Postcards from the edge of car ownership

Cuba, capitalism and the classic car

Chevrolet -biscayne -1958-2
Next Post

You know you're a car nut when your friends send you their holiday snaps, not of nicely composed pictures of the beach, their families smiling by the pool or proudly standing on the summit of the peak they've just bagged, but when they send you a shot of a fender or better still, a nice series of images of a car they've just spotted.

So when these holiday pictures landed in my inbox I was delighted. Cuba is well known as a car spotter's paradise. Ironically, the communist-run country is a reliquary of vehicles from the age of capitalist excess. A law forbidding imports of new cars (and by this they mean cars made after 1959) by all but a select few means that the traffic on Havanna's streets has, for decades, comprised a car nut's fantasy parade of carefully nurtured Pontiacs and Chevrolets, Studebakers and Buicks mixed with Soviet imports of equally venerable age.

The Cuban cars are the very epitome of the American dream, born in the post-war age of excess when everything seemed possible. They're designed to roar their way into the exciting future of space flight and unlimited exploration, guzzling petrol to fuel the chug and purr six and, not uncommonly eight cylinder engines. Economy was simply not a consideration. Their lines borrowed from air craft wings and their spirit from the age of extravagance. Why have two headlights when you can have four? Or eight? Tail fins? Crests? Why not. In fact, why not make them bigger? And how many can you fit on? And, why oh why, have boring paint when you can have gleaming chrome?

Chevrolet -biscayne -1958-1

This Chevrolet Biscayne 1958 model is a nice example. It's not peculiar that it's a taxi in Cuba (less so than a Pontiac Firebird anyway). The Biscaynes were produced to be fleet cars. For something that appears so curved and buffed and chromed these days, it's important to remember that this is the low budget 'no frills' car of the range. It's sleek and streamline with (in fifties terms) understated wings and fins but unmistakable in its 50s profile.

Fifty years of tight Cuban restrictions on car buying means that it's been preserved lovingly, its working life eked out for decades. These are no museum pieces. For sixty odd years they've been pretty much the only cars on the streets, plying their trade day in and day out. It's a testament to the quality of 50s car building that they've continued to work long beyond the era of excess, through the oil crises and into the modern age of safety and economy, onboard computers, automation and control.

These cars have been nurtured and fettled out of necessity. Parts have been continually replaced so that the beautiful old bodywork often conceals modern engines and a lot of welding. Luckily Cuba is hot and dry; they would have rusted to nothing in my, much damper, home town of Hebden Bridge.

Whilst the stately cars of Cuba have lived extended lives, the cars of today have reached a level of disposability undreamed of even in the days when resources appeared unlimited. Some is designed in - crumple zones, for instance may be easily dented but they save lives. But this acceptance of a limited lifespan is to a degree a result of the speed of technological development. Each generation of car design supersedes the next as more efficient, more environmentally friendly, safer and more economical. In a few years fuel consumption has reduced radically - the gallons of petrol wolfed down by 50s veteran vehicles is unimaginable to us now!

This year the restrictions on buying new vehicles were lifted, and Cubans can, albeit for a small fortune, import modern cars with all the developments in fuel economy, driver assistance and safety features. The beautiful old cars of the past will gradually fade from Cuba's streets. No doubt they'll be snapped up by collectors and consigned to collections and museums. Their years of service finally done. I hope they will be allowed to retire gracefully.

by James Cartwright at 9 Oct 2014, 00:00 AM