Why you should care

Because these classic cars have evolved into a fascinating mix of the old and the new.

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Forget the sun, beaches and mojitos — when Karl Anderson traveled to Cuba recently, he joined more than a dozen car enthusiasts as they explored the island’s rumbling auto scene. A board member of America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, Washington, Anderson often found himself chugging along in old-school Fords, Chevys and Buicks that dated back to the 1940s and an era before the U.S. embargo took hold, plus a few newer Russian cars — evidence of the Soviet influence in Cuba. But nearly all of the vehicles, Anderson says, were “junkers” that had morphed over the years into a new species, some sporting rusted bodies, shot springs or cracked windshields. “Without a doubt, most of these cars wouldn’t meet the minimum requirements for a license in the U.S.,” Anderson notes.

That old saying “It’s not where you’re going, it’s how you get there” takes on new meaning in Cuba. For car owners on this island of more than 11 million inhabitants, getting there can require persistence, and creativity. Traverse Cuba’s cracked streets and you may come across varieties like a ’50s Dodge with a front bumper from a Cadillac and a too-small rear bumper from a Fiat, or a Cadillac with a modern Peugeot diesel engine replacing the original, says TV personality and Gears, Grins & Gasoline author Lance Lambert. Some drivers have even swapped out an old engine for one from a tractor or a boat. “It’s the Galápagos Islands for classic cars,” says Jonathan Klinger, spokesman for Traverse City, Michigan–based Hagerty Insurance, which insures collectible cars.

Yet the lack of available auto parts here hasn’t put the brakes on the ingenuity of passionate car owners. The glue that sometimes helps keep these automobiles together is derived from a popular Cuban yogurt — not necessarily for its taste but for its packaging. When the plastic containers are melted, Anderson explains, they form a substance ideal for repairing dents and holes.

A License to Thrill

Like Cuban cars, license plates here have also undergone a transformation.

Early aughts: Plates came in various colors to denote vehicles owned by the government (white), the state (blue) or an individual (yellow), while the first letter of each plate identified its issuing province.

2013: Plates were redesigned as very long, narrow white rectangles. The word “Cuba” is displayed vertically on the left side, and a black letter placed before a set of numerals identifies whether a car is owned personally (P), by the military (M) or by a diplomat (D).

More recently: The redesign not only forced auto owners to drill additional holes into their cars to accommodate the new, oddly shaped plates but also created a demand for older versions of Cuban plates. Retired plates, now being sold in Cuba for about $10 apiece, are fetching upward of $150 as collectors’ items, Anderson says.

While safety features like air bags and seat belts are often faulty or nonexistent, Cuba’s cars continue to remain objects of admiration among residents and tourists alike. “There’s this great sense of pride that comes with owning a car, since such a small number of Cubans can afford one,” Anderson says. In part that’s because these autos help make up the collective cabs of Cuba. Although some cabs are government-run, private cars known as máquinas are also welcomed into the mix, bringing in up to $200 a week in tips, compared with state salaries just shy of $20 a month.

Sure, these authentic cars might leave foreign visitors holding on tightly as they take the ride of their lives from one destination to the next. But they also promise to leave a lasting impression about the way Cuban life has unfolded in recent decades. As Klinger says, “These cars represent a story far greater than the vehicle itself.”

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