When you visit Cuba one of the first things you will notice is the abundance of beautiful classic automobiles on the streets. They are like nothing you have seen before-the majority of them have bodies in pristine condition and are clean and gleaming. Cubans take great pride in their cars and it shows in the well cared for bodies and engines that are in generally good condition.
Most of the cars on the island are called Yank Tanks or máquina. There are approximately 60,000 classic cars on the roads of Cuba. The 1962 embargo imposed by the United States that cut off trade also prevented access to American cars so it’s rare to see a newer car unless it’s a Kia, a Russian Lada or a Peugeot. Many have been converted to diesel after old engines gave out because those were the engines available. Cubans are ingenious improvisers and when they cannot get the proper parts for repair they convert other parts or make their own.
Most people own older cars that they have modified, repaired, and cared for over the years. You’ll see classics like the Chevrolet Bel Air, the Chrysler Imperial and Oldsmobile models from the 1950s. GM was a major presence in Cuba in the 50s and their products outnumber Ford and Chrysler cars four to one. Enough car owners have converted their classic cars into taxis so you won’t lack for comfortable transport while you’re in Cuba.
Cubans regard their cars almost as members of the family and most have been passed down through generations in the same family. Cars are workhorses but also treasured by the owners and their families. Most visitors are truly astounded; unlike people in other countries that trade in their cars every few years solely because they want a newer model, Cubans don’t have that luxury. Their cars are well maintained and cared for by necessity but also because they are an integral part of the family unit, providing income as well as transportation and convenience.
You’ll find plenty of cars parked outside the Capitolio waiting to be rented to tourists for a drive or simply to take their photograph sitting in the car. Most are taxis that are waiting for fares and they remain parked until the car is filled with passengers; you can also hire them by the hour or day. You can choose from a ’58 Plymouth Fury with sleek fins, a solid ’52 Chevrolet, a stocky yet elegant British Ford Anglia (1936-57), a sporty Nash Rambler, a stodgy De Soto, or a roomy Studebakers to name just a few. Every day is like seeing a classic car show in the street!
You’ll want to stop by the car museum on the Calle Officios, a pedestrian street that is surrounded by beautifully restored 18th century structures. One of these is the Museo del Auto Antiquo where you can see antique Rolls Royce, Cadillacs, Packards, De Sotos and other beautiful cars. You’ll also see the oldest car in existence there, a 1908 Cadillac that has been restored. It is a chain-driven, one cylinder, 7 horsepower car that looks rather like an open air carriage. You’ll also see a 1920 Ford Model T, a 1924 Dodge, a 1926 Willys Overland, a 1930 La Salle, and many more classics.
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