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!)

Old-car heaven

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 …

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