Revolutionary mechanics

If you think fixing car a is tricky racket, imagine it if you didn’t have access to spare parts, manuals or even the proper tools. That’s exactly the predicament car owners in Cuba face when their old ’57 Oldsmobiles or ’49 Plymouths cough, shudder and then glide to a stop with a sorrowful sigh.

Due to–in roughly equal parts–the fifty-plus-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and the island’s catatonic communist economy, the country has been unable to import many new cars or spare parts. Exceptions have been for vehicles for high government officials or others, like Olympic medalists, who have made outsize contributions to the country. But even these lucky few could only hope to get Ladas, Mukovitches and other Soviet brands about as exciting in design and performance as week-old borscht.

For some lucky reason, the East German Trabants, with their plastic bodies and two-stroke, two-cylinder engines never made it to Cuba.

The rest of the Cubans were left to deal with the herd of balky 1940s and 1950s American beasts. The ingenuity of these street mechanics is an inspiration. You can’t help but wonder where this country would be if the all-controlling government were replaced by one that not only allowed–but encouraged–individual initiative and creativity. One that stopped restricting people at every turn and instead shouted: “Go at it folks! Let’s get this country going!”

[In a comment to a previous blog, reader Joseph McClain mentioned “Yank Tanks,” a 2002 documentary about how Cubans go about keeping these hogs running. I’ve ordered it from Netflix, but it hasn’t arrived yet.]

Room to roam: Old American cars came with huge engine compartments
 that have facilitated transplants and other improvisations necessary to keep

 them running in Cuba. This is a 57 Chevy with the original in-line,
 six-cylinder engine. There’s enough room under the hood for two engines.
New heart for an old timer: This old Packard’s engine expired a long
time ago, but alas, there was still so much of it left to love. So the owner 

grafted a Russian truck diesel engine with a huge radiator that 
barely fits under the hood. Most fix-its are less heroic and involve
  custom-machined replacement parts, or components pilfered from
 Russian cars, which are more readily available. So you may 
have an engine and transmission from a Lada with the steering from 
a Moskovitch. Cannibalism of other American cars is less common 
because, remember, there are only so many available to begin with. 
Double transplant: This Cadillac received a diesel truck
engine and an air conditioner (right behind the grille). The 

owner swears it all works–most of the time, anyway. 
But stuff happens: The engine somehow sucked in some water
 when the driver plowed through an eighteen-inch-deep lagoon 

 after a thunderstorm. He had five friends push the Caddy to a dry spot on a
 side street to begin repairs. First order of business was to go fetch four bottles of

 rum to get the street mechanics’ brain cells properly lubricated.
It looks as if someone also went to get a replacement head gasket. 
Party time: With nary a cross word or an argument, these six guys
 went at it and by late afternoon the Caddy was back on the road
–roaring and blowing thick, black smoke–presumably
until the next on-street mechanical drama.

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