by Craig Fitzgerald
It’s hard to know whether Tommy Magliozzi would’ve been happier about the prospect of getting cigars from Cuba or one of the half-assembled junk cars they’ve been driving since Fidel Castro’s beard came to prominence in 1959. I’ve seen Tommy’s MG. I’m pretty sure he was shipping it down there to have Cuban mechanics work on it.
The only way you could get a new car in Cuba is if the government thought you needed one. Doctors, for example, could get a new car, but even then, it was either Chinese or Russian. Most Cubans had to rely on cars that were left there since 1959.
If you had the choice between a 1958 Plymouth Fury and a brand-new LADA, you’d probably buy a new pair of Keds and walk to work.
We have this idea that 1957 Buick Roadmasters and 1955 Ford Fairlanes are just sitting there in pristine condition, ready for a wealthy American to swoop in with a pocketful of greenbacks. But since Cuban roads were paved using such technological advances as the “shovel” and the “wheelbarrow,” those old arks have taken a beating for the last half-century.
Since none of us in the United States have been able to visit Cuba after we launched a trade embargo, we have to rely on what our friends from Canada have been telling us about the cars there.
But Canadians are infamously nice, and their Canadian DNA has forced them to say positive things about the cars Cubans are driving.
“Oh, it’s so quaint that they drive these big American classic cars. It’s like stepping back to 1957,” they say.
Yeah, it would be exactly like stepping back to 1957 if we hadn’t built a new car since 1902.
Cuban cars are “classics” the same way some of us are “classics”: Old, worn out and in desperate need of replacement parts.
If you drive a vintage car in the United States, you’ve had the benefit of entire corporations that supply everything from turn signal bulbs to complete interiors. You can buy a 1967 Mustang Fastback body right out of a catalog. All you need is good credit.
In Cuba, you can’t get any of that stuff. You’re on your own to keep that vintage car running.
Old cars wear out under the best of circumstances. Start running them on gasoline that’s been refined through a gym sock and things go south in a big hurry. Many of those cars haven’t had their original engines since Nixon went to China, and in their place they’ve installed four-cylinder diesel engines from such world-renowned engineering powerhouses as Bulgaria.
In an article in the Detroit Free Press in 2011 about the state of cars in Cuba, Ellen Creager talked to Havana taxi driver, Walfrido Cabezas, who drives a 1956 DeSoto Diplomat. "It was the best year for this car," he said. It must’ve been the one year that DeSoto had a deal going with Toyota, because when Ellen Creager wrote that article, there was a two-liter Toyota engine under the hood.
That article also included greatest thing I ever heard about cars in Cuba from John McElroy, who writes for Autoline Detroit. (He took one of those “fact finding” trips to Cuba that only American journalists can go on, where the “facts” they find include that the cigars are good and the booze is cheap.)
"Sometimes you see a pile of rust on four tires, and you're thinking, how can that thing even move?" he said. "I saw people who were making their own brake fluid using sap from a bush and mineral spirits."
Funny, that’s exactly the same recipe Tom and Ray used in the communist regime of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
People who pay attention to such things think that there are somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 vintage cars left in Cuba. By the end of 1958, we had 67 million cars registered in the United States.
Your prospects for finding a classic car here – one that’s hasn’t been used like a rented mule for the last five and a half decades – are a lot brighter.