NEW ZEALAND CLASSIC CAR SPECIAL FEATURE
install medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, forcing a Us-versus-soviet confrontation that nearly engulfed the world in a nuclear nightmare. No, we’re talking about the ’80s, a time when the Soviets supported their communist ally, Cuba, and poured a whole lot of loot into the country. This included the amazing ocean of concrete that is the Cuban Freeway — an eight-lane epic of misguided grandeur.
There are no cars on this immense expanse of pavement — well, not many, the odd one or two emerging over the horizon every now and then. The Lonely Planet travel guide for Cuba labels the highway “the road to nowhere”. That may be a little unkind, as it certainly transports one to the beautiful extremities of this fair isle (or as far as we were able to traverse in our five-day trip out from the capital). The condition of the road’s surface, though, is another matter, as it is now seriously deteriorating in some parts. There simply isn’t the money for maintenance — the tap was turned off instantly following the 1990–’91 collapse of the Soviet Bloc. There are some bridges and exit roads that will forever be frozen in that moment of time when Soviet support ceased and construction stopped, leaving exit roads petering out into weeds, and bridges permanently poised without their final spans.
That esteemed ‘peak’ of automobile engineering, the Lada motor vehicle, is the other most obvious automotive contribution made by the old Soviet Union. As with the Detroit iron, where necessity is the mother of invention, it seems you can keep anything going — even these square Russian boxes on wheels have survived in droves. They offer a strange counterpoint to the earlier US cars, which are virtually mobile sculptures, the mash-up of styles adding to the very surreal flavour of being on the road in Cuba.
Newer vehicles are fairly thin on the ground (apart from commercial vehicles), though I did note a fair number of latemodel Renaults — that got me thinking that there might have been some special arrangement with France here.
We headed into the hills of Western Cuba, taking a local route off the main eight-lane juggernaut. Our destination was Viñales, a small town in the island’s more mountainous regions, an area renowned for not only outdoor walking and fabulous caves but also high-quality tobacco production — the sort of tobacco required to make the world-famous Cuban cigars — however, that’s another story. (Suffice it to say that a visit was made to a back-country tobacco farm where the local product was sampled, along with cocktails. Tough work I know, but someone’s got to do it!)
Viñales held alluring visual attractions other than the products of the soil or local distilleries. This off-the-beaten-track town was swarming with unbelievable numbers of fully operable, original Detroit iron. I was in the throes of an adrenaline high as I wandered the back streets — around every corner were more treasures to behold. This was the high point of the trip, automotively speaking. None of the cars here had been restored, and this was the X-factor for me. They’d been patched up as needed over the years, and many of the cars were now repowered with four-cylinder diesel engines — a necessity due to the lack of parts and the difficulty of keeping the old V8s going.
The Yankee machines weren’t the only survivors from the post-1961 embargo though; there was also a smaller contingent of English hardware still on the roads. The Zephyr MKII seemed to be the most common, but there were also a number of Hillmans, Ford Prefects, and even some of the largely unloved 1959–’60 Vauxhall Victors still in operation. A few Peugeots — mainly 403s — were spotted, plus the
occasional early Opel Rekord and South African–built Ford Taunus.
It’s a tough act picking favourites, but one of them for sure would have to be the 1958 Cadillac that I tracked down in a back street of Viñales. This beast, which is the only word I can find to describe it, had to have been the best example of ongoing basic improvisation in order to keep it operable that I had the pleasure of seeing. ‘Rough’ would be a fair classification to describe its condition. It seemed to be jacked up, and some of the panels had been replaced by locally ‘crafted’ versions! An intriguing sight to behold for sure, but the bottom line was that it was still a runner.
Also right up there were the 1958 Ford convertible and 1959–’60 Plymouth Fury I spotted while eagle-eying through a backyard fence. But interesting iron was everywhere.
As we headed back east via Havana and then continued along the eastern corridor of the eight-lane absurdity to Trinidad, I reflected on the strange history that had stopped Cuba in time 54 years ago.
There are not many places you could go to on the planet to encounter sights like those you can in Cuba. The days when visitors can witness this wonderful time warp could be numbered though, as the prospective removal of that old trade embargo could change everything. Along with more foreign investment being allowed, the greatest danger of all could be the end of the restrictions on US citizens visiting Cuba — an exigency that was imposed by the US. I can just see US tourists snapping up all those wonderful classic cars and shipping them back home.
So, I felt Cuba’s rich display of mobile auto relics had to be fully indulged in, as the opportunity might not exist much longer.
Onwards, and Trinidad continued the trend as expected. This beautifully preserved Spanish colonial town, with its cobblestone streets, had a central historic
area in which cars were kept out — except for a few strategically placed examples outside trendy locations. With the narrow streets in this sector, it was probably just as well.
It worked really well, as I mixed visits to the main attractions in the historic quarter with my good woman — and, later, in the fierce heat of the mid-afternoon when she retired for siesta, I plunged like a demented tin hunter into the back streets to experience more retro auto action.
This pattern was a winning formula for both parties — as long as I didn’t get lost! After two great days in Trinidad, where we stayed with a local family, we moved on to nearby Cienfuegos for a brief one-night stop, before heading back to Havana.
Cienfuegos is more of an industrial town, providing workers for the nearby oil refinery and other factories. It also still has an elegant central plaza and plenty of old cars, including the oldest-operable car (at least it looked to be a runner) I saw on tour — an unrestored 1929–’30 Model A taxi.
The next day, we were back on the minibus to Havana, with the show just about winding up. On the way we visited the Che Guevara Museum, which stands as a huge tribute to a man who is deeply revered in this country, along with Fidel, of course. Which brings us back to the revolution, one of the recurring themes of our journey. Despite all the hardships in Cuba, and there are many, there’s a powerful sense that the struggle to extract the country from the grip of the tyranny of a totally corrupt government, which was in cohorts with the Mafia, was a righteous cause — and that the hard-won freedom was well worth the struggle.
The last night of the tour was spent at the world-famous Buena Vista Social Club, and the Cuban passion for song and dance was on display in full force, which suggests the spirit is well in this country.
As for my good lady and I, we had another day and a bit left to spend hanging out in Havana. I couldn’t think of a better place to take in the bustling street scene and automotive paradise that is Cuba.
If you’re an old-american-car junkie, I would put this one right at the top of your bucket list, trust me, you won’t be disappointed. But don’t leave it too late …