Story and pictures contributed by Alistair Turnbull

I had always read that since Fidel Castro took power and the US had enforced trade embargoes in 1960, time has stood still for the Cubans.
Upon arrival at Havana airport I was greeted by the usual mob of taxi touts. Straight away I knew something was different. It’s not often that cabbies yell out the make and model of their vehicle to potential passengers: ’48 Booi.very nice mister.?
I’d found my ride!

The official policy is that tourists are meant to only ride in the ‘modern’ 70’s Fiat taxis, and only locals can go in the old cars, which are deemed to be too rough for the tender backsides of the western tourist. Not this western tourist though. If you speak enough Spanish to tell the police that you live locally, the cabbies will quite happily accept your tourist dollars.

Wandering around the streets of Havana really is like going back in time. I’d always seen the photos of old cars in Cuba and wondered how long the photographer had waited for them to cruise by. It isn’t like that at all. Everywhere you look there is a pre-1960 car going by [all in varying states of decay] Of the half million cars in Cuba, 20% are said to be pre-1960. That?s around 100,000 classic American cruisers. I certainly wasn’t going to disagree with that statistic. There was old Detroit iron around every corner. Paradise for an old car enthusiast, and bliss for a photographer. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!

According to the locals, the most sought after models are the ’55-57 Chevys (although the 58 Chev is considered to be a lemon). The ’57 Buick Roadmaster is the next popular model.

Spare parts are impossible for Cubans to obtain, so they make do by “MacGyvering” bits and pieces together to keep their cars on the road. It can be very confusing when you see the distinctive grill of a 1950 Buick attached to the front of a Chev. Hood ornaments are no help when it comes to trying to recognize a particular model. Cubans seem to work on the theory that if it can be bolted onto the hood, it’ll do. It’s not uncommon to see a Desoto with a Chevrolet emblem on the hood, and a Buick logo on the trunk.

The eclectic mix of cars, the quaint cobble-stoned streets, incredible music and the local’s hospitality, mixed in with a fair degree of urban decay all combines to create an incredible travel experience that couldn’t be replicated anywhere in the world.

Posted 07/2004