We welcome a guest post today from Richard Schweid, author of Che’s Chevrolet, Fidel’s Oldsmobile: On the Road in Cuba. Vintage U.S.-made cars on the streets of Havana provide a common representation of Cuba. Journalist Richard Schweid, who traveled throughout the island to research the story of motor vehicles in Cuba today and yesterday, gets behind the wheel and behind the stereotype in this colorful chronicle of cars, buses, and trucks. In his captivating, sometimes gritty, voice, Schweid blends previously untapped historical sources with his personal experiences, spinning a car-centered history of life on the island over the past century.
In the following post, Schweid considers what classic car treasures may be steered out of the shadows with the new warming of relations between Cuba and the United States.
One thing a détente between the U.S. and Cuba will do is reveal the truth or falsehood of an urban myth in Havana, which holds that numerous pristine 1950s Detroit models are stored in secret garages across the city. In Havana, when talk turns to old North American cars, people are likely to say that they know someone who knows someone who has a brother-in-law whose father takes care of a vintage model kept under lock and key in a secret garage somewhere in the city. The caretakers are rumored to receive small (very small) stipends from rich car collectors in the States to keep the tires aired up, the chrome polished, and to drive it up and down the block a few times a year, keeping the car in shape for the day when it can legally be brought to the U.S. Like a number of things that people talk about in Havana, it has always been hard to determine if these hidden jewels are the stuff of dreams, or whether they are real.
Of course, in the city’s streets it is not hard to take a taxi ride in some amazing Detroit products that have been extinct for a long time in the States: cars like Packards, DeSotos, Plymouths, or Nash Ramblers. However, despite their rarity, such taxis would not fetch much on the North American vintage-car market. In Havana, these relics are workhorses, battered and strained, rolling through the broiling streets every day carrying goods and people. For economy’s sake, and because no factory replacement parts have been shipped to Cuba from the U.S. since 1960, these cars have been mongrelized and modified with hoses made from old enema bag tubing, gaskets milled from tin cans, and engines converted to diesel by hook or by crook. House paint was applied when their colors faded, and electrical systems were jerry-rigged when they failed. These are not the cars they once were, and not many North Americans would want one in the garage.
Even as rough as a ride in one of these taxis can be, packed with the maximum number of passengers who can be squeezed in and without air conditioning under the Cuban sun, for a gringo of a certain age it is well worth a trip, just for the nostalgic rush. To watch a driver go from first to second gear with a stick-shift on the column, that up-and-out move that belongs to a bygone age of cars and drivers, is a wonderful sight.
Many Detroit models in Cuba belong to the same families that bought them new, before the Revolution.
Even though most private property was abolished, ownership of a car was allowed to pass from generation to generation. If commercial relations open up again, it will be interesting to see how the vintage car market is affected.
The last time collectors had any access to Cuba’s rolling automobile stock was in the early 1990s and the Special Period, years of terrible scarcity in which the government was forced to sell what it could. An offer was made by the government to exchange new Ladas from the U.S.S.R. for Detroit jalopies. Some people took the deal. Others turned it down and held on to what they had. Those dealers or collectors who bought the cars from the Cuban government had to take delivery of lots containing half a dozen. Most were beat up and broken down, but a beauty was usually seeded in each lot to make it attractive: a pristine 1959 Ford Fairlane, or a spotless 1951 Nash Rambler. Hundreds of vehicles were estimated to have been sold. Lots went to dealers and collectors in many parts of the world, but not, of course, in the United States.
For those Cubans who turned down the offer and kept their cars, who were able to keep them cared for and off the streets, the cars were like fine wines, or fine art, appreciating as the years went by. Now, more than a half-century later, it is possible to imagine they can finally be rewarded for the care and loyalty they lavished on their cars. For instance, a 1958 Ford Edsel convertible in mint condition can sell for over $50,000 in the States. It is not impossible that behind a garage door in one of Havana’s narrow streets, just such an Edsel is sitting, ready to reclaim its status as a rare and valuable object.
Richard Schweid was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and now lives in Barcelona, Spain, where he is a founder and senior editor of the city magazine Barcelona Metropolitan. He served as production manager for the Oscar-nominated film Balseros, a documentary feature about Cuban refugees. In addition to Che’s Chevrolet, Fidel’s Oldsmobile: On the Road in Cuba, he is also author of Consider the Eel (UNC Press, 2002) and Octopus (Reaktion, 2013).