Cuba’s cars come in four main eras: the 1930s (often European like Citroen), the 1950s (mostly American), the 1970s (mostly Russian) and new cars (mostly Chinese, but a few Korean and Euro). It’s an interesting mix but is still predominantly innumerable Chevrolets and Ladas in various states of decay. Spotting the odd private Alfa Romeo, Volvo or Volkswagen takes you by surprise.
Cubans had to be resourceful with their cars, and you won’t find many truly original 1950s American vehicles; they usually have a bastardised version of some Russian engine, transplanted in when GM or Ford’s finest gave up the ghost and parts were too difficult to source. You’ll also find a lot of hacked together cars which would never pass any kind of regulations in a western country, plus vehicles without an engine, but a proper horse for the horsepower.
Let’s start with what Cuba is iconic for: gleaming Yank Tanks like this Ford Fairlane 500 Sunliner.
The vast majority of the cars aren’t shiny and polished; they are fixed up with the bonnet propped open by a piece of wood, jacked up on bricks and painted out of a tin.
When you have to deal with Havana’s streets it’s sometimes a disadvantage to have a car that’s more than five metres long.
Some drivers are the epitome of cool, though, plying their fares for the tourists.
Amble around the back streets of Havana and you’ll find all kinds of jalopies with beautiful patinas.
Circulating around Parque Central past the iconic Hotel Inglaterra (England Hotel), and Gran Teatro de la Havana (Grand Theatre of Havana) you’ll see tour operators and taxi drivers vying for work, with the majority of the flash American cars parked up in a line on Calle Obispo (Bishop St).
Head out of Havana and you’ll encounter empty motorways of three or four lanes in either direction even in rush hour. Horse-drawn carts are occasionally seen on the hard shoulder. You have to look well ahead because there are plenty of pot holes.
Trinidad and Viñales
Even in the smaller towns you can find a sense of pride in some of the cars, although there are a lot less of them. This 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air was a good find in Viñales.
The Bel Air contrasted with this two-oxpower, eight-hoof drive vehicle just around the corner.
In Trinidad we found another airplane hood ornament, looking menacing.
Also in Trinidad, apparently it’s cool to put a racing spoiler on this (possibly Russian) taxi.
But it’s probably a whole lot safer than this M&M on three wheels.
Daniela and I went on a tour to Parque Guanayara in this Russian troop carrier. The suspension is made of your spine and buttocks.
But at least the troop carrier was a proper vehicle unlike this trike of unknown (and dubious) origin.
We ended up going to Playa Larga on a bird watching tour and this was our transport.
And it was much better than this beast which only had pedal power and an annoyingly loud stereo playing reggaeton.
After Playa Larga we had to head back to Havana and, rather than taking the bus, it was only 10 CUC more (but two hours quicker) to take a taxi. That taxi happened to be the ubiquitous Lada 2101: no seat belts, no air conditioning, one of the windows didn’t wind down, and it had a huge crack in the window, but it did have things hanging in the window for protection.
It would make an interesting holiday just travelling to see Cuba’s cars, but especially if you’re an aficionado of 1950s American vehicles.