Answer Man

Cubans give old cars CPR

Many cars from the 1950s and before still fill the streets in Cuba.
Many cars from the 1950s and before still fill the streets in Cuba. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Q: When I see pictures or video of vehicle traffic in Cuba, why are there so many old, classic American cars — e.g., ’57 Chevys, ’55 Fords, etc.?

Tom Shellenberg, of Belleville

A: Let’s say you’re driving through the Mojave Desert in Nevada when you suddenly realize you have only a half-gallon of gas left in the tank. You drive into the lone service station within 50 miles, but they want $20 a gallon. Do you hold your nose and pay the highway-robbery price? Of course you do. You have no choice.

That’s the kind of predicament average Cubans found themselves in for more than 50 years. After Fidel Castro came to power in January 1959, he decreed that only officials, doctors and others with government connections could buy what few new imported cars they could find. (Remember that on Oct. 19, 1960, the United States banned all exports in retaliation for Castro’s takeover of American property in Cuba, so Cuba’s VIPs had to look to Russia, etc., for replacements.) Everyone else on the island nation was told to use duct tape and baling wire to keep their American cars bought during the 1950s (and before) chugging along. They did. For a half-century.

As you have noticed, the result has made it look like time stopped on Havana streets and Cuban roads, which still are filled with these gas-guzzling, large-finned behemoths from an era when “aerodynamic” hadn’t yet made it into the car buyer’s vocabulary. According to a 2004 report by the New York Times’ Tom Miller, about 150,000 relatively new American cars graced Cuba when dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the country on New Year’s Eve in 1958. Now, while their rare sightings in the United States often turn heads, thanks to custom car clubs, tens of thousands of these rolling antiques have long choked Cuban highways because it was the only mode of transportation most had.

As Miller already noted a decade ago, many outside Cuba apparently hold a romantic notion that Cubans love these relics and are proud to be seen driving around in them.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Miller wrote. “Cubans love new American cars, not old ones, but the newest ones that they can get their hands on are 45 years old. (Even those were at inflated prices on the black market.)

“To own one of these vintages, known as ‘cacharros’ (or ‘bartavias’), in Cuba defines who you are, how you spend your time and how you wish to be known. When your plugs don’t spark, when a faulty brake line can’t be repaired, when your engine sputters into a coma ... you fabricate the equipment yourself, share with a friend, buy from a stranger. Or you put your car on blocks until the right part appears the next day, month or year.”

In 2004, Miller wrote a revealing firsthand account when his stepsons, who are native Cubans, wanted to show off their homeland to their U.S. girlfriends in a 1956 Chevy Bel Air driven by Ricardo, a friend. When Ricardo pulled up at noon, they immediately noticed the car had no gas tank. Instead, Ricardo had put five 5-gallon cans of gas in his trunk. Every few miles, he had to stop and fill a smaller tank under the dashboard, to which he had rigged a plastic siphon.

The car’s four doors had only one handle that had to be shared. While they were stopped in a field for a treat of raw sugar cane, one of the tires exploded, and the travelers had to scour a nearby town for a replacement. All they could find was a tractor tire that they managed to whittle down to size and soldier on. Later, a side window fell into one of the passenger’s laps, and the clutch pedal dropped off through what remained of the floor. They guessed the car may have topped out at 35 mph, but who really knew? The car had no windshield wipers, taillights or working dashboard gauges. Oil?

“I don’t know,” said Ricardo, who, of course, had no driver’s license. “I’ve never put any in.”

Frequently, the men had to get out of the car and push-start it after a stop. Still, it managed to make the 260 miles from Havana to Cienfuegos by late that night.

Yet although the rolling wrecks apparently far outnumber the shiny classics that would make a collector’s heart beat faster, Miller says the Cuban government long has exploited the nostalgia angle. One of its agencies even rents well-maintained old convertibles for foreign visitors to drive around in.

“Cuba is simply taking advantage of its own limited resources,” Miller wrote. “Most resourceful are the shade-tree mechanics who create parts. A 2002 film, ‘Yank Tanks,’ profiles these ‘doctors’ who think nothing of transplanting a Czech engine under a Buick hood or a Russian carburetor within a De Soto chassis. Old American cars in Cuba, cobbled together from their comatose elders, are variations on the old Johnny Cash song, ‘One Piece at a Time.’”

But this situation has been changing since February 2008, when Fidel’s brother Raúl became Cuba’s 18th president. Almost immediately, he began loosening controls on private enterprise and overseas travel, leading to the opening of thousands of small restaurants, clothes shops and small, family-run lodges for tourists. The government also removed restrictions on the purchase of modern technological necessities such as DVD players, computers and microwave ovens.

Cars slowly followed suit. In the spring of 2011, the government announced that it would allow all individuals to buy new cars — provided they sought government permission. Just one problem: There were almost no new cars to buy, which quickly led to waiting lists of five years and longer.

Finally, on Jan. 3, 2014, Castro abolished the need for official permission and truly opened the car market to all Cubans. Even so, state-run businesses are likely to control new car sales and levy sizable taxes to help fund public transportation. As a result, some say the sticker price is three or four times what you might pay in the United States.

But, experts seem to believe, shortages will be reduced greatly, so you soon may be seeing fewer and fewer of those ’50s classics now coughing and sputtering around on their last wheels.

Today’s trivia

It started in 1901 as the Fremont (Mich.) Canning Co. By what name do we know the corporate giant today?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: On July 4, 1904, Prince Piero Ginori Conti successfully used steam from geysers to power four electric light bulbs at Larderello, Italy. Seven years later, they built the world’s first commercial geothermal power plant there. It apparently was the world’s only source of industrial geothermal electricity until New Zealand built a plant in 1958.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer