US-Cuba thaw could spell end for island’s iconic cars

Fritzie Rodriguez
US-Cuba thaw could spell end for island’s iconic cars
These cars have one thing in common: they survived the Cuban Revolution, the Cold War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union

HAVANA, Cuba — Cuba’s iconic stock of refurbished vintage American sedans from the 1950s may be facing their last trips to the garage soon, following the historic thawing of ties between Havana and Washington.

Flashy Pontiacs, Plymouths, Dodges and Chevrolets, as well as crudely patched and rickety classics make up the Communist island’s 70,000 “almendrones,” cars affectionately called large almonds for their rounded shape.

Fancier classic models are rented for special occasions while their more rundown counterparts are driven as taxis and by families.

But they all have one thing in common: they survived the Cuban Revolution, the Cold War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The almendrones owe their lasting nature to the master skills of local mechanics, as well as to the American embargo and Cuban authorities who put the brakes on replenishing the the island’s stock of cars.

Purchasing and selling the vehicles, which has only been allowed for the past three years, is only permitted for Cubans.

‘Puts food on table’ 

The easing of the five-decade US trade embargo, one part of the rapprochement announced Wednesday, is likely to awaken the attention and desire of car connoisseurs worldwide, who are eager to snatch up the classic models.

“You would have to pay me good money to sell my car,” Aramis Carmona, 40, told Agence France-Presse, watching tourists from his white and red 1953 Chevy with hubcaps and a chrome bumper.

“It puts food on the table,” the amateur mechanic said. “When I have a little money, I buy motor oil instead of cooking oil, because I know that that will help me feed my family.”

He said he had given new life to the “wreck” he bought ten years ago for $7,000.

During the Revolution Fidel rode around in an Oldsmobile with guns hidden in the seat. Ernesto “Che” Guevara went for rides, cigar in mouth, at the wheel of a Studebaker.

This was before Cuba decided to swap its Western cars for more “revolutionary” vehicles, like the famous Russian GAZ-69 jeep adopted by “El Comandante” Castro.

Never blotted out 

In the 1960s and 1970s, Peugeot 404s made in Argentina, then Czech Skodas and Soviet Ladas tried to take over the road but with limited success, as the vintage American models kept passing from hand to hand.

Peugeots and Chinese models appeared on Cuban roads in the 1990s and 2000s, but they, too, never overpowered the omnipresent American classics.

However, few original parts remain under the cars’ hoods after numerous patchups from crack mechanics who have brought them back from the dead multiple times.

Carmona said that he replaced his Chevy’s original motor four years ago with a BMW diesel model that consumed far less fuel. The original went only 6 kilometers per liter (14 miles per gallon).

British architect Norman Foster, struck by the cars’ looks and upkeep during a recent trip to Cuba, paid tribute in the book “Havana: Autos and Architecture,” where he describes a tight relationship between the island’s history and its vehicles.

He tells of Ruben Hernandez, who in 1951 bought a Buick Super Dynaflow. In 1959, his family’s belongings were confiscated in the Cuban Revolution, but Hernandez managed to save the car. 

The collector’s item now belongs to his youngest son William Hernandez who inherited it in 1989.

Since then, he’s taken it every day to display alongside other flashy cars at Havana’s tourist hot spots. For $25 per hour, he offers passersby a ride back in time, in a vehicle whose days may now be limited. —

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