Sunday 30 November 2014

Photo Essay - Cars of Cuba

Privately-owned taxi waiting beside our resort in Jibicoa, Cuba

On the road adjacent to the Cameleon resort in Jibicoa, Cuba

The Cubans call them Yank Tanks - or máquina, in Spanish. They are the old, large, shapely American cars - Chevrolets, Buicks, Dodges, Pontiacs, Studebakers, Oldsmobiles, etc. - from mostly the 1950s, that are found everywhere on this Caribbean-island nation. There are estimated to be about 60,000 of them still on the road. The photographs in this post were taken by me on four separate visits to Cuba: 2010-2011; 2013-2014.

On the highway near Havana - the Primer Anillo de La Habana

On the road between Via Blanca and the Cameleon resort at Jibicoa

Following the Castro revolution, which eventually led the U.S. government to impose a complete trade embargo in 1962, only cars from the pre-revolutionary era could be sold legally in Cuba. The embargo meant not only that new American cars could not come into the country, but also that replacement parts were banned too. 

In the fishing village of Cojimar

In Cojimar

It took a lot of work and clever improvising in order to find ways of repairing cars without the proper parts and equipment. Many cars were "parked" for long periods, until the required parts were located and installed. Some of them became multiple donors - stripped slowly of their components, in order to repair a number of other vehicles.

Cameleon resort at Jibicoa

During the thirty-odd years of Soviet support (1959-1991), most new cars brought into Cuba were Russian Ladas, Volgas, and Moskvitchs. These were not available to all Cubans - they were distributed to people with specific connections to various government departments and institutions.

Many of the old American cars were eventually converted, so that they could receive engine transplants - usually diesel engines from the Soviet Union. These replacements were popular because diesel fuel was sold in Cuba for about one-quarter the price of gasoline (petrol). But the running condition of these old beasts was problematic to families with tight incomes. The inefficiencies they experienced kept them from using their vehicles for more than about 800 km per year.

Suzuki Jimny "jeep" - used on a day-excursion in the rural area of La Habana province

Yours Truly at the wheel of a Suzuki Jimny driving around the Cuban countryside

In September, 2011 Raul Castro - Fidel's brother, and the day-to-day leader of the Cuban regime - announced a series of new regulations and laws that began to liberalise the Cuban economy. Private enterprise and entrepreneurial initiative were to be allowed in some sectors of the economy. Previously, only cars built before the revolution (1959) could be sold by individuals. But now, the ownership of post-revolution-era cars would no longer reside exclusively with the government. Cubans could now sell or trade their vintage cars from the 50s for newer models (Ladas, Hondas, etc.). A permit would not be required. That was the plan.

Taxis on the waterfront in Havana - the Malecón

Taxis on the waterfront in Havana - the Malecón

On the Malecón

But when the new measures were finally implemented fully in January, 2014, the reality was not as good as the promise. In theory prices were supposed to have been set by the market. But only businesses controlled by the state could sell new cars. It was still a virtual monopoly. A huge tax (up to 100%) was also imposed on the new vehicles - this move justified as a way to fund public transportation systems.

Buick in Havana ("Biuck" reads the repaired name!)

On the road adjacent to the Cameleon resort at Jibicoa

An Oldsmobile in Havana

When interested Cubans arrived at dealership showrooms they were shocked to read the sticker-price of these new imported cars. The state had imposed huge mark-ups. A Peugeot 508, for example, was listed at $262,000 ($53,000 in Canada). An economy model - the Peugeot 206, was available for $91,000. This in a country where the average monthly wage was about $25.00. As frustrated and jeering Cubans pointed out, it would not be even faintly possible to buy a car at that price within their lifetime.

A private taxi near the Cameleon resort in Jibicoa

At an old coffee ranch in the countryside of La Habana province

An abandoned camp-site near Jibicoa

In July, 2014 - six months after the new regulations were fully established - only 50 cars and 4 motorcycles had been sold - for an average price of $23,800. And most of the cars sold were actually second-hand vehicles - usually cars that had been well used by government-controlled rental agencies. There were only 11 licensed auto dealerships in the entire country - serving a population of 11,000,000.

My son Colin near Varadero - beside a Chevrolet

In Havana

Taxi on the waterfront in Havana - the Malecón

Clearly, it's going to be quite a while before a vibrant market of new-car sales is established in Cuba. Incomes will have to rise dramatically before the average consumer can even think of acquiring a modern car - even then, only a second-hand auto would be within the realm of possibility. The old Yank Tanks are probably still going to be around for quite a while - despite the hopes and ambitions of the Cuban people.

An English car  - a Morris Minor

Another classic English car in Havana - an Austin Healey

Lovers of the classic American cars of the '40s and '50s would have a field day walking around in Havana. There is a large variety of makes and models on the streets. Many of them are battered and bruised; but there are also some that are so well-maintained that they look to be in pristine condition. 

An overloaded Mercedes on the road near Jibicoa

Over the hill near Jibicoa

And when you're out in the rural areas, you'll often be surprised to come upon a beautiful specimen - in vibrant colours and wonderful condition. It's a car-lover's dream. You feel like you're in a time-warp, or that you've strayed into the location-shooting for a Hollywood movie. In some ways, it is a time-warp - an artificial situation created by the long-frozen relationship between this Caribbean nation and its American neighbour. But, fortunately, the slow thaw continues.

On the road near Jibicoa

Doing wedding duty in Havana

Photographs © Clive W. Baugh
(using a Nikon D7000 with a Nikkor 18-105 mm zoom lens)

Resources: Marc Frank - "Cuban hopes dashed as new and used cars go on sale" (Reuters); Sonia Verma - "Cuba gives green light to buying, selling car" (The Globe and Mail); BBC News

Private taxis at Cameleon resort in Jibicoa


  1. Clive: I enjoy all of your blogs, but this one was particularly interesting. I have been to Cuba twice and the cars there certainly stand out. These are great pictures! Thanks for posting. Mark Doble

    1. Thanks for your response, Mark. Good to hear from you!

  2. Wow! Your blog is really interesting. Perhaps one day I should visit Cuba to experience myself those huge American cars of the 1950's. Never seen one in real life. Thank you.