Chrome and Castro: The Story behind Cuba’s Classic Cars

Viewed from the vast leather backseat of a vintage convertible 1957 Cadillac, Havana is laid out in all its stunning yet faded glory. Salty spray from the Caribbean cools passengers cruising along the Malecón, the curved esplanade that runs along the waterfront of the Cuban capital. Some cruisers opt for locally-rolled cigars, others for Panama hats, but all revel in taking in the technicolor time warp around them.

It’s indeed one of the world’s most iconic travel experiences. But while the ride is undoubtedly thrilling and memorable, it also tells a broader story about the country. Known by locals as “coches Americanos,” the hulking beasts transporting visitors in style also symbolize Cuba’s struggle in ways that few could first imagine.

In a country that is still cinematic like few others, your first steps in Cuba genuinely feel like you’ve walked onto a movie set. Whether you arrive by air or sea, everything looks, somehow, just like you’d hope, while every car could conceivably have James Dean, Buddy Holly or Frank Sinatra behind the wheel. Tail fins, for example, seem to be everywhere—a design throwback to the 1950s when, during the Cold War, the U.S. was obsessed with the Space Race and rockets. The guttural purr of diesel engines can seem as much the soundtrack to the city as salsa or the Buena Vista Social Club.

At first, these 1940s and 1950s chrome-clad giants feel incongruous, and you find yourself wanting to photograph them at every opportunity. They quickly become familiar, however, as a critical part of the compelling cultural tapestry across this communist Caribbean country, which sits stuck in time.

Classic American car in Havana, Cuba
A classic American car in Havana, Cuba/Denis Elterman

Cadillacs and Castro’s Revolution

That time was 60 years ago this year, when, in 1959, Fidel Castro seized power with the overthrow of President Batista. Until then, Cuba had been a magnet for American visitors wanting to escape to somewhere different, barely 200 miles from Miami. Until the revolution, more than 125,000 cars had been imported from the US. Around 60,000 of these remain to this day. It’s still a tiny number, given the country’s population of 11 million. There are some Soviet-era Ladas and Moskvitches or the occasional East German Trabant on the roads, but the vast majority are Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, Chevrolets and Ford Fairlanes.

They have lasted for generations. Passed down through families, these classic cars are valuable assets in a country where the average worker earns US$30 per month. If – or indeed when – a classic car breaks down, calling for roadside assistance isn’t exactly an option. In Cuba, people help each other out. You’ll often see groups on the roadside gathered under enormous hoods. Their hands black from grease, they try inventive ways to repair a fan belt.

Obtaining spare parts has proven the most significant challenge, as almost nothing has been imported from the U.S. in six decades. Many Cubans have consequently become masters at ingenious repairs, continually innovating and tinkering to keep their beloved cars on the road.

Classic American car in Havana, Cuba
A classic car in Havana’s Old Town, Cuba/Denis Elterman

Increasingly Rare Vintage Cars in Cuba

Of course, even in Cuba, times do change. For example, mobile phones are becoming much more visible, yet it remains an extraordinary and humbling experience as a visitor to wait an hour in line at a store for a pre-paid card. It will give you enough data for a tiny amount of internet use, as long as you stand within 50 yards of one of the Wi-Fi hotspots across the city.

Slight relaxations in the economy and the growth of entrepreneurialism have also meant that there are a handful of newer cars on the roads. In 2014, the government even decided to officially allow the sale of some brand new foreign makes, but jaws dropped in Havana and around the world when they listed a new Peugeot 208 at an outrageous price of $262,000 (approximately £207,000 or €230,000).

Classic Cars in Havana, Cuba
American cars cruise the streets of Havana, Cuba/Denis Elterman

Cruising through the Capital

The vast majority of vehicles, however, still take you back to 1955, and it’s easy to see why touring the city in one has become de rigueur for visitors. Narrow, cobbled streets in La Habana Vieja, the old quarter of Havana, are best seen from the back seat of a black and white 1955 Oldsmobile, or whatever model you choose.

Likewise, a visit to Plaza de la Revolución, the vast square where Fidel would give epic speeches to crowds of more than a million, is a must. A memorial to Che Guevara still looks down with the quotation “Hasta la victoria siempre,” which means, quite simply, “Until victory, always.”

Your drive may well end at a spot for sunset drinks, such as the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, with its storied history and a rightly-famous terrace overlooking the Malecón. As you take in beautiful, beguiling Havana, you’ll appreciate more than ever your priceless ride back in time.

Streets of Havana, Cuba
The cobbled streets of Havana/Denis Elterman