Viva Vintage

As Fidel looks the other way, classic capitalist cars brighten Cuba’s dreary streets and byways

Few shops remain along the Malecón, Havana's once chic ocean side boulevard, and the buildings crumble with neglect. But then the eye catches a flash of chrome, the curves of an outrageously shaped tail fin, a splash of aquamarine or sky-blue fender. One hears the throaty rumble of an old but powerful engine. It may belong to a '46 Ford, or perhaps an Eisenhower-era Chevrolet, a vintage Cadillac or a long-in-the-grille Buick. These classic cars recall a time when Ernest Hemingway drove these streets and the Tropicana nightclub poured salsa tunes out into the moist evening air.

Thousands of American cars from yesteryear cruise Havana's streets; they are a kind of rolling museum, a paean to Detroit at its gaudiest. More than 40 years of Castro-style communism have stripped most visible vestiges of consumer society, but the showboats left on the island when the revolution occurred continue to endure, partly because of a chronic transportation crunch, but mostly because of their owners' mechanical ingenuity.

Without access to spare parts under the American trade embargo, Cubans have resorted to cannibalizing other vehicles and fashioning their own parts out of available materials. Romanian diesel engines idle under some hoods; many a body is brightened with a coat or two of house paint; a broken brake light is patched with red plastic from a drinking glass; or homemade brake fluid is manufactured from detergent, rubbing alcohol and tree sap. Many of these cars are heirlooms, kept in families for generations, their odometers turning over many times.

While Hemingway's '55 Chrysler New Yorker DeLuxe convertible may or may not be on the road, you can bet parts of it live on. Who said there are no second acts in American lives? (F. Scott Fitzgerald, but that's a whole other story.)

—John F. Ross

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