink, brown, orange or yellow. Low slung cruisers are popular everywhere, but there are also plenty more utilitarian vehicles like pickup but convertibles are a rarity.
Thankfully some are in amazing condition, they embody automobile beauty oozing a mix of female sensuality and ferrous masculinity. They seem to define the characters that drive them, their pride, their maintainance of their vehicles reflecting how the live. They also define the island for many outsiders and the Cubans have learned to profit from this perception and our romantic need for nostalgia.
The best vehicles are used commercially and some are even state sponsored taking gleeful tourists on a journey through cities like Havana and time. Cruising the streets of the Old Town, lined with dilapidated buildings, their glory days long forgotten but even in their retired state somehow shining in dignified splendour.
It is difficult not to let these symbols of Cuban culture get under the skin, waxing lyrically about them is impossible to avoid. The proof is this post which, orginally intended as a photo essay that allowed the images to do the talking; fail!
Looking through these pictures however I am instantly transported back to Havana. Taking my tour in a stunning vibrant orange Buick Eight and hoping I will get another chance soon. In Cuba the car is the star.