Whole Lada Love

January 24, 2018
Cuba Afrin Syria Chevy Bel Air Travel

The first thing that struck me about Cuba (other than the fact that their female airport security uniforms were above-the-knee skirts and fish nets) was the number of old US cars on the road. I knew it was a thing to preserve pre 1959 American cars after the revolution, but I assumed that it had to be a dying breed that while easy to spot, was largely superseded by newer models by 2018. But the fact is that roughly a third or more of the cars I saw on the road were pre-revolution US models, at least in chassis. The fact that even the body still exists is shocking: these are not show cars owned by rich people; by definition these half century old cars have been ridden hard and put away wet (Cuba’s pretty tropical). In terms of moving parts I didn’t get a chance to see under the hood unfortunately - I suspect many have newer engines - but in Havana a surprising number of them are wearing recent-to-new looking paint jobs that often mimic the original two tone color schemes of the ‘50s (color on the body with white highlights on the roof, fins, and trunk).

What’s somewhat more surprising is that a lot of these rides sport stickers proclaiming the driver’s brand loyalty. Literally there’d be big rear window tags proclaiming ‘Pontiac’ or ‘Chevy’ in the same fashion you see at classic car shows in the US. There was even, and I kid you not, a Cuban knock off of those Calvin stickers (of Calvin and Hobs fame) where Calvin is pissing on an opponent brand name, only Calvin looks like a slightly more swarthy esé (presumably for copyright reasons). I wasn’t particularly expecting the locals to be proud of US model names given the ongoing embargo, but on the other hand I did come away with the impression that US automobiles carried a LOT of cachet to own. I suppose regardless of the politics of the situation, they are irreplaceable and they look really swank. I bet even if the embargo ended, pre-revolution cars would carry a lot of style points that a Chevy Bolt probably wouldn’t convey. It gave me a perverse sense of pride to see so many of them still running.

My personal ride for my trip (taxi arranged via my AirB&B - 5 stars!) was a ‘55 Chevy Bel Air wearing two tone robin’s egg blue and white, in showroom condition. It boasted white leather seats and shiny chrome accessories on the interior; ‘Bel Air’ proudly embossed in gold tone script on the passenger side dash board. It drove me down the airport expressway at the end of the trip, and I can attest that not only did it spend little effort accelerating to 50mph (gauges were still US - suck it metric system!) but it was even quiet doing so. The only part of the car that seemed broken in was the suspension. As a quick aside, it’s worth noting EVERY vehicle in Cuba has suspension problems because of the poor road quality. Roads in Havana have pot holes six inches deep and several feet around (these are endemic puddles in that climate). My long haul taxi collectivo to Trinidad would routinely swerve into oncoming traffic on the highway rather than cross visibly rough patches of road.

The other thing that surprised me (but again, shouldn’t have, given the history): another full third of the island’s automobiles are 1960-1990 vintage Soviet Ladas. I got the distinct impression Ladas didn’t have the same level of panache as their older US counterparts in local Cuban automotive circles, and they certainly weren’t as pretty to look at. But again, many of these were in excellent condition wearing new paint, even though some of them clearly dated as far back as the ‘60s. One of the definitively Cuban moments for me was being driven by my Bel Air to La Guarida (swanky place Jay-Z, Beyonce, and Obama ate at) and then for the return trip flagging down a mid ‘70s looking Lada 1200 (I unfortunately forgot to ask the year). As someone who grew up in the Reagan years assuming they were going to die in WWIII, there’s something amazing about riding around in cars from both sides of the cold war in the same evening nearly three decades after it ended. It really underlined how much this small island of just over ten million has been dragged around by global power politics and how thoroughly it was left for dead after that conflict abruptly ended.