To travel the roads and streets of Cuba is to journey back to a world before crossovers, computer-aided design, electronic control units, CAFE and collision regulations, electronic key fobs, navigation screens and catalytic converters.
During a two-week trip there in late May-early June, I saw vintage Chevrolets, Buicks, Pontiacs, Cadillacs, Fords, Mercurys, Edsels, DeSotos, Studebakers, Packards and Nashes, some dating from as early as the 1920s.
Nobody knows for sure just how many American classics are being driven daily on the roads of Cuba. Some estimates say 60,000. Until Cuba began loosening restrictions on vehicle ownership in 2011, the pre-revolutionary cars were the only ones that could be bought and sold.
Cars in Cuba fall into three categories: American cars up to the 1959 model year; Soviet cars such as Ladas, Moskvitches and Volgas; and cars imported after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, which include a mixed bag of Japanese, European and Chinese brands such as Geely.
Now that President Barack Obama has taken the first steps toward loosening the trade embargo, some Cubans worry what will happen to those cars in the first category, the cherished symbols of their national identity.
A 2010 Cuban law bans export of cars from the island. Even without that, the likelihood Americans might find cherry cars in original condition is slim because most have been through extensive alterations.
“There are a lot of Americans that have the dream of finding the rare car in Cuba,” Bill Warner, founder and chairman of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance car show, told Reuters last year. “For the most part, the cars you see on TV are really pretty hacked up. You’d find better cars here in the United States.”
Christopher Elias, the Cuban guide for my tour, told me: “I think they will find a way for the old cars to stay. They are too important to Cuba’s identity.”
I hope he is right. The two weeks I spent in this ravishingly beautiful country — perhaps the most photogenic place I’ve visited in a lifetime of traveling — left me with a sense that Cuba is changing at warp speed.
It’s impossible to overstate the impact of seeing all those cars from the zenith of Rococo American design in one place, still on the road. Compared with today’s sleek, technology-age machines, they’re like exotic tropical birds, creatures from another universe.
Best to catch them now before they start to fade away.