“What else is a car?” Many of the cars that used to exist in Cuba, and came from all over the world, disappeared during the “Special Period” (1975-1992), when nearly all Western brands stopped trading with Cuba.
Over time, classic cars (that were not stolen, damaged, stolen, damaged by tourists, or bombed in the failed attempts of the Castro Regime to get rid of the “opposition”) became rare and expensive, or merely rusting.
However, in the last 15 years, vintage cars have come back to Cuba, thanks to the huge sales of rare collectibles in the US and the opening of the US-Cuba market in 2009. This undoubtedly makes for an interesting topic for motoristo readers to pursue closely.
Among the most expensive cars in the US in the last 15 years are “Rolls-Royces” from the 1950s and 60s. These cars are beautiful, but they need to be rebuilt by car mechanics that know how to restore classic cars.
Then, in Cuba, the people who have the know-how have re-emerged and begun to rebuild classic cars for a younger generation of Cuban collectors. They know how to fix rusty engines, deal with broken windows and a whole host of other problems, because they restored classic cars before. They know that only classic cars that have been parked for more than 10 years become rusty, and that during the “Special Period”, at least 90% of Cuban cars disappeared from the roads, left to rot or be stolen.
Some of these new cars are “resurrected” by old Cuban mechanics who know how to fix things and fix old cars that were in the ground.
Other cars are restored by people like José Eliezer “Silente” Jaques, who had his own garage in Havana. Mr. Jaques is the owner of “Paquete’s Garage” in Havana. He can rebuild any car, and many that are less than 10 years old are fixed and restored at his garage.
However, if you ask the owner of Paquete’s Garage what was most important in restoring cars, he will say that it is the feel of the car. Many cars on the streets of Cuba, like many cars in the US, are made for comfort. Some like to be driven, others like to be parked and not driven.
“Most people in Cuba today drive cars that have old radiators that don’t work properly, old engines that will stop working at the first wrong move. When that happens, they don’t have the luxury of fixing the car and driving it. In Cuba, the whole feeling of cars are different. For me, a car is meant to feel like a tree trunk, like you are sliding,” Mr. Jaques says.
He adds that when you drive a classic car in Cuba, you can feel the engine working perfectly, and you can feel the brakes working. He doesn’t want any other car to feel as good as a classic car does.
Cuba’s “resurrected” cars have also brought the elderly people of Havana back to life. At Paquete’s Garage, old men and women who are not used to cars are coming, hanging around and learning how to fix cars. Some have been trying to find and repair old cars for years, but were met with a lot of problems, because of the high prices and the lack of know-how. Now, these people have been able to fix old cars on their own, without having to look for mechanics.
These people were considered “critics” of the Revolution, because they had spent years protesting in the streets of Havana. Some of these protesters were even thrown into jail for their actions. Now, most of these people don’t have any other way to support themselves and so they have moved from protesting in the streets to re-opening old cars.
This movement has led to a new form of preservation of Cuba’s past. As Mr. Jaques says, “When old cars become valuable, the first thing that happens is that people turn them into collector cars. Collectors do not care what condition the cars are in, they care what they look like. For me, preserving the country’s history is very important.”
Mr. Jaques says that this sort of preservation is not only important to him, but it is also important to all Cuban people. “This is the ultimate form of preservation. It helps to keep the country’s history and heritage alive and on the streets of Cuba.”
Mr. Jaques says that during the Special Period, there were about 9,000 cars in Havana, now there are some 25,000 cars and trucks in Havana. The renovation of cars is a part of the modernization of Cuba’s cities and this transformation is happening just like it did during the Special Period.
When looking at a rust-covered car, Mr. Jaques says that people are getting used to seeing old cars on the streets of Havana, and seeing this transformation of the city has been great.
“People complain about the old cars in the streets of Havana, but if you ask them about the cars that are restored in the city and drive like new cars, they say they like it. We know that we can’t change the history of the country, but at least we can restore some of the cars that were left to rot in the streets,” Mr. Jaques says.
He adds that many of the old cars that were abandoned during the Special Period were left because the government said that they would buy them back, if they weren’t in good condition.