BIZARRE as it sounds, there are people – thousands of people every year – go to Cuba not for its beauty, culture, lifestyle and hospitality, but to sit at outdoor cafés and watch its cars roll by.
And for the really keen, to ask the locals if they can look under bonnets, and into the interior of those cars. And even more hopefully, to go for a ride.
Because going to Cuba is somewhat of a time-warp – look at the cars on its roads and you’d think you were back in the 1940s and ’50s, thanks to the US slapping a trade ban on the country in 1962 which included the export of American-made cars and parts to the island nation.
And Cuba’s then-dictator, Fidel Castro compounded the situation by banning Cubans from using circuitous routes to buy new cars from America, so that to this day despite the bans being lifted in 2013, the roads are a virtual rolling museum… crammed with Oldsmobiles, Chevrolets, Buicks, Fords, Chryslers, Plymouths and others badges from the 1950s and before.
And because of a ban on the importation of spare parts as well until 2013, the Cubans became experts in creating their own spares, and adapting parts from one brand to fit another, so that you might today jump into a 1950s Chevrolet taxi, and find that it’s in fact got a Peugeot motor that’s somehow been re-modelled and fitted into the Chevvy.
As one American motoring writer wrote “they’re more than just a car, they’re the last vestige of the spirit of survival… a somewhat country art form.
“A car might have a near-70 year old Cadillac body,” he said. “But because it is running with another make’s 50 year old engine, maybe another’s 60 year old transmission, and its interior is a mish-mash salvaged from a range of badges, these cars literally have morphed into Cuba’s own species.”
And something the ingenious cash-strapped Cubans can’t afford to replace.