Each car, and each driver, has a special story relating to Cuba’s complicated history and its current socio-economic transformation—stories that are often shared with passengers. Beyond offering transportation opportunities, both the cars and the drivers have become essential cultural ambassadors as they provide a positive point of contact—and common ground—between foreigners and Cubans.
That's Cuba expert and Car Talk pal Peter Kornbluh from his article in Cigar Aficionado's July/August 2016 issue. Car Talk was lucky enough to spend a week with Peter in Cuba in January, hearing some of these stories and meeting these cultural ambassadors firsthand.
We asked him what car enthusiasts headed to Cuba should know, and what it was really like to spend a week chaperoning the least professional team in public radio around the Pearl of the Antilles.
Car Talk: What advice do you have for folks who want to go to Cuba to see the cars?
Follow this four-step plan: (1) Book a plane ticket to Havana; (2) stroll down the street until you spot a perfectly polished “Yank tank” that makes your mouth water; (3) strike up a conversation with the driver about the history of the car; and (4) finally, go for a spin around town. Cuba is a mobile museum of vintage Detroit models—Chevy Belairs, Buick Roadmasters, Ford Fairlanes and so many other models we no longer see on the road here. It is nearly impossible to go to Cuba without hopping into a classic car and taking a ride.
Car Talk: Okay, ‘fess up… Did you expect the Car Talk crew to get arrested and shipped off to languish in a detention facility?
It was clear from the moment we arrived at José Martí Airport that the Car Talk team prides itself on making trouble. That is why having a level-headed, reasonable, sane and sociable guy like me on the trip was so important!
Car Talk: What was the best moment during the entire trip?
So many moments to choose from: Ray and Cuban mechanic Paul Gómez climbing into an oily pit to inspect a front-end alignment on a beat up old Russian car; Ray behind wheel of a 1929 Ford Model A (with its original engine); Ray tuning up a 1958 Chevy Impala at the restoration garage called Nostalgicar.
But I would say my favorite moment was when Ray was essentially sitting in the driveway of the Hotel Capri, smoking a Romeo and Julieta cigar, and making friends with a stray dog. A Ford Model T replica taxi pulled up, driven by a lovely Cubana named Yemey. Within seconds Ray had befriended her, too, and was inspecting the creative repairs she had made to keep the car on the road. Their interaction was a great example of true Car Talk "people-to-people" diplomacy.
Car Talk: What surprised you most about Ray?
His well-honed Spanish accent when he said “hola” (hi) and “gracias” (thanks) and “dame un mojito” ("I'll take a mojito") to the various bartenders we met. And the fact he is such a mensch.
Car Talk: Can you give us Fidel Castro’s cell number? We want to buy his ride when he’s ready to stop schlepping around the island.
Fidel's phone number is a state secret! And these days, Fidel drives a bullet-proof van with a chair lift. Not the coolest ride in the country. I’m sure there is a gleaming two-tone 1956 Chevy Belair or a black ‘59 Eldorado somewhere on the island, however, that you might be able to buy in a few years.
Car Talk: What impressed you most about the mechanics and drivers we met?
Their patience and fortitude in putting up with the Car Talk team hanging around and interrupting their work. And the welcome mat they laid out for us everywhere we went. They not only took pride in their cars, but in the bridges they are building with visitors like us through our common admiration for automobiles, and the extraordinary Cubans who keep them on the road.