As more and more Americans plan trips to Cuba, it’s a fair bet many are imagining a country frozen in time by a five-decade embargo. And nothing embodies this perception as much as the image of a 1950s Chevrolet—or Buick, or Dodge—held together by the ingenuity of a Havana mechanic and bits of string. It’s a visual cliché, much beloved of photo editors and holiday-makers, and many Americans believe all cars in Cuba are delightful old jalopies.
And not just Americans: I was born and raised in India, and when I first visited Havana in 2009, I expected the streets to be crawling with these ancient automobiles.
But most of the taxis at the airport were modern—if cheap—Korean, Japanese and European cars. As were most of the vehicles I saw on the road to my hotel. We did pass the occasional rust-bucket, but it wasn’t until we were in the heart of the city that the old hot-pink Studebakers made an appearance. (There were also a few cars from the Soviet era, but where’s the romance in a Lada?)
Over the course of the week, it became clear that my first impressions were accurate: the jalopies were hugely outnumbered by more modern cars. When I rented a car to drive into the countryside, I was disappointed that the options didn’t include any antiques. I could choose between a Hyundai Atos… and another Hyundai Atos.
You can, as I did, take a ride down the Malecón in an old Chevrolet, but this felt like a horse-buggy ride through New York’s Central Park—purely for the tourists.
The numbers bear this out. There are an estimated 60,000 “classic” cars in Cuba (and no telling how many are in working order), less than a tenth of the overall total of 650,000 cars. Over half of all cars on the island are owned by the state. These range from small Peugeots to luxury Audis, and everything in between.
Earlier this year, the government eased restrictions on citizens owning cars. But the taxes imposed on new cars are so onerous that a Kia Rio hatchback that would cost $13,600 in the US costs $42,000 in Havana. Most Cubans make $20 a month. Unsurprisingly, there have been few takers.
This means many of those ancient heaps will continue to chug along Cuba’s streets and highways for a few more years, until they give up the ghost. And for the visitor, the cars they’re most likely to encounter will probably look like this: