Travel: Carspotting In Cuba Redefines The Term 'Modern Classic'

Carspotting In Cuba Redefines The Term ‘Modern Classic’

By Máté Boér
April 18, 2018

I’ve been on road trips in cars built before I was born, I’ve seen my mechanical heroes in action and gathered on concours lawns, but I am here to talk about fulfilling a different automotive dream of mine: visiting Cuba. As a classic car and photography enthusiast, this is one of the best places to indulge in both of these interests while visiting a unique country in the process.

Coming from Central Europe, Hungary, where socialism stuck around until 1989, I’d heard enough stories from my family to have an understanding of what limited access meant when the term was applied to everyday life and purchase of basic goods. This also meant cars were harder to come by back then, and my father’s anecdote illustrates it well, seeing as he had to wait nearly four years until he could drive his first car. It was a Wartburg 353, and  to give you an idea of its spec, choosing a color wasn’t an option.

Having this kind of story in my family background made my adventure to one of the few remaining socialist states all the more intriguing; American classics made between the 1950s and 1970s are an interesting sight outside of their country of origin, and seeing as I’d rarely crossed paths with any back home I was excited to see more than just a few at a car show. Their natural presence on the streets of the Caribbean country can’t be experienced anywhere else on the globe, and they add as much to the charm of Havana as the Eiffel Tower to Paris.

Cuba’s daily driven classic cars have become part of the main tourist attractions in the past decades, something what Fidel probably didn’t plan on when he blocked the importation of cars in 1959. Owning a car in Cuba is not only a status symbol though. For many cars are the main sources of income and opportunity, and for others cars are essential for getting around to work and family and any number of other responsibilities.  Therefore the owners are careful to keep them on the road, deploying all kinds of ingenious repairs using the scarce resources available. Some European automobiles also found their (surely adventurous) way to the island—for instance, I never thought that I’d see an Alfa Romeo F12 van in Havana! Only a handful of the cars that I came across seemed to be preserved in their original states, but far more were the recipients of retrofitted parts and swaps over time. Many of the V8 blocks that came in ‘50s American cars had been exchanged for more modern (and durable) diesel engines, and the diversity of bodywork conversions is wider than I could have imagined.

A concours judge would run away screaming seeing any of these cars on the meticulously cut grass next to perfect restorations, but considering the circumstances all conversions and modifications in Cuba are not just forgivable but lovable.

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