The Mecca for Vintage Car Lovers… Cuba!

The Mecca for Vintage Car Lovers… Cuba!

The Mecca for Vintage Car Lovers... Cuba!Cuba. It’s a mecca for vintage car lovers. A rolling museum featuring what many believe is the golden age of the automobile. The brightly painted tapestry of mainly 1950s nameplates such as Chevy, Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Dodge and Ford make the streets of Cuba appear frozen in time.

For the majority of the last fifty-plus years, Cubans have only had access to cars purchased before the country’s 1959 revolution. Newer Russian-made Lada’s, Czechoslovakian Skodas and the odd newer European nameplate are seen here and there, but the vast majority of the autos in Cuba are mid-fifties beauties. Parts stopped with the embargo as well, and as a result drivers have gotten creative, trading and repurposing vintage car parts to make existing vehicles last for some 50 years despite burning sunny skies and salty ocean air. The ingenuity we saw on our recent trip to Cuba in keeping these old rides running was astounding. That said, one thing in common between car enthusiasts in Canada and those in Cuba was evident – the love affair with the automobile transcends politics, language and borders.

On a sunny October day in old Havana, my wife and I stumbled upon a car park teeming with vintage vehicles. Mostly 1950s era, they were  painted with pride in backyards with paintbrushes and paint smuggled in from the United States. A large number of the cars have been converted from coupe to convertible with a welding torch, and for two automotive enthusiasts from Canada, it was to say the least, awe-inspiring. Cobbled together with pride, these iconic, beautiful and historic vehicles may contain more spare parts than our local British Columbia landfills.

The Mecca for Vintage Car Lovers... Cuba!What became evident is that the drivers are as fascinating as the cars themselves. As someone with 30 years in the automotive industry in British Columbia, meeting and talking to these self-taught mechanics, whose creativity and resourcefulness has kept their cars running for decades, was a pleasure and represented a true example of automotive ingenuity.

While there, we met with two fixtures of the local car culture, Alain Galvez and his family friend Juan Carlos Rodriguez, who took us a spectacular site-seeing trip of  Havana, the one you don’t read about in the guidebooks. Alain’s family is the proud owner of a red-and-white 1957 Buick Century Riviera. By Canadian standards, it’s a 6 out of 10, but in Cuba it’s easy to overlook missing door jams and rubbers.

Alain is a member of the A Lo Cubano Classic Car Club, the vintage auto enthusiasts made famous around the world thanks to the Discovery Channel. The show chronicles the members of the club and their struggles maintaining their cars despite the embargoes that make obtaining factory parts impossible. For Cuban families, owning a classic from the 1950’s can bring in much-needed income when used as a private taxi. The average salary for a state job in Cuba is around $30 per month, while a taxi driver in high tourist season can expect to earn $30 a day. For the owner of a classic car, $30 to $50 an hour is not uncommon for a ride through the historic areas of Havana.

The Mecca for Vintage Car Lovers... Cuba!As guests of A Lo Cubano, we were invited to a private show in the parking lot of Havana’s legendary Tropicana Club where A Lo Cubano members brought their cars for me to see, review and discuss. President Alberto Gutierrez Alonso welcomed me on behalf of “Canada’s legendary 360 Fabrication custom car builders” to the event. It was an honour to be a part of such a special event, and to review the cars and give tips to the owners. The level of pride the club owners had for these mobile museums was fantastic.

Let’s face it, five-plus decades is a long time to keep any old car running, and I saw resourceful Cubans utilizing parts from Russian-made Lada’s, an engine from a Peugeot, a suspension from a tractor. Those put-together vehicles are commonly called Cuba’s Frankenstein cars, but it’s important to note that we also saw some spectacular 1955 Chevys, a gorgeous 1957 Olds Rocket 88, and a ’59 pink Cadillac that would stop traffic on the streets of Vancouver. Like any show-and-shine in Canada, the range of vehicles covered 2 through 10.

There are enough 1950s classic cars to cover the streets of Havana in a nostalgic glow, and spending a week there makes it truly feel as though you’ve crossed a time warp. Over 50 years have passed since these machines were shiny and new, but to see them rolling through the streets today can still make a Canadian car buff drool.

Rick Francoeur is the owner of 360 Fabrication in Abbotsford, British Columbia. 360 Fabrication is Canada’s largest custom car shop. For more information visit:

Categories: Features, Muscle Car Plus
Tags: Classic, Cuba, Feature