Chevrolets of old Havana
US automobiles from the 1950s cruise Cuban streetsBy John Ryle • January 1996 • City of Words • The Guardian • Expanded • Posted 2016 • 1,064 words
The contrabandista is dressed in white, a string of votive beads beneath his shirt, leaning against the glinting tail-fin of a massive mauve-and-ivory ’55 Chevrolet Bel Air. I’m leaning on it too. Those fins are from the fifties, when cars were cars and fins—in this case—were lilac and long.
All around us the colonial buildings of old Havana—formerly one of the most elegant cities in the Americas, now its most sadly decayed—stand bleeding, their facades dank and peeling, interiors intricately subdivided into cramped apartments and piles of noisome rubble. As fast as UNESCO restores one of these matchless buildings, another collapses. Or implodes.
And the cars. Thousands of them. Strewn along the streets of Havana and other Cuban towns and cities: Buicks, Studebakers, Plymouths, Pontiacs, most of them as ruined as the buildings, their suspension shot to pieces, their windows cracked from side to side. Some, though, even now, are ready to roll, their engines and bodywork lovingly maintained, as though the golden age of the private automobile were still with us. Still others are up on blocks, diligently cannibalised for spare parts. Since the American embargo on Cuba began three and a half decades ago spares have been as unobtainable here as new cars.
Here is a charcoal and aubergine Pontiac Parisienne waiting at a traffic light; ahead of it a sky-blue Studebaker Champion, with its curious circular radiator grille. And here—joy!—is a pink Cadillac, pitching and rolling like a galleon under sail along the Malecón, Havana’s ocean drive. The Cadillac’s tumescent bumpers are gleaming, its burgundy upholstery miraculously intact, as it noses past an even more astonishing vehicle, not US-made but Russian—a stretch Lada the shape of a shoebox, a wonder of Russo-Cuban bricolage.
Nearby, in Havana’s Museum of the Revolution, alongside Che Guevara’s asthma inhaler and his stuffed horse, there is a Pontiac Silver Streak, with a false floor, used to smuggle ammunition during the revolution.
These are cars from the high point of American consumerism, huge, voluptuous, technicolour cars, cars designed for cruising big city streets, for making out at the drive-in, cars from an age of innocent exuberance, before the oil crisis, before anyone cared about the environment, from an era when automobile design, unconstrained by economics or ecology, aspired to the condition of aeronautics. And here they are today, marooned in Cuba, in the midst of the worst economic crisis in the island’s history, with their owners barely able to afford to eat.