Sexy Studebakers, thrilling thunderbirds, and cool Cadillacs. Cuba’s treasured classic cars are a metaphor for the national character and neatly tell the country’s recent history. To see the pick of the bunch, hang around the new Gran Hotel Kempinski Manzana La Habana in Parque Central, opposite the Gran Teatro. They are as vibrant as a gelato stand: coral-hued Hudsons and ocean-blue Mercurys, lime green Chevy’s and shocking pink Dodges.
When the Castro government came to power in 1959 it stopped imports on foreign cars and parts. The USA then signed a commercial embargo blocking the sale of all American-made goods to the country. Those cars that were already in the country still glide around the island like props in a 1950s movie, a reminder of Cuban ingenuity and the time warp that Cuba has inhabited since the Revolution.
There are roughly 60,000 classic cars on the road in Cuba, nearly a third of all the cars in the country. Most Cubans don’t have a car. They catch the bus, take collective taxis (horse-drawn in the countryside), jump on the back of trucks, hitchhike, walk, cycle or ride a horse. Sharing between neighbours, families, friends and even strangers is normal.
In 2014 purchasing new cars was legalised and the first American vehicle to reach the island for 58 years was a 2016’s Infiniti Q60 red coupe. However, due to taxation, prices are prohibitive, ranging from $30,000 for a Chinese Geely to $250,000 for a new Peugeot. They join the few cars that have been new on the roads since 1959 – mainly Moskviches and Ladas, Volgas and Polskis.