We begin with a flight into Cuba from Panama at 2am. A booked hotel transfer awaits, or does it? You see, after spending even a short amount of time in Cuba you find that people are ‘sleepy’. I mean a bottle of rum costs under 4 CUC (< $6 NZD). It’s no wonder, I’d probably be drunk and asleep as well half the time. Back to our driver from the airport, in short. There was none. Picture this: fresh off a plane, no one speaks (or wants to speak) English, everything is in Spanish. Your booked driver at 2am hasn’t turned up. The guy behind the information desk has what appears to be, a five day old pizza in an open box with flies swarming while he has his hat draped across his face, fast asleep. Nothing short of a comedy skit from Hollywood, only this was far from funny. One helpful chap, who could speak English sorted us two taxis (a family of five with six pieces of luggage won’t fit in your average Prius taxi).
We’re away! It’s about 3am, the taxi driver in the car I’m in cannot speak a word of English. However, in lieu of conversation he turns the Afro-Cuban beats from the radio up. Windows down, a welcome breeze passing through in this muggy heat. Ripping through the streets of Havana, again Hollywood. At this point, we’ve seen no one until we stop at some lights and a late ‘50s Chev station wagon pulls up next to us. Even in the dim early hours lighting, you can tell in the last odd 40 years this car has been kept on the road, somehow, someway….any way. By that I mean, not a single panel on this car was smooth or straight. The dim lighting wasn’t very flattering and was deflecting off the body work at all sorts of angles. I suspected there was more bog and paint than metal on this ‘jalopy’. No matter, we don’t get to see specimens such as this back home so I’m all smiles. I love this kind of DIY through necessity type approach to mechanics, reminds me of the stories dad tells me about Fiji. The occupants of this vehicle just stare at us, catching my brother and my gaze they beep. They look not pleased in the slightest. I swear that I have never felt more like I am about to get shot than I do at this second. For some reason, that’s the only thought that goes through my head. The lights go green, in a plume of blue smoke we are left behind. To be expected, BUT the noise it made was oddly not V8 or a six that I am accustomed to. Weird. At least it didn’t sound like a gunshot.
Day 1: Americano?! Si! Now I don’t ever want to be American but this was a taxi agent and HELL YES do I want to go in an AMERICANO! We step into this late ‘50s relic, no door cards (weight reduction bro). Heater on full, I’m guessing a Band-Aid to some overheating issue. The clutch pedal which used to be, now sits flat on the floor replaced by an automatic. Kind of odd but hey, maybe that’s what they do here. This particular taxi has holes up the A pillar, a rear quarter window missing, oh and during the trip my brother’s door just flew open with no warning. It makes everything so much more exciting. The driver gives it gas and immediately my brother and I sitting in the front are shoved back. The seat rocks back and fourth, great for a Grandma on a porch with her tea. Not so great if you’re ever in an accident. My legs would have to serve as the crumple zone. My first taste of Cuban motoring.
If you’re ever visiting Cuba, you’ll quickly find the level of de-construction and crumbling bits around you. The sewage smell in parts of town, the puddles of filthy green water in the side streets. If you’re into cars, you’ll quickly find that you’re in a time capsule. A by-gone era, which you can only find in places as special as Cuba. If your ear for cars is as keen as your eye, you’ll hear the cars. Not quite the V8 you were expecting, or even the straight sixes. No, what you’ll be in is a ‘hybrid’, a term loosely used of course. If you’re a PW fan and you play the ‘Pop the hood” line you’ll be left rather dazzled. We jumped in a full spec’d out late ‘50s Bel Air. What a thing of beauty. Lush, is an adjective which first springs to mind. This one is fully retrimmed, vinyl seats, blue and white two tone to match the exterior. AC vents the length of the dash, about ten 6x9s line the parcel shelf. The ‘three on the tree’ has been swapped for a ‘four on the floor’. SACRILEDGE. Wait, there’s more…. “Pop the hood Alejandro” …..Um why is there only half an engine? That’s because my dear reader, these cars are run basically 24/7 as taxis and a V8 would be rather uneconomical. Back to the, ‘whatever works’ mechanical mentality, you grab whatever you have in abundance around you. It just so happens, in Cuba that happens to be….. Brace yourselves ladies and gentlemen. I warn you, this really isn’t pretty. I’ll leave a few empty lines so you can get yourself prepared for what I am about to say…
Ready? They grab the nearest 4 cylinder TOYOTA engine and shove them into these ‘50s behemoths. WHHHHHYYYYYYY. It’s like the stereotypical ‘hot girl’ at school, who when you get to know has the personality of a brick. Never mind the personalitits. The brick is a deal breaker. Phew, I guess once you get over this bit of information, you can begin to focus on the exteriors. There’s beautifully kept cars, pristine some might say. There’s modified cars with new interiors, electric everything, A/C vents a far as the eye can see. There’s cars which have been so badly beaten over the years that bog content > metal content, every panel has been beaten to a slightly different song. Then there is literally every car in between these extremes. What I really like is the range of vehicles. “Americano” to me, does not mean the most pristine Bel Air in the country. To me, I’m just as happy if not more happy in a car that’s been beaten up daily for 40 odd years, only to arrive curb side in a modest state in front of me to do the one job it was destined for. Get my family and I from point A to B, simple. There’s an aura about these cars in particular, they haven’t ben hopped up to serve as overpriced eye candy for drooling tourists. They’re modest, they have stories to tell. I want to so badly know how many owners these cars have been through. What colour they originally wore from the factory? How many accidents have they been in? Who’s added/subtracted what from them? So many questions, such little chance of me getting any answers due to my non-existent Spanish.
Through all of the classic Americano’s you see around. Two very, VERY humble cars have taken my fancy. *FLAME SUIT ON* the Russian tank, the mighty Lada Riva (id pick the 2104 estate). My first choice however, would be the humble rear engined Fiat 600. Man, what a gorgeous little car. A car that would work just as well back home as it does here. I want one! I need to find one! One day maybe. I think on looks alone it’s a car that for once I think even my girlfriend would approve, although that probably says more about me than her. A mid/rear mounted Italian car, where else have you heard that before? I call it, the ‘Smart man’s Ferrari”. Practical. Cheap. Fun. A Muira before the Muira. Not quite, but hey you’ll probably get more looks as well. An obtainable classic, that’s what I like.
Day 2: Let’s skip the intricacies of what I had for breakfast and get to the automobilia part of the day. The main event being a classic car tour around Havana. This begins with a short taxi trip in a beat up green Chev, the workhorse type mentioned earlier. We get dropped to the supposed address where the tour is meant to start, however with the connotation used I can infer that you realise that it wasn’t going to be so simple. We have to be on time, otherwise they leave without us. Scrambling around in a foreign city we find two guys on a cycle rickshaw who will take us to where we need to go for a fiver. With the clock against us, these two made a quick fiver. Darting through the side streets, avoiding the spine shattering potholes we pull up in front of an old hostel, our street cred at an all-time low. We race up some very ornate marble stairs only to be told we are five minutes late and they have left without us. Riiiight, so a prepaid tour, missed, due to some taxi driver who really didn’t know where he was going. Seems highly unfair, for what was supposed to be the highlight of the trip. After some negotiation between my dad and the operator it is settled. He managed to ring around and get it sorted for us. I suppose you can’t come this far and not do the classic car tour. He rolls up in a light blue Chev. A drop top, naturally. I should explain that this would be like losing my convertible car virginity, I’d never been drawn towards them for the simple fact that I didn’t see the point. I didn’t see the point, because in Auckland well you’d only be able to use it with the roof down for a sum total of about 3 weeks. Useless. In Havana, the sun beats down for what seems like 365, so hey, what better way to pop the cherry? Now, along this tour the classics were all out in force. I have a photo dump of epic proportions to make, but it is to be decided where to make it. Anyways, will include a couple here.
We stop for a bit of a break with the other cars, get to take photos etc. I naturally jumped at the chance when our driver went to open the bonnet. The love for cars has no language barrier. The carburetor was just that, a carburetor. I get talking to him, asking about the car. Earlier in the day I did this, in the mentioned green Chevy, the response was that it has a turbo diesel under the hood, anything past the words “turbo diesel”, I didn’t really understand. Our car now however had the original Chevy straight six with a classic ‘three on the tree’ shifter arrangement. It was a ’54. Note the lack of an air filter. Id asked about the lack of chrome, and I was told in order to avoid them being stolen, he keeps them at home. Smart I suppose, because every other car I had seen had its chrome removed, good luck finding replacement mint condition chrome for a 60 year old car. I’d like to say it had a beautiful straight six hum, but it really didn’t. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was the same turbo diesel from earlier in the day. Each gear selected would after much persuasion crunch into life. Cringe worthy. None of this detracts from the sensation of the tour when it isn’t actually your own car. I popped the hard question though, how much did it cost? I’ll tell you in a simple number right after I explain, the driver showed us a video of him on CCTV USA which seems like a big news channel. He was being interviewed about his car, which years ago seemed like it was in pristine condition. Now however, there were non-functioning factory gauges replaced by equally non-functioning aftermarket gauges. Bog in the pillars, the rear half of the floor would bend as you stood on it. The soft top was completely gone, and I don’t just mean beyond repair, I really mean there was no top. The rear parcel shelf had no lining with holes for what appeared to be the Cuban speaker size of choice, a pair of 6x9s. So, onto the number keeping in mind that this car was once so pristine, that driver and car were featured on an international news channel. $25,000 CUC. Wow, now that is a lot for the car in its current state. For a largely original car when he bought it, in NZD terms, that’s not such a bad deal. It runs day in and day out without fail. It is this man and his family’s bread and butter. The build quality is nothing short of astonishing. He looks after it, and it looks after him. He was amazed when I told him the oldest car I ever owned was only 30 years his cars’ junior.
Places like Cuba are far and few between. Once this is gone, with all the routes opening up it will be a real loss. Over time these cars which have been kept running out of necessity will be shelved for newer, cheaper cars. I guess that’s progress. But from a purely selfish perspective it will be a real loss. Not often do you get something preserved so well. Sure there has been engine swaps and modifications but I suppose it was needed. One of the modifications I saw that should really get a mention, is a man’s door cards in his car, which were made of plaster. That’s right, straight plaster onto the door card. How fancy! Although I am not the biggest fan of American cars, coming here and seeing a ‘50s Chev station wagon in a turquoise/white two tone. I’m all ears for this sort of stuff. One day I’ll learn the difference between Edelbrock heads, big blocks, small blocks, Windsors, the NRA and entitled insecure gun toting gringos. I really took a liking to not just Cuba but our drivers’ pride in their work horses. I still have one reservation about the American classics, they’re no Italian Stallions ala Fiat 600. The most important take away from Cuba is: “Everything in Cuba is broken in some way. It’s the quality of the Band-Aid which counts” Ciao amigo (hope you fixed your car)