Why Are All the Cars in Cuba so Old?

The island of Cuba conjures up images of handmade cigar boxes, Hemingway aboard the Pilar (that was his fishing boat), and of course—every retro American automobile in the pastel rainbow.

1950s American cars have been a cultural sticking point in Cuba for generations, but why hasn’t it changed? Or more importantly, how do these cars still run? Let’s venture down to the Caribbean for a closer look at these Cuban national treasures and learn why and how they remain so iconic today.

The Trade Embargo

Quick history lesson: when Communist leader Fidel Castro overtook the Cuban government and assumed political and military power in 1959, tensions with the United States were high. The Cold War was in full force and in 1962, President John F. Kennedy initiated a trade embargo that banned the importation of goods between the two nations due to Castro’s ties to the Soviet Union. Castro was involved in politics until his death in 2016 and the embargo is still in effect today, but it has eased up a little. Trade does currently exist between the US and Cuba, just in very limited quantities. 

Cuba’s geographic closeness to the US previously meant the importation of American goods just made sense, which is why the majority of cars in Cuba were of US origin—think Chevrolet, Ford, Chrysler, Studebaker, and Oldsmobile. After the trade embargo was enacted, the auto industry in Cuba basically became frozen in time.

The Trade Embargo
Image Credit: Shutterstock

How many old cars are in Cuba?

There are an estimated 60,000 cars in Cuba that are now considered classics. Prior to the ban, Cubans were importing cars from the US for fifty years. Nearly half of these vehicles hail from the 1950s while the other half is made up of autos from the 1930s and 40s. It’s common for Cubans to treat their vehicles like heirlooms and keep them in the family from generation to generation.

Autotrader suggests that the average age of a modern vehicle, whether it be American, Japanese, European, or the like lasts about 11 to 12 years and travels about 12,000 to 15,000 miles per year. Many Americans trade in their used vehicles after it hits 100,000, but even if they don’t it’s pretty rare to run a car much past the 200,000-mile mark.

What about Cubans? How do they keep a car that’s 70 years old—if not older—running?

How do the cars run for so long?

They get creative.

If you know anyone who drives a vehicle from the 1950s or around that time, they probably spend a lot of time maintaining it. They probably even call it their baby. In America, this type of person is probably a vintage-loving hobbyist with a decent amount of time on their hands. In Cuba, keeping an old car running is just a way of life.

The trade embargo prohibited all US goods from entering Cuba, so not only could people not get new American cars, they weren’t able to source American car parts or tools necessary to fix the vehicles they already had.

Wire and glue are some of the most popular materials used in Cuban car repairs, especially cosmetic ones. There are usually a few layers of paint on the average chassis and many hood ornaments are made from scrap metal and crafted by hand. As for mechanical maintenance, Cuban mechanics think nothing of retrofitting a Chevy with a Russian diesel engine.

During the height of Castro’s power, Cubans had to get special permission to build their own cars, it this was not a common occurrence. The small number of auto imports permitted were almost entirely from Russia or the Eastern Bloc, like Moskvichs, Ladas, and Volgas—cars that most Americans have never heard of let alone seen for the same political reasons that made them a normal sight in Cuba. Cubans have become experts at restoring classic American cars with Communist-approved vehicle components. This is something they are very proud of—and they should be.

Cuban mechanic
Image Editorial credit: rustamxakim / Shutterstock.com

Are there new cars in Cuba too?

There are. Around 2011 the once strict regulations surrounding the buying and selling of cars in Cuba began to loosen in the name of economic reform—but the taxes were astronomical and nearly impossible to afford.

With this small step toward progress, newer autos like the Chinese-made Geely CK and South Korean Kias slowly began to filter onto Cuba’s roadways. Cuba’s automotive future looks more hopeful than days past, but for now, the classic American vehicles that line its blocks remain a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of the Cuban people.

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Author: Mary Cahill

Mary K. Cahill is a writer from New Haven, Connecticut. She specializes in creating content that combines the automotive world with history and pop culture. When she’s not writing, you can find her absorbed in a novel, traveling the city on foot in search of vintage treasures, or having movie night with her family.

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