Havana makes watching cars to by an enjoyable diversion again. Yes, there are a host of American cars from the 50’s on the road. You can see a 57 Cadillac convertible. I admit to a bit of nostalgia as a Studebaker drove by.
However, despite what you might have read, these cars are not the only ones on the road. There are only 60,000 of the máquina still on the road in a country eleven million people. The Ladas continue to reign as the most populace vehicle on the island.
What else can you see? I saw Hundai and Kia, Toyota and Mistubishi. Peugots are popular. Then there are Fiat, Citroen, Volkswagon, Renault and others. Frankly, I didn’t recognize some of the manufacturers they have there.
One that I had to track down when I returned is the Geely, which is a Chinese automotive manufacturing company headquartered in Hangzhou, China. The Emgrand is another car from the same maker.
Cuba doesn’t manufacture its own cars. However, I did see a number of Geely with that maker’s emblem replaced with one that was a stylized Cuban Flag. I don’t know. Nationalism? Government contract?
I did ask about the old American cars. I wanted to know what they did for gasoline, since the vehicles of the 50’s used leaded gas. Really. At one point they put lead in gasoline as an anti-knock additive.
I was told that many of the old American cars have had their engines replaced with diesels. The price of diesel is much lower than gasoline, and the new diesel engines are much more efficient. Those old cars used to get ten miles to the gallon, or less.
The máquina will continue on the roads of Cuba, especially Havana for a few reasons. To begin with any automobile is expensive in Cuba, in part because of the import duty on new cars which runs close to 100%. A car costs almost as much as a house. Therefore having a working car is a perfect example of conspicuous consumption. On Sundays, taking a spin in the family car is a favorite afternoon recreation. The roads are just as crowded on Sunday as they are during the week in Havana.
Finally, those brightly painted and polished old American cars are used for taxis and tours. The Cubans know that tourists are fascinated by the old cars, and the Cubans know how to turn a pretty car into a tourist trimmer.
Still Cubans hope that the American embargo is rescinded. They would like to be able to order parts for these old cars from Miami. Today, they need a relative, who will carry the part. Even direct flights would be an improvement.
So why do travel writers always remark on the máquina? Well like all writers, they try to identify the unique element of the environment to catch the readers’ attention. Nowhere else in the world do people drive American cars made in the 1950’s.
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