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Doing anything with nothing: What it takes to keep Cuba’s ‘Yank Tanks’ ticking

There’s an old story about a carpenter who had a favorite hammer. The story goes that he loved his hammer so much that over the years he replaced the handle four times, and replaced the head twice. The story of Cuba’s famous classic cars is much the same — it’s a miracle that there’s anything left of the originals at all.

The backstory on the situation is pretty simple. When Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries came to power in January of 1959, American business interests fled the Communist takeover. Shortly afterward, Washington imposed a trade embargo on Cuba that continues to this day. Some things have loosened up since we’ve re-established diplomatic relations, but that’s mostly about food and medicine, not cars and parts. So the Chevys, Buicks, Fords, and Cadillacs that were on the streets in the winter of ’59 were never replaced with newer models, and the Cubans have had no choice but to keep the old cars running.

Hasta La Victoria Siempre

In America, only a few select cars gain classic status — and that’s after most of them find their way to the junkyard or the crusher. We throw away our old cars when the cost of maintaining them exceeds the cost of a newer car. But if there are no new cars, you will find out just how long you can keep your faithful old car running – if you can learn to keep it on the road.

We throw away our old cars, but when there are no new cars, you find out how long you can keep a faithful old one running.

The Cuban people have become masters at making things work, because they had no other option. In the case of old cars, they have mastered the art of substituting different engines and making new parts out of whatever they can find.

While I was in Cuba, I stopped by the leading repair and restoration shop in Havana. Julio Alvarez runs Nostalgicar, where his staff of eight workers fabricate new parts and perform the steel surgery necessary to keep the antiques going for another day, month, or year.

“They can do anything with nothing,” Alvarez told me.

Getting original or reproduction parts in Cuba is tough. Alvarez mentioned that to get parts from the United States, he has to go through a middleman in Miami who charges a 20-percent markup on everything. Then someone has to hand-carry the parts on a flight into Cuba as baggage. That’s not strictly legal, but both the American and Cuban authorities let it go in small amounts.

¡Vamonos!

When you arrive in Cuba at Jose Marti International Airport, the taxis are clustered around the small parking lot, and the savvy traveler makes a run through the gauntlet of hard-sell drivers offering a ride into town. Ignore those guys, because you want to choose your own ride – and you don’t want to end up in a roached-out Soviet-era Lada. Find your way out to the line of classics and choose one that appeals to you.

The first rule of Cuban taxis is to negotiate the price of your ride before you get in. The drivers are honest, but you want to be sure to get the best rate. In general, you can go anywhere in the downtown area for about 10 pesos. Forget about meters and license badges – this is all person-to-person.

Cuban Car Culture
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

The second rule of Cuban taxis is that you don’t open or close your own door. This has less to do with excellent service, and more to do with the taxi driver protecting his investment. He doesn’t need some gorilla slamming the door and breaking his vintage window glass. The driver will let you in and get you out. That’s part of the deal.

Inside, the Cubans take great pride in their cars. You’ll be sitting on clear plastic covering the best Tuck & Roll job the driver can afford. A great many of the classics have been retrofitted with air conditioning units hanging under the dashboard, which is good because not rolling down the windows is the third rule of Cuban taxis.

Juan told me that he purchased his 1956 Ford Customline six years ago for about $25,000. The car’s current value is about $50,000 or more.

On the road, Cuban taxi drivers are nothing like their American counterparts. They treat their rides with the respect a classic deserves. Plus, there are police officers standing on the curb every few blocks watching for violations. If a cop waves a baton at a driver, they stop. According to the drivers, if they stop you, you’re getting a ticket. If you accumulate enough tickets, they pull your taxi license for a month. No taxi means no income.

One area where the Cuban cars desperately need some love is the shocks. Old domestics have a notoriously squishy ride at the best of times, and the Cuban taxis float down the road on shocks that are far too old to care. The wallowing tendency of a big Pontiac or Olds is made even worse by the fact that the Cubans put the tallest springs they can find onto their cars, so everyone’s riding high.

Like everything in Cuba, there’s a good reason why people raise their suspensions. It’s to handle the torrential rain showers that hit Havana almost every day. In a matter of minutes, the city streets turn into surging rivers overflowing onto the sidewalks. Deep places can easily clear the floorboards of any car, and the taxis have to wade through the streets – but they never stop.

Any time you’re in a classic taxi, you want to smile and enjoy the ride. Take a look around and drink in the experience of riding in style; you can’t get anything like this anywhere else on the planet.

La Corrosión

In Cuba’s tropical island climate, rust is a constant threat to every automobile.

“I wash my car every day after work,” says a Havana taxi driver named Juan. “Every part that I can’t paint, I keep covered with grease to keep the salt out. And I avoid the seafront Malécon road when it’s windy and there’s spray off the ocean.”

Cuban Car Culture
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

When the rust finally wins, the Cubans have to make a lot of their own replacement panels. Using whatever sheet metal they can find – sometimes the shells of old washing machines and refrigerators – the craftsmen carefully hammer out the shapes they need with basic hand tools. The truth is that most of the cars you see on the road in Cuba have maybe half of their original sheet metal, and the rest has been replaced somewhere down the line.

Todavía se Mueve

Engines are another area where Cuban resourcefulness and creativity come into play. After 55 years, the original engines in the cars of the 1950s have long since died. Cuba has trade with South Korea and Japan, however, and those countries impose a mileage limit on cars. When Asian-market cars reach “accelerated retirement” age, they are dismantled and the engines are available for sale around the world. Diesels are the most popular replacement engines on the island, mostly because of their great fuel economy, long service life, and the low price of diesel fuel. So it’s not uncommon to see someone slide behind the wheel of a ’57 Chevy in Havana and then hear the sound of a Hyundai diesel firing up.

Related: Netflix comes to Cuba, but who will be watching?

Any car with a real original V8 is a true collectible in Cuba, and in a week of checking out the old cars, only a few are still running any kind of American engine. One memorable car still running the original powerplant was a 1929 Ford Model A, still slowly plying the streets of Trinidad with its 3.3-liter flathead four-cylinder.

¡Precios Locos!

The talk has always been that American collectors would descend on Cuba like the world’s biggest classic car swap meet.

The other thing Americans don’t know about Cuban cars is how much an average Cuban has to pay to own one. Many of the classics have been passed down from generation to generation – an important inheritance that often costs more than a place to live. Even a car as modest as a Lada is expensive in Cuba, so the taxi you’re riding in is probably a joint investment among several family members.

Juan told me that he purchased his 1956 Ford Customline six years ago for the equivalent of about $25,000. Since that time, he has performed a lot of work on it and the car’s current value is about $50,000 or more. Values like that apply across the board to the vintage cars, since owning a classic is a ticket to a good living as a tourist taxi driver.

¿Eso es Para la Venta?

The talk in the collector car world here in the U.S. has always been that when the trade embargo was lifted, American collectors would descend on Cuba like the world’s biggest classic car swap meet, to buy up the vintage iron. But in fact, even the best car in Cuba is still only a second-tier car by American restoration standards, and most cars range from third-tier to basket case. With the prices such cars command on the island, a collector would be throwing money away. It is vastly more likely that smart American (and Cuban) investors will buy up less expensive cars in America, and make them the cream of the Cuban taxi fleet.

The other business that will blossom when trade opens between the United States and Cuba is in spares and reproduction parts. Interiors, bumpers, gauges, and every other part will be in high demand. But until that day, the Cubans will keep their fleet going as best they can, preserving the memory of a bygone age.