Running With the Buicks in Havana - A story of two Henry J.s
By Al Gowan
During my visits to Cuba, I’ve enjoyed American cars from the fifties- a “Chevvy” speeding along Havana’s Malecón, or a post war ‘48 Buick, with its predatory grille, panting in the shade of a side street. One visitor claims there are 60,000 vintage American cars in Cuba, one for every 190 Cubans. But many are in storage being harvested for parts. A privately owned car, plated as a particular, is the largest asset a Cuban is likely to own. The humid, salt-spray climate is tough on them. Except for the occasional Russian Lada, half of the cars you see on the road tend to be big pre 1959 Detroit models, patched together and often converted to diesel. Out of necessity, Cubans have become the world’s most inventive car mechanics, working wherever the car stopped.
So, during my last visit to Cuba in 2007, I realized the oddly familiar car I saw hustle away like a red cockroach was a 1953 Henry J. My jaw dropped. I did not expect to see the Yugo of American cars running with the Buicks in Havana some sixty years later.
1953 Henry J refurbished with Russian Lada parts
Our family had one of the first Henry Js., a 1951 Standard, much like the Allstate shown in this article. You could have any color as long as it was maroon. Our “J” had a futuristic plastic hood ornament, very little chrome, no side vent windows, no trunk lid, no passenger-side mirror, no dome light, no glove compartment, no arm rests and very little insulation despite a noisy, 4 cylinder engine. It barely held our family of four for a weekend trip. Our previous car was a ‘48 Buick 4-door that Dad drove with a heavy foot, passing everything on our then single-lane highways.
A 1953 Henry J Allstate sold by Sears
But the day Dad showed off our new Henry J. he was beaming. My little brother climbed into the backseat, pulled the thin, seatback forward and wedged himself beside the spare tire. I wondered how we’d get that tire out, and how we’d wrestle a punctured one back into the rear. Mom stood with her arms crossed as Dad flipped up the hood. Look, this baby has the same engine as the jeep. And Henry J. Kaiser was a ship builder, like my dad. How could we go wrong, he told my skeptical mother―for just thirteen hundred bucks. The same car would soon sell at Sears as the Allstate. When she heard that, mom softened. She believed in Sears products. They lasted for years.
Dad drove our J. like a Buick, and the little engine that helped President Eisenhower win the war threw a rod. My chastened father had the motor repaired, then had my brother hide in the trunk to brace the rattling seat-back during a test drive on a trade-in. Dad came home this time with a used ‘51 Chevy Bel Aire with Power Glide.
Yet the Henry J. had been a noble idea. Kaiser got a 44 million dollar government loan to produce a “People’s Car.” Once Kaiser realized Hitler’s Volkswagen means “people’s car” in German, he named the new car after himself. By 1952, and until it’s demise in 1954, Henry Js came with items our Spartan version lacked, including trunk lid, glove compartment, dome light, and a black alligator vinyl interior. I was surprised to learn recently that Bill Clinton’s first car was a Henry J. Cuban Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball of I Love Lucy endorsed the car and as a consequence, had one themselves. But a young Frank Zappa didn’t like his family J. any more than I did ours.
The red car that caught my eye in Havana has been restored to a modern version of what a Henry J. might be today by Mario Firvida with parts from a Russian Lada: an engine, 5 speed stick transmission, new differential, brakes, alternator, regulator and battery. The bodywork is mas o menos, a version of the 1952 original. Firvida, who works for a Cuban textile firm, bought the car a few years ago, because it has a certain degree of style, but because it runs.
Original 1952 Henry J car - Toothless but still running in Havana Cuba
My Cuban friends César Leal Jimenez and his wife Maritza located an apple green 1952 Henry J. in the Havana neighborhood of Lawton. Surprisingly, the engine had never been converted to diesel. Owner Caridad, seen in the driver’s seat, bought the car from Vivian Mercedes Rodríguez, who inherited it from her father José Rodríguez Álvarez. José never let his wife drive his prized possession. But at age 74 she still keeps the papers for the car which has been handed down like a family jewel. Before José the family J. was owned by brother Aquilino Rodríguez Álvarez, and before him, by the original owner, brother Jesús Rodríguez Álvarez. Both Aquilino and Jésus went to Puerto Rico. Jésus bought the Henry J. new in 1952 from the American Car Agency in Cuba where his wife Irma worked.
César is an artist, not a mechanic, and like 95% of Cubans, does not have permission to own a car even if he could afford one. That privilege goes to high level government workers, diplomats, and selected doctors and professors.
Although housing, utilities, education and medical care are virtually free, most Cubans must supplement their $25 a month income, and food rations. To make engine parts, small machine shops provide a good livelihood. Some shops repair batteries, others tires. Researcher-historian Maritza interviewed mechanics and discovered some of their trade secrets. To patch up rust and damaged body work, they make body putty from anti-rust enamel mixed with industrial talc, a kind of Cuban Bondo. For sealing windshields and glass, a rubbery substance is made from linseed oil and “Spanish powder”. Seats and interiors are repaired and covered with black vinyl. Maritza’s husband César tells me with a wink that the metal parts come from “old trains, airplanes, and perhaps from artefactos no identificados”, UFO’s.
License plate colors are a clue to the vehicle’s ownership. A yellow plate with CUBA or PARTICULAR at the top is privately owned, and has most likely been passed down or sold to a family member who owned it in 1959, when Fidel declared that people with cars could keep them. A black plate indicates a diplomat’s car or in some cases, official use.
A blue plate is a government owned car, including state owned taxis.
With a particular in running condition, a Cuban can earn $50 a day as a taxi, despite paying upwards of $8 a gallon for gasoline. So it is not surprising that few American cars, based mostly in Havana and Santiago de Cuba, have few original accessories and mechanical parts. These cars are not museum pieces, rolled out a couple of times a year as they are in the states. Like Cuba itself, they must continue to run, whether they are big Buicks or modest little Henry Js.
Photos by author and by César and Maritza Leal
Al Gowan lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a result of his visits to Cuba, he has published a novel, SANTIAGO RAG, set in 1898, and an article for PRINT magazine on design in Cuba 25 years after the revolution: Our Man in Havana. His books can be found and browsed at Amazon.com