Adaptation And The American Automobile: This Is How Cuba Gets Around
Photography by Marc Tran
At 30 years old, I decided to quit my job in England as a designer for Jaguar to go travel in Central and South America. Before getting to the continent though, I wanted to start my trip in Cuba and among other things, create my first article in a series that mixes traveling and automobiles.
I stayed in the country for a total of three weeks, and I completely loved it. It is such a different way of living than I had grown used to in the western world—in many ways the experience felt like going back in time 50 years, a feeling strongly influenced by the cars I saw—and the whole country is markedly different than the place I’d come from: there is no advertising on billboards or in the streets, there are no fast food chains or supermarkets, allowing the local shops and merchants to not be so antiquated in this place as they are elsewhere.
Internet is only available in a few public places, and you need to buy access cards with one-hour increments to get access to it. Not the best place to work remotely then, but it will make you properly disconnect during your stay here. Your Uber app wouldn’t work anyway, and the old Bel Airs and friends roaming these streets are much more interesting to look at than another leased compact car.
La Havana is the place where you’ll find the greatest density of these old American boats built for asphalt. You will find them near the Capitol and driving on the Malecon throughout the day, and the taxis line up to offer rides to tourists who get to pick their favorite from the selection of brightly colored Chevys: choose your favorite one and spend some time taking in the city from the backseat.
Some of them are original (not many), but most of them have been modified or else creatively maintained. Indeed to keep these old beasts running, Cubans often replace their tired and inefficient engines to a new Kia or Hyundai diesel unit, so the sound is not as exciting as an American eight-cylinder, but it’s an intriguing combination nonetheless, or at least one that you aren’t likely to find elsewhere. As you know, after the revolution Fidel Castro forbid these cars from leaving the country, and more importantly, didn’t allow anymore in. There are a few exceptions now—not every car is a ’50s American barge here after all—but today it is estimated that there are around 60,000 of these stereotypical sedans left in the country. Outside of an old diner-era poster with some gassers lined up in the parking lot, Cuba’s the next best place to find American steel of this vintage.
The brands most represented are Ford, Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac and Dodge, and whether by factory job or one of many back-alley resprays they are almost invariably brightly colored, from pastel greens and pinks to electric orange. They make the cityscape really joyful compared to the USA or Europe, even if the standards of living aren’t comparable; a dingy street looks much better with a pink Cadillac than a faded silver Twingo.
One of my favorites from my trip was this beautiful Buick Invicta in the center of la Havana. The rain made the scene quite dramatic, and given the circumstance and use of the car, its condition was pretty mint, a fact that its driver was quite proud of. It’s one of many taxis available for hire—surely one of the rarer models on the island though—and to me it represented the high points of American design from this era: the badges, the bars, the thick pieces of chrome, the short nose and comparatively distended tail, and that aggressive shoulder line that extends between them, all hallmarks of the industry in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
Later during my trip I meet Danilo Fernandes Portelles, another taxi driver, this time in Holguin. He speaks English, some French, and a little Italian along with his native tongue, so we had the opportunity to chat without translator around his purple Chevrolet Bel Air from 1955. He told me it once belonged to his grandfather, and now it’s running a 2008 Hyundai engine good for 80hp from its four cylinders—not what his grandfather drove, but a testament to the resourcefulness of a people in a place with scarce resources. Imported diesel from Venezuela is quite cheap though, and so like Danilo may Cubans have converted their cars to run on this type of fuel. Funnily enough, when he opened the bonnet to show me this engine we found a kitten hiding inside, maybe good for a few more fractions of a horsepower?
Any visit to Cuba from an outsider’s perspective is going to be a unique experience for that person, but your enjoyment depends on what you expect to get out of it. For what it’s worth, I would highly recommend it, and not just for the peculiar games of car spotting to be played here. From my favorite room during my stay overlooked the valley of Vinales (protected by Unesco), where some of the country’s famous tobacco is grown, to the very lively and historical Trinidad with its Casa de la Musica, to the major city of La Havana, Cuba offers a wholly different way of life than I was used to, but one that I took to quickly.