Why car fans need to head to Cuba

Car Culture
Cars driving along a road in Havana, Cuba

Cuba’s prevailing image (aside from the cigar scene) is its cars: long, brightly coloured Chevys and old-school, Soviet Era numbers trundle down its streets at wild speeds of around 40mph, chugging out smoke and breaking down every few blocks.

The reason for this? For the past half a century, the Cuban government has had a strict no-imports, no-exports policy for cars and their parts, meaning that ‘Cuban cars’ are just the old, bygone motors of the American 1950s. Fixing up these vehicles to keep them on the roads has consisted of creating wild hybrid machines, where petrol engines get switched for diesel, German car parts are installed in American cars, and gas tanks are constructed from homewares.

Now the bans have been lifted, the impact on the streets of Cuba can be seen in two main ways; one – the number of uninspiring, European imports has increased, and two – the number of dazzlingly attractive old cars has decreased, as the poor Cubans sell off these old classics to wealthy car collectors. And why not? Considering the average Cuban wage is a measly $20 per month, and one of these cars (depending on the condition) could rake in up to $60,000 – it’s no wonder they’re selling up.

For car fans, this means one thing… It’s time to head to Cuba and get your fill of streets littered with motors you only ever get to see on the web. Here are some of the cars still visible on Cuba’s urban and rural roads, for the time being:

Plymouth Fury

A Plymouth Fury parked on the street in CubaThese distinctive and classic cars were produced by Chrysler and brought into Cuba before the import ban in 1959. In good condition, they could be sold for around $US10,000.

Post-war Pontiacs of all flavours

A beuatifully-maintained Pontiac Staf Chief in CubaMost Pontiacs on the road in Cuba are from the 1950s – like the Pontiac Star Chief above.  These models can now sell for outrageous prices (around $US60,000). The Pontiac brand was closed down by owners GM in 2009, making them a desirable catch for car collectors.

Studebaker Champion

A Studebaker Champion on the streets of CubaThe Studebaker company hit its heights between the two World Wars, but dell into decline, eventually merged with Packard in the late 1950s to become the Studebaker-Packard Corporation, but collapsed in the early 1960s. Cars like the Champion above are now being sold online for an enormous $US20,000 (depending on condition).

Assorted Oldsmobiles

An early 1950s Oldsmobile 88 in CubaAnother defunct GM brand like sister-company Pontiac, production of Oldmobiles ceased in 2004. Most models running around in Cuba were those created between 1948-1958 before the ban, like the Super 88s above, which sported revised side chroming and a split grille. The post-WWII era was the peak for Oldsmobile; after this, most of the designs were squarer and less sleek.

Classic Chevrolets

Chevrolet Bel Air taxi cab in CubaCuba easily has the most stylish taxis in the world, and you’re guaranteed to catch sight of 1950s model Chevrolet Bel Airs all over the island. The bright colours also make them quite the spectacle as they trundle down the more rural country roads of Cuba. Depending on the condition, they’ll sell for $US30,000 or more.

Loads of Ladas – they still build them in Cuba

A Lada saloon in CubaThe Soviet influence in Cuba is still present in the form of these Russian Ladas. Unlike most of the other older car makes, these are still in production, and Lada currently has a plant in Cuba. Despite their unattractive exterior they’re generally reliable, sturdy vehicles and will sell for around $US5,000-10,000 on the market in Cuba.  The BBC suggests that there are around 250,000 of these cars still on the road there (for now).

Travel information for Cuba

Where to go: Havana is an obvious choice, although you’ll find the annoying taxi Chevy drivers demanding money if you want to get anywhere near their cars.

In more rural areas, such as Trinidad and out towards the coast, you’ll get a lot more shock value when you see the gorgeous old models lining the streets.  Trinidad is famous for its colonial good looks, whereas Playa Pesquero is much more of a beachy area (though very small with only about four hotels in total).  Baracoa in the south is another great spot for seeing a really untouched part of the island, and makes a good final destination for a road trip across the country (it’s about an 11 hour drive from Havana).

When to go: April is the best month; cheap flights, great weather and no spring breakers disturbing your trip!

Hollie Mantle

Hollie Mantle is a blogger for HolidayCheck.com, tackling the roads of North and South America, Asia and Europe.

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