Oliver Francis

Thoughts from the spaces in between

The cars of Cuba

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Cuba, especially Havana, wouldn’t be the same without its old American cars. When I visited in June this year I had expected just a few of these Yank Tanks to be knocking about, but in fact they’re everywhere. By my very crude reckoning, as many as one in four of Cuban cars on the road could date from before the revolution.

I’m not normally someone to get excited about a metal box on wheels, but there is something beguiling about these old beasts. Of all the ages of motoring to be frozen in time by geopolitics, this is surely the one you would pick, with its aggressive grilles, fat wheel arches and sleek tailfins.

But perhaps I really love these cars because they’re the cars of Philip Marlowe and LA Confidential, of Sal Paradise and Jim Stark, of Scottie Ferguson and Marion Crane – and of course of Our Man in Havana.

In that last clip linked above you can see the Malecon, the little-changed Havana esplanade where the gas guzzlers still cruise up and down. Mostly they’re shells now: underneath those American hoods are Soviet diesel engines and parts that are as likely to have been cannibalised from a tractor as from a Chevrolet. Whilst some are shiny status symbols passed down the generations, most are working vehicles, everyday run-arounds.

Of course they’re noisy, unreliable, unsafe and a lot of their owners would probably prefer a Ford Focus. But I hope when the embargo eventually comes down they won’t all be sold off to rich American collectors.

There are some more of my photos of Cuba over on Flickr.

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