The Classic Fords of Cuba
Five decades later, Fords are still popular in Cuba but often with Russian diesel engines!
[Ed note: Randy Richardson is a contributor to Mustang-360.com and Mustang Monthly magazine with close connections to all things Shelby. He recently took a trip to Cuba to check out the cars and we’re fortunate the he carried his camera with him everywhere he went. So check out his “American Car Guy Tourist Trip” to Cuba for an inside look at the ingenuity of the Cuban people and their ancient but still operational American classics.]
Thousands of American classic cars from the 1940s and 1950s comprise the personal transportation in present day Cuba. Planes full of tourists directly from the United States are landing in Cuba for the first time in decades with the easing of restricted travel. My wife and I decided to take a side trip while we were in Florida to Cuba as a destination we have always wanted to go, she for the culture and historical significance; and I wanted to see the cars.
We needed to make plans well in advance in order to obtain the proper permits and set up travel arrangements before landing. We traveled under the category of supporting the Cuban people, so we arranged a private driver, an apartment, and a classic car. My wife speaks Spanish which was a major benefit in Cuba and our car was a 1949 Dodge Limousine with excellent air conditioning and an abundance of leg room in the back. The Dodge was in wonderful condition and powered by the typical Cuba power plant—a SsangYong/Mercedes five-cylinder diesel engine (SsangYong is a South Korean Company). Our Dodge received thumbs ups from all the other classic car owners everywhere we went because of its marvelous condition.
Cuba has an eclectic assortment of classic American cars brought over from the United States before the revolution in 1959. In the ’50s, Dictator Fulgencio Batista allowed Cuba to be a tourist destination for Americans and a haven for the mob. Lots of American cars were imported from the United States, a mere 90 miles away. Once Fidel Castro successfully overpowered Batista during the revolution he banned all foreign vehicle imports and restricted the import of parts and fuel. What is left today is steps back in automotive time with five decades of American classics reminisce of a rolling automotive museum.
Havana was a beautiful city then and still is now, but in a different way. Looking closely at the European-influenced architecture surrounding Old Havana it is plain to see the bygone beauty. Elaborate details and ornate decorative wrought iron facades belie the dilapidated condition. Before the 1959 revolution, Cuba was a completely different country with aristocrats and opulence, living in lavishness and an abundance of prosperity. If you examine closely, you can see the beauty deep within but it is hard to understand how that beauty dissipated and disintegrated. Understanding the history of Cuba helps explain the car culture and, after all, I was there for the cars.
I discovered Ford Fairlanes are one of the most popular classics in Cuba. There is an estimated 60,000 pre-1959 American cars still plying the streets of Cuba. Most of the best looking convertibles and coupes are full-time tourist duty, cruising Malecon along the seaside from Old Havana to Miramar night and day. Outside of the tourist areas the daily drivers are the backbone of Cuba’s personal transportation. Many have been gutted of their original engines and transmissions and adapted in favor of newer diesel engines. Some of the V8s have been replaced by diesels from Russian cars and even boats. Gas is very expensive in Cuba with long lines daily to purchase fuel (diesel fuel costs about half as much). There are also Russian-made cars from the ’59 revolution to the fall of the Soviet Union in the ’90s. There are Chinese/Korean/Japanese vehicles and European cars but newer cars can cost as much as $85,000, a markup of four to five times the base price, for just the basic models. The cost of a new car is far out of the reach of the typical Cuban, where a good government job pays $25 a month.
Speeds are dictated more by the ruts and potholes than any posted speed limits. The roadway decay is evident everywhere you travel. Most of the best old cars were driven at speeds of 30 to 40 mph by their middle-aged drivers. An original classic in excellent condition is not commonly seen on the roads with values easily hitting the $75,000 to $100,000 mark due to their rarity, but drive by any urban parking lot and an abundance of color and curved beauty catches your attention as the proud owners prance around their automotive treasures.
Innovation has prevailed in keeping decades-old American cars on the road, and a rough road at that. Inspection under the hood of some of these cars revealed an array of ingenuity from the most crude duct-taped repairs to wonderfully fabricated aluminum brackets for diesel engines, cooling systems, air conditioning, and power brake boosters. See the photographs for an appreciation of the passionate Cuban car culture.