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.
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.
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