Cuba's Old US Cars

CUBA often feels like a living repository of the past.

Havana has a gentle blend of baroque cathedrals, stately Spanish colonial mansions, and the faded "new" skyscrapers built just before Fidel Castro Ruz came to power in 1959. In the countryside, where time marches even slower, the sugar cane harvest is still hauled in by gasping steam-driven trains.

But it is the ubiquitous coughing, classic cars which, ahem, drive home the museum feeling.

One minute a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air lumbers past. The next, a 1950 Dodge Kingsway sedan. Nobody seems to know how many there are. Most appear well-loved. Others show the wear of the salt air. But Detroit's aging iron boats of chrome and soaring tail fins remain a daily means of transportation here.

"The antique cars are less problematic and easier to fix," says Luis Orlando Rodriguez Garcia, proud owner of a black 1939 Plymouth.

Since the United States began a trade embargo in 1961, cutting Cuba off from American cars and replacement parts, most old-car owners have evolved into fairly adept shade-tree mechanics. They barter for parts or make their own. A water-filled mayonnaise jar lodged in a corner of the engine compartment of Mr. Garcs Plymouth serves as an air filter.

"Wouldn't do me any good to own a newer car now," Garcia chuckles, "we can't get parts for [Soviet-made] Ladas either."

In 1987, the Cuban government started selling off some of its treasure-trove to foreign collectors. It created a unique used-car lot by offering a new Lada (the Soviet version of the Italian Fiat) plus cash to antique-car owners willing to trade in. A blue 1950 Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a white 1922 Hispano-Suiza are among the running relics still left on the government lot.

But Cuba's old-car business closed up shop in December, according to Jorge Alfonso, manager of the operation. Apparently, thin profit margins and difficulties in acquiring new low-cost autos from traditional trading partners ended the enterprise.

Shortages are also curtailing use of the behemoths.

"I used to drive out to the countryside when I could get tires and gas," says Onesimo Naveiras, owner of a 1950 Chevy Bel Air Deluxe. Last year, rationing limited private car owners to about one tank of gasoline a month.

This year, fuel may not be legally available at all. Unless Cuba suddenly strikes oil or manages to secure adequate supplies from the Confederation of Independent States that has replaced the Soviet Union, the antique autos may become little more than curb-side adornments.

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