Following the successful revolution in 1959, when Cuba installed Fidel Castro as President, the United States decided to end all economic relations with Cuba and install a complete trade embargo. Hence, following 1959, no more American cars were able to be shipped to Cuba. Due to the cost of importing cars from most other countries, that means that still, to this day, more than half of the cars you’ll see in Havana (and most of Cuba) are 1950s American cars. From 1957 Chevy’s to a 1954 Dodge, to the 1955 Ford Fairlane town sedan that took my family from Havana to the rural town of Viñales. A small handful of cars are 1960s-70s Russian cars as well, which were imported during the Cold War era due to Cuba’s close relationship with the Soviet Union at the time.
Given the expense of importing parts from overseas and the general poverty of the island of Cuba, I was curious how they were able to keep up the maintenance on these old cars and keep their running, so I talked to almost every cab driver I saw, as well as the mechanics at a repair shop that I walked by. They said that, for the most part, they would quite simply get by with what they had, in a “live off the land” sort of way. They’d import cheap parts when they could from Mexico, China, or the Soviet Union (especially the Soviet diesel engines from the 1970s and 80s), and create parts from scratch when they couldn’t do that. By and large, their answers to how the 1950s American cars are still on the road were quite simply “they don’t make things like they used to anymore.” While some of these cars have well over 1,000,000 miles on them and are on their 3rd, 4th, or 5th engines, their exteriors and interiors are largely unchanged, except for paint. The extremely high quality of creation at the time has helped them maintain these beautiful machines over the years.
Stepping off of the plane in Havana, you feel like you stepped back in time 60 years, and it seems to prove that time travel may indeed be possible, and that all you need is an airplane to act as your time machine. There’s nowhere else in the world where you can see this many classic cars still on the road in one place. It certainly is a sight to behold, and worth a trip for anyone who wants one of the most unusual and unique travel experiences that you can have.
Michael Prodanovich is a contributor to Point Me to the Plane, and author of The Ultimate Guide to Free Travel
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