Classical and Vintage Car Club: “A lo Cubano”
“A lo Cubano” will be celebrating its 15th anniversary in October. It started off as an adventure in 2003 and it already has some 140 members, most of them with cars that have more than 60 years of exploitation. The requirement to be a member is to have vintage cars, “but there are also people who are fanatics and don’t have a car and come to the gatherings,” says Alberto, its president. American cars also predominate here.
“They are called almendrones, and sometimes in a pejorative way, especially those who don’t own a car. But a car is like having children. The club’s activities are family gatherings,” he says.
In Cuba there are two levels of American car owners.They are invisible barriers conditioned by the cars’ quality and the principal market they work with. The care, conservation of the cars that resemble the most the original ones usually varies among these.
The taxi drivers who work for national passengers charge in national currency or in CUC, with routes in the cities or interprovincial trips.These American cars usually suffer more transformations than the others. Some of them have bodywork extensions to increase the capacity and increasingly distance themselves from what they once were.
But there are those that work directly with foreign tourists, like many of the members of the “A lo Cubano” Club. Their cars are better conserved, have greater comfort and their owners mainly move in the tourist areas.
Both worlds, indispensable to understand transportation in Cuba, are part of that image of the island perceived abroad. Many visitors
come looking for these relics. They always ask, among other things, about the price and how original the cars are, Alberto explains. In addition, they ask to visit the workshops where they are saved from destruction, at the risk of changing their essence.
“The cars have lost a lot of originality depending on logical things: if the parts are fount or not; if the diesel engine is more economical than the gasoline one; or if the engine is very old. When your incomes are good you can decide if you leave it original, but if you have a single car and your resources are not the most appropriate, you have to adapt and give it the engine of another car or change the brakes.
“That means that it will not look nice. It frequently gives the car greater value. It is a car that mechanically runs well, with a good
appearance, with more adaptations. We are a case apart in the world due to how difficult it is to get parts, although it is no longer so difficult because now they bring them from Florida and the cars can be restored,” he says.
According to Alberto, in the history of vintage cars in Cuba there have been three stages that have defined the fate of these cars. Before the Cuban Revolution and when relations were broken with the United States, the island had one of the world’s highest indices of cars. “U.S. companies tested their cars in Cuba…. The Americans came to buy their cars here,” says Lupe Fuentes, in charge of the Club’s public relations.
But American cars and from other countries stopped being imported to Cuba in the 1960s. It was the start of the second stage. “Here’s where the inventiveness of the mechanics, the toolmakers and auto bodyworkers starts. They continue without resources, parts from one car are changed to another. It is the time of survival: a nice stage but with consequences. We never learned to value what we had at hand, we always noticed more on how good it would be to have a modern car,” Alberto explains.
The third one, he affirms, was marked by the boom in tourism. “With the arrival of tourists many people realized the value of these cars
in the rest of the world. They are also the cause of attraction to travel to Cuba,” he adds.
In addition, for Alberto his 1957 Windsor Chrysler is his life, his family’s sustenance. He invests time and money in maintaining it up to date not only because of this but also because “it is part of the history, of the heritage of the Cuban family.”
He explains that around them an industry has been created that links them to the national economy and history. “Thousands of families live off of that: from the driver, the mechanic, the toolmaker, even the car washer.”