Cuba’s Immortal Oldtimers

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Words and photos by Roland Hanewald

The Cubans call them máquinas or yank tanks, the latter term having been borrowed from the British who bestowed this name on the monstrous vehicles brought into England by American GIs a decade after World War II. The unwieldy Buicks, Cadillacs, Chevies, Fords and what have you had hardly fit on Great Britain’s narrow, winding and stonewall-fringed country roads and caused unending traffic jams in the process. Canadians and Aussies as well still use the term to describe any American car viewed as plump and ungainly, including modern models.

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Three years after Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959 to convert the island from a huge brothel and gambling casino to a frugal socialist republic, the United States introduced an embargo which effectively cut trade between the two countries. This meant that American cars could no longer be imported, and neither could their spare parts. The Cubans were forced to make ends meet with the existing vehicles, which were many in number but increasingly became grizzled oldtimers. Yet most of them, of 1950s make or even older, are still on the road. Due to the presence of a well-off segment of society in the past, the classic type of cars had been the standard rather than an exception in Cuba. As early as the 1930s, American gangsters like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano boastfully cruised along Havana’s famous shore promenade Malecón in the mafioso conveyances of the era, and even Cuba’s large middle class could afford luxurious wheels later on, only to be deprived of them with Castro’s advent. Due to constant loving care ever since, many remain in good working order, some are even in mint condition. The total present estimate of cars in the island stands at 300,000, but how many of them are yank tanks is not known. In Havana, at least, they can be seen all over the place.

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To bypass the embargo, Cuba, while under Soviet influence, imported Russian cars like Ladas, Volgas and Moskvitchs (“Rustsqueaks”), which had a much shorter lifespan than the American oldies and which were eventually cannibalized (“parted out”) for hardware to keep the yank tanks going. Cuban ingenuity, quite comparable to that seen in the Philippine jeepney, helped a lot to install Russian technology in the balking US models. Many of the old crates run on completely Russian plumbing inside an American shell, and nothing but. Those that can no longer be fixed are set aside for possible later repairs, pending the eventual availability of spares, or to be sold to aficionados when their time comes. In the course of an expected opening toward a cautious perestroika the day may be close when the oldies can be disposed of to people who collect and restore them and are willing to pay steep prices for this chance in a lifetime. Looking at it from this angle, many Cubans are sitting on a potential bonanza, almost inconceivable in a country in which a teacher earns fifteen US dollars a month. The rock-bottom wages are probably also the reason why the Cuban government liberalized the market for foreign cars in recent months, being fully aware that no one can afford them anyway. But times are bound to change. Already Japanese and European models can often be seen in the island; looks like the Cubans have salted quite a few dollars away…

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The question of how the Yankee money was acquired can easily be answered: Almost every Cuban is moonlighting in a second or even third job and will leave nothing untried to make the extra buck. This includes, to a large extent, offering their yank tanks for sightseeing tours to enthusiastic foreigners who derive the greatest of delight in submerging themselves in rubbery upholstery and listening, enraptured, to a gurgling multi-cylinder plant built shortly after World War II. Mainly Americans enormously enjoy being ferried around in one of those behemoths and will readily turn their wallets inside out for the exquisite privilege. (It is generally believed that US citizens are not permitted to visit Cuba because Washington forbids them to do so. That is not correct as such. They may travel to Cuba but are not allowed to spend any money there. This is of course commensurate to a travel ban. But nobody cares. The Americanos go there, and the Cubans let them. Certainly money will change hands, too. And be it only to do a round or two in one of those seductive old-timers).

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The Cuban veterans may appear to be immortal, but their antiquated technology has serious drawbacks which will eventually put them out of commission. For one thing, they are terrible gas guzzlers, and fuel is anything but cheap in Cuba. Bad roads with abysmal potholes and washouts as deep as military trenches also claim their toll of axles, suspensions, shock absorbers and tires. (Cuban saying: Which part of a car is the most important? The spare wheel!). This is why the dinosaurs can hardly be seen in the countryside any more, but rather flocking around Havana where pavements are fairly smooth and distances manageable. Picturesque as the old jalopies are, they enhance the romantic ambience of Habana Vieja, founded in 1592 and thus one of Latin America’s oldest and handsomest cities. On the crest of an unparalleled economic boom in the early 1800s, Havana, then euphemized as “Paris of the Antilles” and “Pearl of the Caribbean”, was about to close ranks with the world’s richest metropoles. There is not much left of that aura, but let’s hope the yank tanks will keep alive at least a fraction of it by yet enduring many years to come, and damn the fuel prices!