Classic Cars Set to Become Cuban Rarity.

The streets of Havana in Cuba are famed for the fact that they feature hundreds of vintage vehicles, most of them plucked from American manufacturers during the 1950s. Seeing cars from subsequent decades is relatively rare, but many people now fear that this feature of Cuban culture could soon become a thing of the past.

Stifled Trade

The reason for the prevalence of classic cars in Cuba is down to the simple fact that, following the revolution in 1959, the state banned residents from selling on or trading any car that was purchased prior to this period.

Cuba's decision completely destroyed the new car market and gave rise to an enduring necessity for people to ride around in classic cars, which motorists maintained regularly to ensure functionality.

As such, for over five decades the classic car remained a powerful symbol of Cuba, albeit one which outsiders sometimes viewed with derision. Fans of vintage vehicles, however, appreciated the benefits of preserving classic cars.

Winds of Change. 

Raul Castro, brother to Fidel and current president of Cuba, initiated change when he approved a ruling in the autumn of 2011, which allowed Cubans to buy and sell cars of any age without restriction. The authorities in the communist government implemented the revised law in order to stimulate the growth of the private sector, which Fidel Castro stifled when he took power all those years ago.

The ruling should please the majority of motorists in Cuba, not least those who demand progression. Classic car purists might feel differently about the change, however. Until recently, buying new models was not an option and finding original parts was unlikely, so most drivers improvised in order to sustain their aging cars, leaving many vehicles as a kind of mash up of various models.

Of course, car lovers in Cuba managed to lovingly preserve more than just a handful of pristine classic cars in order to pay homage to the original design, but most Cuban car owners will not or cannot maintain their vehicles to such a high standard.

Outsider Concerns.

The worry now is that Cubans who can buy newer cars for the first time will choose to abandon their old, makeshift classics and upgrade to something that was produced at least after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Additionally, those who do manage to hold on to their classic cars may pay less on maintenance, since they are not stuck with whatever vehicle they were able to acquire through a state-approved transaction in the past. This could result in the army of classics falling into disrepair and the streets of Cuba ending up a lot less festive and unique as a result.

An increasing number of modern vehicles are being sold in Cuba since President Castro passed the ruling in October 2011. Though some people fear an exodus of classic cars from Cuba is inevitable, evidence suggests that this is not happening all that quickly. The country will eventually experience a significant reduction in classic cars, but the change is by no means significant at the moment.

One side effect of the new, free-flowing approach to classic car sales in Cuba that might overcome the concerns relating to eventual dilapidation of older vehicles is that foreign buyers should flock to this new market. Enthusiasts from outside of Cuba, particularly in the nearby US, from where most of the cars originate, will undoubtedly be able to pick up a well-preserved yet well used for a relatively low price.

This means that many more people will hop aboard a plane or rent a car to scope out the classics, searching for the one that fulfills their fantasies.

 Talk of the legal changes in Cuba destroying the country's classic car industry is certainly something that officials must address, but lawmakers should resist any attempt to stall progress. Doing so would place an unreasonable burden on the Cuban people. The simple truth is that vehicles in Cuba are decades out of date.

Hopefully, the market will reach a happy medium, whereby the best-preserved classic cars continue to roam the streets while modern technology slowly takes over. Cuba deserves to catch up with the modern age of motoring.

Jill Harrington is a freelance travel writer from England who spent some time in Cuba a few years ago. The beautiful classic cars reminded her of those she saw growing up in New York many years ago. 

July 2012.

Photographs taken in Havana during February and March 2012 by Roger Cummiskey.

American cars from the 1950s - still in daily use 2012.


  1. “This means that many more people will hop aboard a plane or rent a car to scope out the classics, searching for the one that fulfils their fantasies.” – I agree! Classic car collectors would probably flock to Cuba to find well-preserved vehicles they’ve been searching for so long. But I don’t think Cubans should be worried about losing their classic car industry. I’m sure there would still be some who’d keep their treasured classics.


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