An urban planner from Philadelphia says Cuban owners of antique autos would represent a good market for U.S. spare parts if U.S. firms were free to do business with Cuba.
PASSING THE PAST: A 1932 Chevrolet encounters a horse-drawn carriage in Camaguey, Cuba. LARRY LUXNER/FOR THE HERALD
HAVANA - Barely a travel article about Cuba is published without a mention of the vintage 1950s Chevrolets, Fords, Plymouths and Buicks that add so much color and tourist appeal to the island.
But few Americans have thought of the old gas-guzzlers as a business opportunity.
Rick Shnitzler, founder of TailLight Diplomacy (TLD), says Cuban owners of antique autos would represent a good market for U.S. spare parts, both originals and reproductions, if U.S. firms were free to do business with Cuba.
For now, however, the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba remains and all Shnitzler can do is dream, and occasionally help out his like-minded counterparts in Havana.
‘‘Recently, we were able to deliver copies of original factory-issued sales brochures which will enable Cuba to restore its oldest car, a 1905 Cadillac Model F Touring, to factory specifications,’’ he said.
Since its formation in 2000, the nonprofit TLD has pushed hard for lifting of the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba,
‘‘TLD seeks to create the conditions for Americans to meet their Cuban peers face-to-face,’’ a fact sheet about the organization says. “TLD advocates that Cubans conserve and maintain their existing fleet of pre-1960s American cars, trucks and motorcycles, and that Americans join with Cubans to restore this . . . patrimony as an economic asset and Cuba’s contribution to worldwide 20th century culture.’‘
Except for a handful of newer automobiles belonging to diplomats, no American cars have been shipped to Cuba since 1960, when the Eisenhower administration imposed a ban on all U.S. exports to the island following Fidel Castro’s rise to power.
Shnitzler, a 60-year-old urban planner from Philadelphia who visited Cuba twice before the 1959 revolution and once in 2000, said his organization has sent letters to at least 70 members of Congress in hopes of making it easier for U.S. antique-auto enthusiasts to visit the island before too many of their dream cars disappear.
He said that Cuba’s Ministry of Interior reported in 2003 that 31,760 pre-1959 American passenger cars were registered, down sharply from the 37,680 vintage cars registered in 2001. The total of passengers cars was about 192,000, he said.
About half of the old American vehicles on Cuba’s streets are from the 1950s, with Chevrolets more numerous than any other make. Another 25 percent are from the 1940s, with the remainder from the 1930s.
Shnitzler figures about 75 percent of the American antiques are worth restoring, and figures there’s also a significant number of antique trucks and motorcycles.
Using 2004 retail prices, Shnitzler calculates Cuba’s market for U.S. restoration parts at $47 million to $81 million.
‘‘That’s a substantial opportunity,’’ said Jim Spoonhower, vice president of market research at the California-based Specialty Equipment Market Association, whose members include manufacturers, wholesalers and installers of auto parts.
‘‘But a lot will depend on the level of restoration the owner wants to do. If the cars have been pampered, but in maintaining them they’ve had to custom-fabricate or take parts from other vehicles, then replacing those with real reproductions or original equipment could involve substantial expense,’’ he added.
‘‘some of the original molds have been bought by restoration companies and they’ll make the equivalent of a restoration part. You can also get original parts from salvage yards, but probably the larger percentage would come from current-day reproductions,’’ Spoonhower said.
Doug Drake, president emeritus of the 63,000-member Antique Automobile Club of America, says TLD’s goals are admirable. Cuban antique-car owners “have done a great job of improvising and making their own parts, but they need spare parts.’‘
Eduardo Mesejo, director of the government-run Automobile Warehouse in Old Havana and the island’s official vintage car expert, said the prevalence of old American cars in Cuba was natural.
‘‘Our economic conditions favored trade with the United States. It was cheaper to import cars from the U.S. than from Europe,’’ Mesejo said.
Mesejo also criticized a government program in the 1990s that encouraged Cubans to trade in their antique cars in exchange for a new Soviet-built Lada. The program, known as Classic Cars, was administered by state agency Cubalse, which sold some of the antiques abroad.
‘‘That program was a mistake because it bled our national patrimony,’’ Mesejo said. “Many important cars left Cuba and were taken to many countries including the United States and Puerto Rico.’‘
Mesejo, a mechanical engineer, has been in charge since 1996 of the Automobile Deposit, an Old Havana museum where some 40,000 tourists a year pay $1 each to see 34 gems of Cuba’s antique fleet.
They include a 1930 Cadillac V-16, a 1956 Mercedes-Benz, a 1924 Packard sedan, a 1926 Willys Overland Whippet Model 96 touring car, a 1980 Daimler limousine donated by the British Embassy and a 1926 Rolls-Royce.