Cuban Diary: Vintage Cars

This post features some of the vintage 1950s American cars that we saw while we were in Cuba in May, 2016. We also saw older 1940s cars, Peugeots, Hyundias, Kias, and other makes unknown to us. In addition, we saw new and expensive cars (e.g., Mercedes) that belong to the government and can only be used for “government business.” With a very few exceptions, only 1950s American cars are showcased here.

We saw these cars in lines at the airport …

Cars in Havana Airport parking lot

at taxi stands …

Havana taxi stand

along the curbs (what colors! are those original?) …

Line of vintage cars

and in strategic spots around Havana, inviting admiring stares …

and paying customers.

Thunderbird for hire

Some cars offered views from all sides …

as well as from the inside.

Some cars were only visible for a few seconds, seen from a bus window …

while others obligingly posed for a closeup portrait …

(look at that hood ornament!)

and others showed off for diners at a restaurant beside the Malecón. (Oops. One of those is not a car.)

Here is a vehicle we did not recognize, but it was too interesting to pass up.

Likewise, the Cuban taxi for tourists is eye-catching. (The version for Cuban passengers has the reverse color scheme, a yellow checkerboard on a black body. We didn’t see any of those.)

Cuba Coco Taxi

Coming from today’s America, where the top four car paint colors are white, silver, black and gray, in that order, it was a bit of a shock to encounter the amazing colors on those old cars in Havana. We forgot (or never knew) that car colors before the 1950s were drab, barely more exciting than Henry Ford’s any-color-you-want-as-long-as-it’s-black. Color became important in the 1950s, with pastel shades of blue, pink, and green being especially popular. In the 50s, a car buyer could choose among paint colors to be applied to his car. In fact, the 1958 Oldsmobile had 22 color choices for the car body and the same 22 choices for the car roof. In addition, color choices for that Oldsmobile could be specified for the wheel and cap, convertible top, carpet, seat (cloth or leather), and headliner. So even if a car we saw did not have its original color, it still had an authentic color.

There are discrepancies in some of the cars we saw. An original steering wheel might be replaced with one from another make or model of car (e.g., a Peugeot steering wheel in a Buick). Frequently, it was the original motor that had been replaced (e.g., by a Toyota diesel engine). In addition, parts that don’t affect how the car runs might be missing, such as the lock knob on the door lock (only the interior pin was still visible), the chrome porthole covers on the sides (although the portholes were still there), or parts of the chrome body side molding. A man who was in line ahead of us at the airport told us that Cuban car mechanics can make almost any part they need as long as they have supplies – which they frequently don’t have. This man was carrying a worn-out cylinder head in his carry-on luggage, to use in selecting the right size of plumbing pipe in the US to take back to Cuba, where the mechanics can turn the pipe into new cylinder heads. It is astounding that so many cars have survived for so many years with almost no supply of original parts other than cannibalized cars of the same era.

Of all the sights in Cuba that we wanted to see, these vintage cars were at the top of the list. We were not disappointed.

We hope you have enjoyed this look into the past at America’s vintage 1950s cars as they have been preserved in Havana. Stay tuned for more of our Cuban diary. Remaining posts will highlight public art, night photos, and general impressions. If you want to catch up on previous posts, read:

Eight Days in Cuba: an Introduction

Cuban Diary Day 1: Arriving in Cuba

Cuban Diary Day 2: Squares of Old Havana

Cuban Diary Day 2: Views of Old Havana

Cuban Diary Day 3: Cigars, Salad and Salsa

Cuban Diary Day 3: Ernest Hemingway’s Finca Vigia

Cuban Diary Day 4: Religion, Restoration, and Revolution

Cuban Diary Day 5: Society, Art, and a Micro-brewery

Cuban Diary Day 6: Las Terrazas Eco-community

Cuban Diary Day 7: Music and Revolution

Cuban Diary Day 8: Leaving Cuba

Cuban Diary: A Few of Hemingway’s Bars

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