Vintage American cars from the 1950s – and even some from the 1930s – have become poster images of Havana. There are thousands on the road. Some estimates put the total number country-wide at up to 70,000.
They are beautiful flashes of color and fins, cruising the streets of Havana, blending mid-century style into 500 years of Havana style. Picturesque, yes. Riding around in a 50’s convertible is one of the best ways to take in Havana’s neighborhoods.
But the experience can have drawbacks. For some, picturesque charm fades quickly in cars with no air conditioning on a hot and muggy day, without seat belts, and that belch smoke – or whose doors may fly open in transit.
The shiny Cadillacs, Fords, Chevrolets, Chryslers roaming the Malecón, Havana’s famous seafront drive, tell a lot of stories. Economic and political stories, to be sure, and also stories of the ingenuity of owners and mechanics who have kept Detroit’s progeny alive and moving for up to 70 years. Some are almost pristine. In others, don’t be surprised to see duct tape and odd bits of homemade fixtures holding things in place. The unavailability of U.S. replacement parts for half a century meant that many engine parts had to be replaced with cannibalized bits of old Soviet, Japanese, or even Chinese cars. Many engines have been likewise replaced–although it is getting easier to bring in parts from specialty suppliers in the U.S..
The cars are metaphors for other parts of Havana. Sometimes creaking, in need of attention, but proud and romantic. Beautiful and timeless. We overheard a conversation between two visitors deciding whether to board a big old Buick. One remarked to the other “It isn’t exactly a Lexus.” “Maybe not,” interjected the driver with a smile, and in fluent English. “But he’s my boy, and I love him.”
Still, riding in vintage autos is one of the top draws for visitors to Havana. Some may conclude that the experience looks best in photos, or at a distance. Just like some of us as we get along in years. But, there is no arguing that the ride is quintessential Havana.
Note: Havana’s modern, official, government-owned taxis are usually a more comfortable way to be whisked around town. Like almost everywhere, visitors are routinely overcharged. Good luck getting a driver to use the meter. Fixed fares of $25 CUC seem to hold for trips to and from the airport. Otherwise, bargain. For a drive from Plaza de San Francisco in Old Havana to Miramar, a driver can slash you for $25 CUC, but a seasoned traveler knows $15 CUC can get you there just fine.
Below is our photo collection of vintage American cars in Havana. View the images: