New Zealand Classic Car - - Special Feature -

evo­lu­tion! Now there’s a word that con­jures up all sorts of may­hem, and it’s not some­thing you’d nor­mally en­counter on your ev­ery­day sor­tie down to the lo­cal dairy for a loaf of bread and pint of milk. But the type of ter­rain I was about to dis­cover has a ten­dency to switch one’s at­ten­tion to high alert. You guessed it: I was head­ing into the heart­land of Cen­tral Amer­ica for a tour of the back­blocks of Mex­ico and Cuba. My wild imag­i­na­tion could al­most see ban­dits like Pan­cho Villa de­scend­ing from the Mex­i­can high­lands to empty my wal­let, while revo­lu­tion­ary icons like Ernesto ‘Che’ Gue­vara burst out of the un­der­growth in Cuba.

Well, I may not ex­actly have imag­ined that, but I did sense an un­der­cur­rent of tur­moil and volatil­ity, par­tic­u­larly in Mex­ico — and that was where we headed first.

Mex­i­can stand-off

Mex­ico City — where do you start? It’s a seething mass of hu­man­ity, much of it grimly hang­ing on by its fin­ger­tips in an end­less sea of de­cay­ing sub­urbs, while the elite and priv­i­leged seem to en­joy a level of wealth that bor­ders on out-of-con­trol deca­dence. The cen­tral his­tor­i­cal area, though, pos­sesses a breath­tak­ing el­e­gance and style, much of it de­rived from the 300-year-long colo­nial pe­riod that fol­lowed the first ap­pear­ance on Mex­i­can soil of the Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors in 1519.

Fear not, good reader; the pur­pose of this scribe is not to re­gale you with a bar­rage of his­tory or so­cial in­jus­tice — though it might leak out oc­ca­sion­ally; I’m just lay­ing a lit­tle back­ground on you here, for the essence of my mis­sion into the back­streets of Mex­ico and Cuba was in­stead to record the auto ar­chae­ol­ogy of street sur­vivors in both lands.

Hav­ing said that, the back­streets of Mex­ico City were se­ri­ously off lim­its. Even al­low­ing for my staunch street per­sona, I was not a starter for those mean streets, as I’d al­ready heard some pretty badass tales about what can be­fall the un­wary in that neck of the woods, and I was suit­ably briefed by our in­trepid tour leader not to ven­ture into Mex­ico City’s crime-in­fested ur­ban jun­gle.

Get­ting back to the theme of rev­o­lu­tion, just for a mo­ment, though. The slums of Mex­ico City are a di­rect re­sult of the con­tin­u­ous ex­ploita­tion of the pover­tys­tricken Mex­i­can peas­ant farm­ers by var­i­ous gov­ern­ing bod­ies over cen­turies. Un­able to feed them­selves, th­ese peas­ants trav­elled en masse to Mex­ico City look­ing for a bet­ter life, only to find that they’d jumped from the fry­ing pan into the fire. The prospect of rev­o­lu­tion among th­ese strug­gling masses has long been a fes­ter­ing sore, and this feel­ing of dis­sat­is­fac­tion has of­ten bro­ken out into vi­o­lence; the riot-po­lice squads we saw in Mex­ico City dur­ing our visit did noth­ing to al­lay the per­cep­tion of an un­happy un­der­cur­rent.

Any­way, hav­ing laid low for a day ruled out any temp­ta­tion — ex­cept for a walk around the streets in the vicin­ity of our ho­tel. Right away, I hit pay dirt, as my cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion around the ho­tel re­vealed a few semiderelict Yan­kee cruis­ers from the late ’70s and early ’80s.

The heart­land hunt

The tour got se­ri­ously un­der­way once we de­parted the chaos and mad­ness of the megac­ity. Maybe it’s Mex­ico City’s high al­ti­tude that gets ev­ery­one wired?

Any­way, it was time to get down to the key busi­ness of the trip: hunt­ing out orig­i­nal au­to­mo­tive tin — plus a lit­tle bit of check­ing out the coun­try’s an­cient Aztec pyra­mids and Span­ish ar­chi­tec­ture, and some good food and drink for good mea­sure! On the way out of the city, I spot­ted an orig­i­nal-look­ing 1965–’66 Ply­mouth Barracuda and the wreck of a 1959–’60 Ply­mouth Fury, so I fig­ured things were aus­pi­cious for the rest of the trip.

Throw­ing a group of in­di­vid­u­als to­gether for two weeks (12 of us), will al­ways lead to an in­ter­est­ing bond­ing ex­er­cise — or not! OK, just jok­ing. This turned out be one of the bet­ter groups I’ve toured with. It’s al­ways a judge­ment call though, fig­ur­ing how likely it is that you’ll re­main rea­son­ably ‘user friendly’ to the group — es­pe­cially if you con­tin­u­ously yell out and cause a sud­den grind­ing halt of the bus on a veiled pre­text, so you can pho­to­graph old cars! Be­ing the only auto fiend on the es­capade, I wisely didn’t re­vert to this tac­tic, and a few tan­ta­liz­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties went beg­ging as a re­sult.

The itin­er­ary of our Mex­ico road ex­cur­sion had the group usu­ally in­volved with a fairly full-on trav­el­ling day fol­lowed by a cou­ple of nights in the next town. We

were work­ing our way into the in­te­rior, and the road­side scenes we passed in the smaller cen­tres had me cap­ti­vated, es­pe­cially around lo­cal auto-re­pair ar­eas. The ace in my deck was the free time that had been al­lo­cated for the tour­ing party to scour the back streets in the mainly beau­ti­ful old Span­ish-in­flu­enced colo­nial towns we vis­ited. So, al­though I aimed to take in the usual tourist sights, my prime mis­sion was the auto hunt.

One of the towns we stopped at, Pue­bla, was an­other of those charm­ing cob­ble­ston­estreeted small cities, with their won­der­ful zoca­los, or cen­tral his­toric plazas. Re­leased from the tour­ing sched­ule for a few hours, and with a cer­ti­fied war­rant on my life if I didn’t make the ren­dezvous time with my part­ner, I set out to prowl the back streets with my cam­era primed, ready to record the last sur­viv­ing street-side ex­am­ples of a pre­vi­ous auto dy­nasty in heart­land Mex­ico.

In Pue­bla, I snapped some nice shots of a 1974–’75 Mus­tang, an orig­i­nal-look­ing run­ner, in the streets above the cen­tre of town. I was also ex­cited to cap­ture an ear­lier Dodge Dart that seemed a bit frayed around the edges but was still be­ing used.

Later, a lit­tle fur­ther down the line, I had a bit of luck in San Cristóbal de las Casas (to give the town its full name) around the ‘auto me­chan­ica’ part of town. Parked up near a small mar­ket was what looked like a rather ob­scure early ’70s AMC Hor­net — I’m sure a more knowl­edge­able reader will cor­rect me if I’m wrong! Im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing this, a cou­ple of young ladies pulled up in a un­be­liev­ably bat­tered Dat­sun 1600 of late ’60s vin­tage. I have a han­ker­ing for one of th­ese early Dat­suns, but how­ever tempt­ing those two ladies were, this one wasn’t go­ing to be the car for me! Mind you, the fact that this bruised and beaten Dat­sun was still run­ning could be seen as a great ad­ver­tise­ment for the bul­let­proof qual­ity of th­ese early Ja­panese ve­hi­cles.

I have to say, the old tin didn’t seem to be that thick on the ground, at least where we were go­ing. Maybe there would have been more to spot off the beaten track, but my laser-honed auto-spot­ting eye did sight a num­ber of orig­i­nal old clas­sic ve­hi­cles as the tour van nav­i­gated nar­row town streets, un­for­tu­nately with­out the chance to grab some pho­tos. Among those I saw were a very straight-look­ing 1967-ish Chev­elle, some Ford Mav­er­icks, Dodge vari­ants, and a 1964 Ford Galaxie.

At the time of our visit, the coun­try was on the eve of na­tional elec­tions, and the pre­dictable political un­rest was bub­bling to the sur­face. Two political as­sas­si­na­tions, as well as an up­surge in an un­der­ground political ac­tivist group around an in­te­rior hill-coun­try area we were des­tined to pass through, ne­ces­si­tated a de­tour. Rev­o­lu­tion, it seemed, was in the air again!

A 10-hour road trip took us way off the more trav­elled road, through vil­lages and re­mote hill coun­try. It was a bit of grind for most of the party, but not for me, as I was re­ally cranked up by the back­woods road­side scenes.

The sta­ple trans­port in th­ese out-ofthe-way ar­eas was by older Mex­i­can pickup trucks such as the Ford F100 and 150; Chevro­let and Dodges; and, more tra­di­tion­ally, plenty of horses and carts. I did see a bit of old clas­sic-car iron fleet­ingly as we passed by — usu­ally marooned in front yards or down side streets in the smaller set­tle­ments. Most seemed to be in the ‘out of ac­tion’ cat­e­gory. Snap­ping any de­cent pho­tos was, alas, pretty much mis­sion im­pos­si­ble, as the minibus would sail past be­fore I could line up any shots.

Road cul­ture in Mex­ico

A word about the mo­tor­ways and main high­ways. Th­ese were in sur­pris­ingly good state, and we later dis­cov­ered that th­ese roads are all still owned by the Span­ish. Free­ways they most def­i­nitely are not, all be­ing toll roads earn­ing rev­enue for Spain, much to our Mex­i­can guide’s dis­tain. Ev­ery 25 to 50 kilo­me­tres, a toll booth awaits to re­lieve you of your hard-earned cash, and some had a very heavy pres­ence of fully armed Mex­i­can policía. Kit­ted out in all-black garb, th­ese au­to­matic-ri­fle–tot­ing cops con­fronted ev­ery­one with a ‘don’t mess with me’ at­ti­tude.

De­spite that, the driv­ing cul­ture in Mex­ico seemed to be fairly sane, un­like in some Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries I’ve vis­ited. On the two-lane high­ways, with rea­son­able hard shoul­ders and cen­tre me­dian strips, the ac­cepted pro­to­col is that you can over­take even against on­com­ing traf­fic, as they will make room for you. Though un­til we had sussed this out, there were a few trau­matic, ‘OMG, we’re gonna die’ mo­ments.

Apart from the ex­otic Span­ish-in­flu­enced colo­nial cities, the other high­lights of our Mex­ico trip were vis­it­ing the an­cient In­dian (Mayan, Toltec, Aztec, and oth­ers) sites of ma­jor long-past cities. The huge pyra­mids ri­valled those of the Egyp­tians and were awe-in­spir­ing to see up close, and their tu­mul­tuous and highly evolved civ­i­liza­tions pro­vided some in­trigu­ing tales.

The food and bev­er­ages, of course, were se­ri­ously good. We were, af­ter all, in the home of Corona beer, tequila and mescal, que­sadil­las, en­chi­ladas and gua­camole, so what else would you ex­pect? If you love Mex­i­can food — well, Mex­ico is the place to visit!

A fi­nal pit stop in Mex­ico at the play­boy and celebrity (or wannabe pre­tenders) hang-out — the beach par­adise of Playa del Car­men — saw us chill out for a day and a night prior to the next leg of our over­seas es­capade. The tacky beach and shop­ping bo­nanza scene did noth­ing for me, es­pe­cially as I was well and truly amped to get to the next coun­try on our itin­er­ary, Cuba, and hit the streets of Ha­vana.

Hola Cuba

Now we were head­ing into the land of the real rev­o­lu­tion and I was deeply ex­cited — not to di­min­ish in any way the long and bit­ter Mex­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion and Civil War that was fought at great cost be­tween 1910 and 1917, dur­ing which the fa­mous revo­lu­tion­ary and ban­dit, Pan­cho Villa, played a ma­jor role. As well, I had long been se­duced by those icons of anti US im­pe­ri­al­ism — Fidel Cas­tro and ‘Che’ Gue­vara. The 1957–’58 rev­o­lu­tion in Cuba was a tremen­dous suc­cess, the guer­ril­las re­gain­ing their coun­try from the grip of a cor­rupt US- and Mafia-sup­ported govern­ment. Prior to that, the coun­try — and, in par­tic­u­lar, Ha­vana — had be­come a den of vice for play­boys, en­ter­tain­ment leg­ends, busi­ness moguls, and Amer­i­can govern­ment of­fi­cials, their whims be­ing

catered to by a raft of night­clubs, casi­nos, and houses of pros­ti­tu­tion. All th­ese ‘en­ter­tain­ments’ were de­vised to lure the wealthy and priv­i­leged, while Cuba’s hum­ble farm­ers and other lo­cals were re­duced to ever-in­creas­ing poverty.

The rev­o­lu­tion changed all that and brought the US and Cuba to an his­toric stand-off, with the US quickly en­forc­ing an ex­port and im­port em­bargo that would cause many dif­fi­cul­ties for Cuba.

Street side in Cuba

How­ever, for the lover of old Detroit iron, the ex­i­gen­cies of the US trade em­bargo meant that, at least au­to­mo­tively, time sud­denly stopped for Cuba in 1961. No more new US cars ar­rived af­ter that date, and, from that day for­ward, if a Cuban na­tive wanted road trans­port, they had to keep what they had go­ing, us­ing what­ever in­ge­nu­ity they could muster.

With that in mind, it came as no sur­prise that dur­ing the ride from the air­port I was blown away by a con­stant stream of 1950s Chevro­lets, Buicks, Oldsmo­biles, and Fords spot­ted en route to Ha­vana.

It was to­tally sur­real, and what re­ally di­alled my num­ber the whole time I was in Cuba was the fab­u­lous re­al­iza­tion that th­ese were all orig­i­nal cars, most of them to­tally un­re­stored. It was a bo­nanza, like find­ing El Do­rado — like tak­ing a hal­lu­cino­genic drug trip with­out ac­tu­ally tak­ing any chem­i­cals. I was gob­s­macked!

Around ev­ery cor­ner there was an­other liv­ing piece of au­to­mo­tive his­tory, un­tam­pered with and just kept go­ing by lo­cal me­chan­i­cal geniuses. Af­ter all the years of hunt­ing old orig­i­nal tin in the back­blocks of Ki­wi­land dur­ing the ’80s and ’90s, with only the oc­ca­sional eureka mo­ment, here such mo­ments were all around me — ev­ery­where!

The cars were very, very cool, and the lo­cals, I think, have long been pas­sion­ate about them.

Pho­tograph­ing the au­to­mo­tive gems in Cuba was pretty easy. The back­drop of old Span­ish build­ing fa­cades, of­ten crum­bling, pro­vided the per­fect at­mo­spheric scene

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