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Paradise Island - Exploring Cuban Car Culture

Classic American Pontiac car in Havana Cuba

For the car enthusiast, there are a few places on Planet Earth which rise above the rest. If you're a supercar aficionado, then the industrial plains around Modena, in northern Italy, are sacred. If it's motorsport which really floats your boat, the curves of the Nurburgring or Laguna Seca are where it's at. And if you're a big fan of mullets, then the NASCAR scene over in The States will have you rejoicing into your Bud Light.

But what if classic cars are your thing?

Many will argue that the mecca of classics is somewhere like Goodwood, or maybe Pebble Beach at showtime. And while these places offer the best places to spot the cream of the classic scene at their polished, sanitised best, for me they pale in comparison with a place where these cherished classics are still in daily use; where a '57 Chevvy is still a commuter car, and where you never know quite what patina'd piece of history is waiting for you around every corner.

If Goodwood's events are museums to the dinosaurs of motoring, Cuba is the long-lost island on which they still roam free, against the most fitting backdrop imaginable.

Classic Americana cars in Cuba.

Now, if there's one thing everyone says about Cuba, its that you have to see it for yourself before it changes. During the Pub2Pub Expedition, while we were waiting for the TVR to be shipped across the Atlantic, we did just that, and we found that the oft-shared photos of classic Americana in a tropical setting only tell half the story.

Our flight from Europe to Cuba was a budget one, and so it was fitting that it deposited us in the beach-town of Varadero - possibly the closest which Cuba currently has to a Butlins. Think high-rise holiday accommodation, lively pools, inviting restaurants and a beach which ticks the Caribbean idyll. But I'll be honest with you; that all registered only passingly with me. The real attractions were roaming the roads.

Cuba's cars tell the story of its allegiances. Up until the late fifties, it was inevitable that the United States, only 90 miles away, would dominate the car market, and lumbering Chevvys and Fords flooded in. However that all changed with the 1959 Communist revolution. This sudden shift of allegiances saw a swing to the products of the Soviet Union, and for decades the nation's mobility was assisted by Ladas, Moskvitches and Polski Fiats which were shipped in en-mass from Cuba's comrades to the east. But of course, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, things changed again, and more recent automotive imports, while still rather thin on the ground, range from flimsy Renaults to that mighty hero of Peruvian industry - the Daewoo Tico.

Of course, everyone knows about the classic Americana on the island, but to me, the Soviet metal provided a perfect counterpoint. For every oversized Ford Falcon we found in Varadero, there was an undersized Polski-Fiat to offset it. Ladas with comically proportioned exhausts and liberal rashes of stickers were rife, and matched their exotic backdrop perfectly.

Modified black Lada in Cuba

Modified green Fiat 126 in Cuba, with classic Chevrolets

From Varadero, the capital city of Havana is a couple of hours along the coast. Naturally, we made sure our taxi for this trip was a '57 Chevy convertible, and with the roof down and the palm trees arcing overhead, we certainly felt we were living the Cuban dream. But once we reached Havana, the dream went up a gear.

Taking the taxi from Varadero to Havana, cuba

Before arriving in Cuba, I'd always assumed that the oft-shared photos of classics were somehow staged; that they couldn't still be in the majority, not after all these years. But my assumption was wrong, and Havana is exactly how it's portrayed in the photos; a time capsule of petrolhead nirvana. The hundreds of workhorse classics blend into their backdrop of mildewed buildings to form a portent of the past. The gasoline smell of over-rich carburettors floods the air of the other-worldly city, mixing with the evocative haze of exhaust fumes as the dinosaurs crawl past. People lean on their heirloom Chevvys, smoking cigars as they chat to neighbours while boy racers bounce past in underpowered Polski-Fiats with slow, puttering urgency. It may all be completely normal for the folks who live there, but to me it was something else entirely.

Classic car in the streets of Havana, Cuba

motoring in Cuba

During my time in Cuba, I got behind the wheel of several cars. The first was a Studebaker - the only one on the island, apparently - which I was able to take for a short drive on Havana's famous Malecon coastal boulevard. The second was a Fiat 126, a type which I'd last drove when I'd taken one through the Arctic winter almost a decade before, and while I'd love to say the memories came flooding back during my 20-minute drive around town, the sweltering streets of a Caribbean capital are about as far from the Arctic Highway as it's possible to get - literally.

Polski Fiat 126 in Havana, Cuba

Our Cuban adventure lasted less than a week, and soon we were boarding a flight to New York, where we collected the Pub2Pub Expedition's TVR and continued our global drive. But that week turned out to be one of the most unique memories of the eight month trip, and it emphasised what everyone says when you mention that feisty little island.

You should go and see it for yourself, before it changes forever.

Classics on Cuba's maelcon, including Studebaker interior

Lada and chevrolet americana in cuba

classic chevy '57 in Cuba

exploring cuban car culture


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