Cuban Cars: A Living Classic Car Museum in Cuba

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Classic Cuban cars outside Havana's National Capitol Building
Classic Cuban cars outside Havana’s National Capitol Building

When you think of Cuba, what springs to mind? Cigars, maybe? Che Guevara’s beret and Fidel Castro’s beard? Beaches and palm trees? Sure, all of these things are iconic in the Caribbean country, but perhaps more iconic than anything else are the gorgeous vintage Cuban cars.

As you travel round the country, everywhere you go you’ll see classic cars in various states of repair, from glossy Chevrolets with gleaming chrome details waiting to take tourists on trips round Havana, to beaten-up Lada taxis that are more rust than metal. Being in Cuba is like walking the streets of a living motor museum.

The beautiful classic cars of Cuba
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What kind of vintage cars are in Cuba?

There are an estimated 60-70,000 vintage cars in Cuba, from classic American models like Chevrolets, Buicks, Chryslers, Oldsmobiles and Fords to Soviet-era Volgas and Ladas. About half of them date back to the 1950s, the rest are even older.

In the USA or UK these cars would be historic artifacts, locked carefully in a temperature-controlled garage, lovingly buffed every week, and driven only on the most special occasions. But in Cuba they are people’s daily runarounds, used as standard for picking up friends or running errands.

When you first arrive in Havana and see a queue of beautiful vintage cars waiting outside the airport, you’ll be forgiven for thinking you didn’t just fly to another country, but to another century.

Read more: Photography on the streets of Cuba

Why are there so many classic cars in Cuba?

The story of Cuba’s cars is inextricably linked to the history of Cuba itself.

Cuba has no car manufacturing industry, so for the first half of the 20th century the USA was the main supplier of cars to Cuba. Cubans loved their cars – in fact at one point Cuba was the top importer of American cars in the whole of Latin America.

By the 1950s, the country was booming. With Miami just 90 miles away, Cuba was a hotspot for American tourists, playing host to celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway. And where you have celebrities, you need fancy cars.

Photo of a vintage Ford Fairlane car in Havana, Cuba
This Ford Fairlane is one of many Cuba vintage cars you may spot in Havana

In the 1950s an estimated 125,000 classic cars were imported to Cuba, and by 1956 there were over 140,000 cars on Cuba’s roads.

But then in 1959 everything changed. Fidel Castro’s revolution severed US-Cuban relations. He banned all American car imports and brought in strict laws on Cuban car owners.

The US responded by bringing in a trade embargo that effectively locked Cuba in a time capsule for over half a century.

Gorgeous classic Cuban cars like this one make for stunning photo opportunities
Gorgeous classic Cuban cars like this one make for stunning photo opportunities

How do Cuban cars keep running?

With no way to buy new cars or even get spare parts for the ones they already had, Cubans were forced to become mechanics. When engines wore out, they found ways to fix them. They improvised and adapted, using creativity, ingenuity and perseverance to keep their cars going.

Vehicles were repaired with parts from others, creating ‘Frankenstein’ models. To the inexperienced eye, they may look like they’re in top condition, but any car expert will soon spot the mishmash of components under the hood. Cuban cars are a species all of their own.

Cubans work hard to keep their vintage cars on the road
Cubans work hard to keep their vintage cars on the road

Vintage car collectors would probably gasp in horror at this – in classic car circles it’s considered sacrilegious to mix-and-match models – but Cubans don’t care about such details. The cars are still running, and that’s all that matters.  

Though after decades of patchwork repairs and repainting, it can sometimes make identifying the original make and model of these hybrid cars a little tricky!

Cars in Cuba today

It wasn’t until the 90s that Cubans truly discovered the value of the investment they’d carefully been nurturing all this time. They thought their classic cars were just a practical means of transport. But when tourism started to explode, they suddenly realised they were also a major attraction in their own right.

Today there are still around 60-70,000 classic cars in Cuba, mostly in Havana, where they glide majestically through the colourful streets or sit proudly in front of gorgeous ornate buildings like bright vintage jewels.

Sadly for photographers, but happily for the Cuban people, they are no longer the only type of cars in Cuba. In 2016, Raul Castro finally relaxed the rules on car ownership, and new, modern cars from Europe and Asia have gradually started making their way back to the island.

However they are still expensive, highly-regulated, and far beyond the means of most Cubans, so there is still plenty of space for the glorious vintage Cuban cars to shine.

Can you drive the Havana cars?

It’s almost impossible to see a row of these beauties parked on a Havana street, all vivid colours and gleaming chrome accessories, and not want to take one for a spin.

Photo of a classic Chevrolet Bel Air, one of the old cars in Cuba
Take a tour in a car like this Chevrolet Bel Air for the full Cuban classic car experience

The easiest way to do this is to book a city tour. These usually cost about US$25-30 for an hour, during which you’ll get to cruise the streets of Havana in one of the most sparkling Cuban cars of all, perhaps an open-topped Chevrolet or classic Buick, pretending you’re a character in an Ernest Hemingway novel.

Cheaper, but slightly less glamorous, is simply to hail a taxi. Many Cuban taxis are classic cars, so almost any time you grab a cab you’ll be riding in a piece of history. These are normally the beaten up, shabby ones though, since anyone who owns a pristine specimen will be using it for the fancy tours mentioned above. 

Since 2019 it’s become possible to rent a classic car for self-drive, but be warned. This is much more expensive than regular car hire and driving in Cuba is quite hairy. If you want to leave the city and take a longer trip as part of your Cuba itinerary, it’s better to hire a car and driver.

Remember as well that these old cars have neither the seatbelts nor any of the other safety features of modern cars. So if you’re planning a long trip, you’re strongly advised to go for practicality over style and rent a more modern car.

Cuba cars have gorgeous vintage interiors - but there are no seatbelts or safety features
Cuba cars have gorgeous vintage interiors – but there are no seatbelts or safety features

Can you buy one of the Cuba old cars?

I’m sure there are thousands of classic car fans who dream that just having a Cuban tourist card will be enough to allow them to swoop in, scoop up all the glorious Cuban cars, and export them to other countries. Fortunately for Cuba and its tourism industry, that’s illegal.

Only Cuban citizens or foreigners permanently resident in the country are allowed to buy a Cuban car, so your dream of cruising the streets of your home town in a sparkling Plymouth or Pontiac will have to be put on hold.

Of course that’s a good thing, since it means Cuba’s living car museum will continue to thrive for years to come. 

Have you been to Cuba? What was your favourite thing about the country? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks to Mark from Neon Bubble for helping me identify the cars. If you think we got one wrong, please let me know and I’ll correct it.

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