Hacker Island: Preserving Cuba’s Classic Cars

The spirit of hacking takes many forms. We cobble things together to make our lives easier, to prove that a drawing-board theory will work, or just to have fun and explore. For the people of Cuba, hacking is a necessity. This is especially true when it comes to getting around. Transportation has been a big problem for decades, especially in the major cities. But the resourcefulness of Cuba’s citizens has fueled a revolution of creativity that has sparked imaginations and kept people moving.

It is believed that Cuba has the world’s largest collection of classic American cars. There are approximately 60,000 of them on the road nationwide in various states of repair. Some are kept in pristine condition by card-carrying automobile club members who baby them and keep them as close to stock as possible. But most of these cars see daily use as cheap public taxis. They are not for-hire cabs that can be easily hailed from the sidewalk, though. They are designed to maximize utility and carry as many passengers as possible along fixed routes. Taking one of these taxis is expensive, but the alternative is waiting hours in the hot sun for an overcrowded bus.

Cuba’s Car Culture

From the dawn of the automobile until the Great Depression, export sales to Cuba were consistently high. Year after year, the island was one of Detroit’s largest markets. Sales came mostly from the middle and upper class citizens who were benefiting from the sugar cane industry. After WWII, Cuba experienced a widespread economic boom. The country’s middle class expanded as a result, and this population was eager to buy American things, especially cars.

Hanging out. Image source: David Alan Harvey
Hanging out. Image source: David Alan Harvey

Cuba has had a long-standing love affair with American culture, especially the cars. Cars here are precious heirlooms that are passed down from father to son to grandson. With each one comes the mechanical savvy required to keep it going. The car culture is deeply ingrained into Cuba’s society and revolves around the finest steel ever put out by Detroit — the huge, hulking, curvaceous machines of the 1940s and 50s that were as indestructible as they were beautiful.

Communism-based tensions and a string of unrealized trades between the two countries led to the United States embargo against Cuba. This mandate effectively shut down all consumer exports from the US to Cuba except for certain foods and medicines. Within a year, no new American cars were coming in to the island, at least not through legitimate channels.

After seizing power in 1959, Fidel Castro encouraged the people of Cuba to be self-sufficient and to re-use and re-purpose. These abilities became especially important during Cuba’s Special Period in Time of Peace, which refers to the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. About 80% of both its imports and exports dried up during this time, leaving the economy in shambles and the people of Cuba to do without many of the goods they had become accustomed to having.

People made oil lamps from glass food jars and TV antennas from metal food trays. Clothes dryer motors were re-purposed en masse to run other things like key-cutting machines. To help solve the transportation issue, people converted bicycles into motorcycles. These bikes known as rikimbili typically use small motors and have gas tanks made from plastic soda bottles.

A converted bicycle. Image source: Ernesto Oroza
A converted bicycle. Image source: Ernesto Oroza

Keeping Them On the Road

So how is it possible that there are so many cars still tooling around Cuba that are 55, 60, even 70 years old? There are a couple of reasons. Beginning in the 1960s, the island was flooded with boxy diesel cars from Europe and the Eastern Bloc. This influx of cars provided enough parts that it became possible to convert the larger and more spacious Detroit models to diesel. This is typical of the Fords, Cadillacs, and Chevrolets that have seen decades of daily use as privately-owned public taxis.

Roadside repairs are a fact of life. Image source: The Detroit Bureau
Roadside repairs are a fact of life. Image source: The Detroit Bureau

Although the Cubans by and large prefer the American cars, gasoline is expensive enough that there’s a black market for it. Even on the black market, it’s still not cheap. Many owners don’t want to convert their cars to diesel because doing so wears out the transmission and drive train. They’ve taken measures to make gasoline go farther by making the engine more efficient.

They will also bypass or remove the stock gas tank and rig up a small plastic jug that sits right under the hood, making it easy to manage fuel consumption on a microscopic scale. They scavenge and adapt parts from Russian and European cars wherever possible to keep the American cars going as long as possible.

The mechanical ingenuity of Cuba’s mechanics goes a lot farther than Frankensteining different car models together. They can’t get replacement parts or even basic maintenance items like brake fluid, so they make their own from a mixture of shampoo, oil, and dish detergent. These mechanics make do by re-purposing household items into car parts, like turning enema hoses into fuel lines. There is at least one garage where replacement wraparound windshields are made using wooden molds made in someone’s backyard.

Cuba’s salty air is a big problem for all the chrome on these beauties. Some garages specialize in making new chrome parts by hand that are faithful to the originals like trim, tailpipes, and grilles. The general condition of the roads in Cuba does’nt help the situation. Some roads are cobblestone, and others are just a path in the dirt. Even where there are paved roads, they are often riddled with potholes.

Driving the Future of Cuba’s Classic Cars

How much longer can these cars possibly go? This question is as interesting for US and Cuban car collectors as it is for the citizens who rely on them day after day. A group called TailLight Diplomacy is determined to see them last as long as possible. They want to promote Cuba’s classic cars as a cultural icon. In order to maximize their lifespan and value, the group wants to send shipping containers full of parts and repair manuals to help restore the cars to international classic car standards.

Although the trade embargo is still in place, diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba are beginning to defrost. The cars have already lasted this long. If enough parts and manuals can get to Cuba in the foreseeable future, they might be able to go another 50 years.

Main image via Boston University.

Sources:

Schweid, Richard. Che’s Chevrolet, Fidel’s Oldsmobile: On the Road in Cuba. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Print.

72 thoughts on “Hacker Island: Preserving Cuba’s Classic Cars

  1. “It is believed that Cuba has the world’s largest collection of classic American cars. There are approximately 60,000 of them on the road nationwide in various states of repair.”

    I suspect there are more in America.

    1. Possibly by percentage of cars on the road total. There may be more classic cars on American roads compared to Cuba, but they don’t make up as high a percentage of the cars on American roads total.

  2. They were fortunate that these cars came from an era where they were built particularly robust to start with. Good quality steel throughout and an uncomplicated power train is a huge advantage as is the climate. Nevertheless knowing some people that restore these as a hobby up here, the task of keeping these vehicles roadworthy is no small feat.

    1. Quality steel, yes, but also the gauge of steel was much thicker. Lean too hard on a modern car door panel if you’re heavy enough and you’ll dent it. Meanwhile, go stand on a classic car hood and it’ll barely bow under you.

      In essence, there’s just more to rot away, so the time it takes for rust to do its damage is longer.

  3. “How much longer can these cars possibly go?”

    These cars will keep going until their economy grows to a point where people can afford to buy newer cars… And that, I suspect, will not be any time soon.

    1. They already can buy and sell appartments/houses (pretty new thing) and the fact that US is willing to start dropping the restrictions mean that they will soon be able to buy and sell cars. Once that happens the new (atleast new to them) car prices there will also drop and they can sell the old cars to car enthusiasts. I think it’ll happen pretty soon. I say, now is the last moments to visit Cuba as it is.

      1. ” the fact that US is willing to start dropping the restrictions mean that they will soon be able to buy and sell cars”

        The embargo against Cuba was unilateral, every other nation in the world was free to engage in any trade they wanted with Cuba.

        Cuba traded with anyone/everyone it could, but it lacked the hard currency or abundant natural resources to ‘pay’ for the things they wanted/needed.

        There was NOTHING but a lack of hard currency that prevented any Cuban from importing any foreign car they want – and that is still the case.

        The greatest boon to Cuba is that it can soon suckle at the foreign aid teet of the evil empire to their immediate west, the United States. Tourism has been a thriving business in Cuba for decades, it’s just filthy-rich American Capitalists that couldn’t come and spend their filthy American dollars in Cuba.

          1. Cuba has no industry to speak of, what does it have that it can export for hard currency?

            The reason car prices are so high is gov’t import taxes and fees, it’s a self-inflicted obstacle.

          2. @ ken
            you are not listening. I said the twice already, that once the US embargo is starting to dissapear, the Cuba gonvernment rules will also start be relaxed, like they already have.

          3. “…once the US embargo is starting to dissapear, the Cuba gonvernment rules will also start be relaxed…”

            So you are thinking that Cuba imposed strict limits on imports and put onerous taxes and fees on imports as retaliation to a unilateral embargo imposed against it by the US? It doesn’t make sense.

            Cuban Minister: “El Presidente, the evil corrupt capitalist Americans are refusing to engage in any trade, any import or export of our goods – what will we do?”

            El Presidente: “Why, the only logical thing we can do – impose heavy, abusive import fees on anything that comes into Cuba!”

            Cuban Minister: “But El Presidente, how does taxing those imports we get from other countries help The People?”

            El Presidente: “The People will learn to become self-reliant and find a way to survive with less…”

            I contend the heavy import fees and taxes are desperate attempts for the Cuban government to raise much needed funds, not any sort of direct retaliation for the US embargo… You can only tax that which crosses your border, and the US isn’t sending anything across the border, so any tax imposed on imports will only impact those countries that actually import goods into Cuba, something the US hasn’t done for 50 years.

        1. And they still can’t sell the cars out. And i think that once the US embargo ends, or is atleast taken down some, they also get other rights, such as selling the cars abroad, the prices of new cars drop etc. That’s what i was saying.

        2. @Ken
          You’ve missed the point of an embargo: it’s less to literally prevent access to goods than to hobble the economy.

          And this is ignoring that both Cuba’s and the US’s political interests are going to have an effect on availability.

    1. “Seeing as how gasoline is so expensive I wonder why they don’t use producer gas or biogas.”

      They selfishly choose to eat their food, rather than turn it into fuel for cars, I guess. But also, ask yourself, why is gasoline so expensive, and what prevents any other fuel from becoming equally expensive? I think taxes & gov’t fees make gas expensive – it isn’t a free market in Cuba.

      1. It was actually the US blockade what made fuel so expensive in Cuba, among many other items. Oil is scarce in the island, and the machinery used to extract it is as old as these cars. If the US would end its ridiculous blockade, many countries would happily sell fuel to Cuba.

        1. There is an embargo between the US and Cuba, not a “blockade” – Cuba is (and has been) free to trade with any other country it wants, but it has no money to buy things from them. That is why you can, for example, buy Cuban cigars anywhere in the world but in the USA.

          Cuba could have bought cheap cars from Japan, Korea, etc but lacked the hard currency to do so.

          Cuba has existed for decades on the generosity of Russia and Venezuela, along with a few other countries “down with the struggle”, as those countries met their inevitable economic downfalls, Cuba has been forced to get by with less.

          1. While lack of funds is certainly true, it’s not true that “Cuba is (and has been) free to trade with any other country”. According to the wikipedia entry on the Helms-Burton Act (1996):

            “any non-U.S. company that deals economically with Cuba can be subjected to legal action and that company’s leadership can be barred from entry into the United States. Sanctions may be applied to non-U.S. companies trading with Cuba. This means that internationally operating companies have to choose between Cuba and the U.S., which is a much larger market.”

            Toyota, Volkswagen etc. just put 1+1 together and that’s that.

          2. Then where were the Russian-made cars? Surely Russian car makers weren’t afraid of US retaliation…

            Why didn’t a savvy central-American entrepreneur load up a cargo ship with pre-owned cars and deliver them to the Cuban market? Because the Cubans had no cash, period.

            To argue that it was the import taxes and fees that made everything prohibitively expensive ignores the simple fact that those fees and taxes were self-imposed by the Cuban gov’t.

        2. [Luiggi]
          It didn’t help that Castro nationalized the U.S oil companies on the island. Those same companies had no desire to ship fuel to the facilities taken from them without recompense.

      2. Producer gas can be made from manure and vegetable wastes and the process improves their usefulness as fertilizer. I don’t know how much or where producer gas was used in Cuba, and I imagine it was not used in autos because of the low energy density (especially without high pressure bottles and expensive gas scrubbers for the water and other side products). Producer gas is usually used for process or residential heat. Please don’t reply without proper facts, even if you do see a chance to attack a system you do not approve of.

        1. Go back and read my response again, I indicated my uncertainty in my response by ending it with the phrase ‘I guess’.

          Cuba is an island, and as such it has a finite amount of space in which to grow crops. To commit to either ‘biogas’ or ‘producer gas’ would *likely* require them to change their crop mix to ensure an adequate supply of ‘vegetable waste’ to run through their automobiles, altering their crop mix will impact their ability to raise hard currency with exports. Should they cut back on tobacco or sugar to support running their cars on bio/producer gas?

          Cuba is a poor island nation:

          “Cuba is the 136th largest export economy in the world. In 2013, Cuba exported $2.43B and imported $6.72B, resulting in a negative trade balance of $4.29B.

          The top exports of Cuba are Raw Sugar($419M), Refined Petroleum ($356M), Rolled Tobacco ($306M)…” [ http://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/country/cub/ ]

          Cuba apparently refines oil on the island, and the exportation of oil is their second largest export, behind raw sugar – I *suspect* their ability to refine oil locally influences their decision to stick with regular gasoline.

          >

  4. Hackaday has featured Cuba a couple of times, and the one in October of 2013, citing Castro telling his countrymen to “learn how to make stuff** has the still frame up of the Cuban Government Provided Manual CON NUESTROS PROPIOS ESFUERZAS “By Our Own Efforts”, which I would like to have as a pdf, would love to have as a physical copy, English translated or not…How cool is a GOVERNMENT-SPONSORED manual on thinking creatively, repurposing things (including scary electrical bits, it wouldn’t happen here, can’t just arrest our tort lawyers and make them work in the cane fields for a few years). I throw that inquiry to the readers. **(Castro had to mean ‘learn how to physically hack stuff’, our wheelhouse, unless the product in question is made out of plantain or sugar cane)

      1. ” I suspect it’s real purpose is ‘how to be happy with less’…”
        Seriously. That’s not a bad thing, if you’re being objective. At the same time, it is easily arguable the motivation was to draw attention away from the fact that Castro hitched his wagon to the losing (for now) totalitarian ideology. One of the recipes in the book, for making mock steak out of plantain husks– or banana peels, I don’t remember, really points out how bad it became when the Soviet Union was struggling and ‘cut bait’ on Cuba.

        1. “points out how bad it became when the Soviet Union was struggling and ‘cut bait’ on Cuba.”

          Venezuela stepped in, until their local flavor of socialism/communism went tits-up and trashed their economy.

          1. True. To quote the leader Soviet Captiain Yuri Galvinov called the Iron Lady:

            “The trouble with Socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”

            (Then a new generation comes forth not knowing history, starts out their ideas with “If we could all just”… and it is tried again.)

          1. I stand by my statement. Being happy with less is Not a Bad Thing. Not only in Cuba, but in Manhattan, San Francisco, London or Dubai–Anywhere. Governments can always make prohibitions and shortages. Supplying yourself means the black market and possibly prosecution. Be objective about Truth, even if people think you’re praising an obvious villain or denigrating a national hero.

          2. “Being happy with less” can mean at least two different things:

            Leading a simpler, uncluttered life less focused on accumulating ‘stuff’ – that is certainly is “not a bad thing”, if it is a personal choice.

            Going to bed hungry because the gov’t can’t provide for basic needs while that some gov’t tries to convince you to ‘be happy with less’ is a “bad thing”.

            Cuba struggles to meet the basic needs of it’s people by any reasonable standard, so while you may have meant the former meaning (a simpler life), without clarification most people would read it as the latter (can’t meet basic needs).

            >

      1. It is remarkable that it was printed. As you point out, it could easily be seen as an admittance of weakness. Compare/Contrast with what happens in North Korea, which screams “there are no shortages, and whoever says differently is an enemy of the government”…The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves.

      1. The original comment was that it was cool that the government encouraged people to Hack their way around hardships and provided examples and plans. This is indeed cool. The existence of shortages is, of course, uncool, perhaps even very bad depending on the source of the problem. The US has historically had an incredibly bad health care system for the poor. The US public health system produced booklets on topics like wound dressing and prenatal self-care. Would you argue those books were a bad thing or a good response to a bad situation?

        1. Thanks, Brian–Someone Gets it.
          Your example of the healthcare booklets is a much better analogy than what I thought of, the Victory Garden books produced during WW2. I figured that enough people would already be onboard this comment thread to complete the task of saying ‘No, Castro is A Bad, Bad Man’, even in the absence of people trying to put a halo on his head, that a text montage of the history of Castro, Batista, The United Fruit Company, The Bay of Pigs wasn’t necessary. (sigh.) I’ll just leave this here…http://i340.photobucket.com/albums/o354/wa4brl/Radio/Castro-1.jpg

  5. BTW, The author you cited for this was local to me-Richard wrote for the local paper when we had two dailies in Nashville. PBS ran a piece decades ago on the cars of Cuba, and went into some detail–iirc, there was a fellow that won a national award for replicating the metallurgy to make piston rings or sealing rings for the island’s hospital generator that had fallen silent.

    There was another guy who made replacement (and custom) stainless steel trim for all of those cars which had rusting chrome and zit-riddled pot metal chrome, from cookware if I remember correctly. Upholstery from shower curtains. At one point, the camera rode in a light green ’57 or so Cadillac, and one could not ignore the chest-high stick shift lever protruding from the transmission tunnel. One chevy had been handed down three generations, and came into the living room with the family in the evenings. They found some other fellow early in his ambitious task. He had scored the carcass of a late-fifties Chrysler that had rusted badly, BADLY, up to the beltline. He displays the discarded fuel oil tank he found, and the tall worn out 4cylinder Russian towmotor engine he is going to shoehorn in under the hood. No glass, no working drivetrain, but he was going to put it together bit by bit. I have no doubt he would have a car eventually. You’ve got to admire the ingenuity of the locals to keep the infrastructure grinding and wheezing along. Schweid’s book sets modern life within anecdotes of the island’s recent history, including the time Castro spooked Kruchev by out crazy-ing him. Stories like that help flesh out the historical context for any readers too young to remember the original problem.

    1. Okay, my comments above are spoilers for the video linked in the article. I’m sitting down and watching that right now, I haven’t seen it since it first came out–the “decades ago” turns out to be a little under seven years. (Of all the things I’ve lost, it’s my mind I miss the most…)

        1. I came here to post that link, its a great film if you haven’t watched it already! The guy who remakes brake shoes who knows the asbestos is killing him is really really true life…
          For appetite whetting purposes the trailer on you tube. :-

      1. Probably. In her defense, Kristina Panos does include in the next sentence one of those totalitarian euphemisms quotable with dripping sarcasm, Cuba’s “Special Period in Time of Peace”: Like China’s “Great Leap Forward”, (which phrase which will get you some jaw-dropping history on the internet), the rule of thumb is, the more delicate, cheery and obfuscatory bureaucrats get with their naming conventions, the worse mess they have made of things.

        (At this point, I originally listed some bi-partisan examples of buffoonery from the two circus rings of my own country. I then deleted them, deciding to, as Mark Twain once wrote, “draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene”). It is left as an exercise to the inquisitive.

        1. “the more delicate, cheery and obfuscatory bureaucrats get with their naming conventions, the worse mess they have made of things. ”

          ^this^
          China’s “Great Leap Forward” comes to mind.

    1. “Fidel Castro encouraged the people of Cuba to be self-sufficient and to re-use and re-purpose – because the government was unable to provide for their most basic of needs.”

      FTFY

    2. Anyone who thinks the article is defending communism or excusing the government’s role in creating the problems has shitty reading comprehension. The only reason it doesn’t go into politics is because *this site is not about politics.*

  6. “They can’t get replacement parts or even basic maintenance items like brake fluid, so they make their own from a mixture of shampoo, oil, and dish detergent.”
    I think id rather run straight oil, there is no way that can be good for the lines or brake parts.

    1. Their fundamental problem is the extreme, no kidding, poverty of Cuba – they could get almost anything their heart desires from Europe, south or Central America, Asia, Mexico, or Canada *except* they had no money to pay for it.

      Cuba existed on charity from other communist countries, few of which can afford to prop up the island any more.

  7. All that glitters is not gold. Most of these cars would not be worth the price to haul them back to the U.S. to restore.
    Just restoring a barn fresh car of this age with all it’s original parts is a daunting task and extremely expensive.
    My neighbor has a ford model A which looks great to me and he recently got an estimate to completely restore the car.
    The price was 75k and 3 years.

    1. Just like when shoestring “rat rods” and “resto mods” captured the attention of car show attendees (much to the irritation of certain owners of beautiful concours restorations), I can envision a thriving import business to individuals who wish to display some of this tired iron, loved-to-pieces, with “tin-can sheetmetal and Lada engines”, as a recent Hemmings article put it– http://blog.hemmings.com/index.php/2011/10/03/time-to-put-your-money-where-your-cuban-car-is/ . Cuban regs now have provisions for exportation of old cars “En todo caso estos vehículos podrán ser reexportados” (Decree 292 Article 6.1, Section 2). I have long wondered if the United States would across-the-board prohibit these hulks from re-importation, on safety concerns, or would simply seize them because they were lost to Force Majeure, losses often incurred by American citizens and insurance companies. Just last year, talks restarted for some descendants of Cuban property owners http://wvxu.org/post/property-was-stolen-cuban-government#stream/0 Who gets the old DeSoto and Studebaker Dealerships, or the Zenith Radio Store, or CBS studios–or whatever building, vehicle or other asset which has been used by generations of people other than the original owners? (Any Native Americans reading this right now are allowed big belly laughs at the irony, BTW)

    2. Just like when shoestring “rat rods” and “resto mods” captured the attention of car show attendees (much to the irritation of certain owners of beautiful concours restorations), I can envision a thriving import business to individuals who wish to display some of this tired iron, loved-to-pieces, with “tin-can sheetmetal and Lada engines”, as a recent Hemmings article put it http://blog.hemmings.com/index.php/2011/10/03/time-to-put-your-money-where-your-cuban-car-is/ . Cuban regs now have provisions for exportation of old cars “En todo caso estos vehículos podrán ser reexportados” (Decree 292 Article 6.1, Section 2). I have long wondered if the United States would across-the-board prohibit these hulks from re-importation, on safety concerns, or would simply seize them because they were lost to Force Majeure, losses often incurred by American citizens and insurance companies. Just last year, talks restarted for some descendants of Cuban property owners http://wvxu.org/post/property-was-stolen-cuban-government#stream/0 Who gets the old DeSoto and Studebaker Dealerships, or the Zenith Radio Store, or CBS studios–or whatever building, vehicle or other asset which has been used by generations of people other than the original owners? (Any Native Americans reading this right now are allowed big belly laughs at the irony, BTW)

  8. I only stop to help people broken down along side the road if they’re white, Christian and male like myself. And I will actively “encourage” others not to help as well. It’s my policy at helping those that are less fortunate than myself.

  9. Saving a few (and yes, 50k is a few, compared to worldwide numbers) classic cars bastardized with junk parts, that barely run and are falling apart is not worth propping up a tyrannical regime that oppresses its citizens, jails dissidents, stifles free speech and has been ruled by a tyrant since the ’50s. I have zero sympathy for these people: they should have overthrown these communist monsters long ago. They acquiesced to seeing their own fellow citizens brutalized. Send them nothing and continue to starve the corrupt regime until it falls under its own weight, like Venezuela is doing. The h ell with the cars. They are not important.

    1. Yeah well a lot ( if not most ) of The best trained and
      Most courageous soldiers fighting for Cuba’s freedom
      were slain during and after ( along with their Families)
      the Bay of Pigs, were they not? Hard to get momentum
      Back on an island prison once the bastards have control.

    2. Yeah well a lot ( if not most ) of The best trained and
      Most courageous soldiers fighting for Cuba’s freedom
      were slain during and after ( along with their Families)
      the Bay of Pigs, were they not? Hard to get momentum
      Back on an island prison once the bastards have control.

      1. “Hard to get momentum back on an island prison once the bastards have control.”

        Just a historical reminder, Castro led a revolution seizing control of Cuba from ‘bastards’ that had control before ‘la revolution’… If it happened before, it can happen again (IMHO).

        >

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