Name that relic!

You step out of the airport in Havana and its muggy tropical air hits you. Then as you head toward the city your attention shifts from the stifling heat to the roads and highways filled with impossibly old cars, most of them American from the 1940s and 1950s. 
If at first the landscape looks like a diorama at a car museum, it’s not: It’s real and alive, and every day folks on the island calmly ride these steel mastodons you thought had disappeared from the earth decades ago. 

Name that Car becomes your favorite pastime. Most common are Chevys from the 40s and 50s, followed by Fords. No surprise because those were among the most affordable Detroit offerings at the time. Then you spot some fancier Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs and Buicks, though not as frequently. Plymouths seem to have the most preposterous tail fins–garish and useless–though those on the 1957 Chevy Impalas were hard to top.

Keep looking and things get a little stranger. Here and there a Rambler appears, so homely and unreliable when new,  it’s a miracle to see them on the street today–actually moving. Cuban mechanics and car painters must be geniuses.

Only a few Edsels and I couldn’t photograph any. The most famous in Havana is a creamy-white convertible, supposedly in cherry shape inside and out. It’s used mostly for weddings and we saw it gliding down Havana’s oceanfront drive, festooned with balloons and carrying a delirious couple to or from their wedding. It was 1958 all over again.

One Packard, whose owner assured me was the same year and model–1951?–as the one in the first Godfather movie.

In the 1960s, Russian Ladas and Moskovitchs began showing up on Cuba’s roads, and put the “b” in “basic car”. The one we rode in for two weeks, a 1986 Moskovitch, had no seatbelts, never mind air bags or air conditioning. Unlike some small cars, like the new Volkswagen Crossfox, which seem small but are roomy inside, the Mosky was cramped everywhere, with my knees butting against the dashboard.

All the dials on the dashboard had long ago expired, except for the gas gauge. Only one windshield wiper worked. Coming back from Cienfuegos to Havana, a three-hour drive, was scary: The driver was angry about something and mum, and the car must have been barreling along at seventy-five miles per hour. Hit a rock, jam on the breaks or blow a tire and the Mosky and three of us will end up in the next province, I kept thinking.

Past the Ladas and Moskys, things really get exotic. We saw an enormous Soviet Chaika limousine, presumably carrying someone important from a distant former Soviet republic whose name ends in “stan.” It glided past us regally before I could get my camera. A Chaika would not be used by a Russian guy or a Chinese diplomats, my driver explained. Those VIPs ride float-size Mercedes Benzes, just like their Cuban counterparts.

[For a look at a Chaika:  It’s an amazing-looking machine.]

Stranger birds still were a Skoda (from the former Czechoslovakia), a Fiat Polski, Austin A40, and a British Vauxhall from the 1950s.

Often it’s impossible to tell what you’re looking at. It may be an American sedan with VW beetle lights, a truck converted into a bus, or some benighted beast with so much lumpy putty and paint on its body that it looks like a piece of pastry with wheels.

A masculine roar and a trail of black smoke tells you that that enormous Cadillac or Buick probably has been retrofitted with a diesel truck engine. In other cases, like my cousin’s 1957 Chevrolet, the original on-line, six-cylinder motor is intact, sitting demurely in the middle of a huge and mostly empty engine compartment.

Ladas and Moskovitches are the most generous donors of body parts:  some cars will have a Lada engine and a Moskovitch transmission, but their puny motors can’t nudge something like a 1957 Pontiac. That takes an appropriately mammoth engine.

If you are ever in Cuba don’t be afraid to ask owners about their cars. Cubans will talk about practically anything to anyone, but most of all about their cars. They’ll let you get inside for a look at the dashboard and open up the hood to proudly show you the Frankenstein-like miracles it requires to keep that 60-year-old monster rolling.  I wish we had had more time.

More about Cuban car mechanics in another blog.

Below is a sampling of the cars we saw in Cuba, with some identifications that we made. If you know more or have better clues than me feel free to post your corrections in the comments box at the end.

A 1955 Chevy Bel Air, I believe. It has been lovingly restored though
the paint on the spokes of the steering wheel didn’t look right.

1958 Plymouth 
A 1948 Buick Eight Roadmaster

1957 Plymouth Belvedere

A cuddly Skoda from the former Czechoslovakia. Year?
A Russian Volga 1974 GAZ. The blue plates mean 
it’s a government car. 
A Russian Lada.
This Cadillac hearse at the Havana cemetery was so beat up
and tired it should have been buried twenty years ago
For bonus points: I think this is an Austin A40,
year unknown. 
Mystery car, particularly since the grille is not original.

This guy had so much paint and putty on it must
have weighed two tons. 
Serious bonus points: A Fiat Polski, model year unknown. 
Old fat 1953 Buick.  

Consuls were built by Ford in Britain, and as far as
I can tell this is a 1959 or 1960.
The ghost of a Chrysler Imperial? Not so: 
It’s a 1954 Mercury Monterey

1954 Chevrolet

1954 Pontiac

1958 Chevrolet 

1956 Chevy

1950 Buick
1957 Ford
This is a triumph of function over form. 
A 1940ish Dodge?
This Caddy has been through some rough times. 
1957 Chevy for you. 

A 1950 Ford
That’s right! A 1952 Vauxhall, garaged in the home in Santa Clara
where I grew up.
A brand-new, Chinese-made Geely, which has
one of the worst safety records of any car on
the planet. On a front-end crash it crumples
like someone stepping on an aluminum soda can.
Check out this youtube video:   
Who can forget the tail of a 1959 Chevrolet?
The owner said this is a 1951 Packard similar to the
one used in the first Godfather movie. It’s a Packard
alright; I don’t know about the rest of it.
1958 Rambler


9 thoughts on “Name that relic!

  1. Great write-up and photos. Netflix has an enjoyable Cuban auto documentary (disk only I'm afraid) called Yank Tanks with interviews of some of the mechanics who keep the old fleet running. I keep hoping we will all have an opportunity to visit Cuba before U.S. commercial interests get unfettered access and start homogenizing everything into familiar strip-mall blandness. I resent travel restrictions that prevent me from reaching my own conclusions about Cuba based on first-hand observation.


  2. Thanks for the note about Yank Tanks. I'll send away for it. I talked to a few guys about how they maintain their cars, but wish I had spent more time with them. al


  3. By Victoria (I thought I just commented, but it disappeared–this could be a repeat!) What a delightful post in every way. Fun to read and a treat for the eyes. I have seen many photos of older American cars in Cuba, but never a collection quite like this. Wonderful!


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