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HavanaJournal.com: Cuba Culture

Cuba is a museum of antique American cars

Posted June 21, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Culture.
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Miami Herald

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.

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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.

Member Comments

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On June 22, 2004, publisher wrote:

What a great article.

Will Cuba be able to prevent these classics from leaving the country once US-Cuba relations are normalized?

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On June 22, 2004, SonguaCassal wrote:

When it comes to the vintage cars in Cuba, I hope people have an understanding that for the most part these are cabs: especially in dumpier parts like La Habana Vieja. That’ why the license plate is yellow.

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On August 06, 2004, Raymond Cannon wrote:

Is it possible to communicate via e-mail with someone in the Classic Car Club in Cuba?

Please advise.

Thank you and regards,

Ray

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On September 03, 2004, Patrick wrote:

Last year on NPR I heard a report on man who went to Cuba with duffel bag of gaskets and spare parts and worked his way around the city with these parts.What about motorcycle parts?I own a 1960 Harley and have a garage full of spare parts as I have upgraded my bike to more modern specs.I have always day-dreamed about going to Cuba with a suitcase full of old parts and rebuild kits,gasket kits,etc and trade these for transportation,housing and food.Let me know if anyone has done this or attempted it,thanks,Patrick

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On September 24, 2004, eric wrote:

you should produce a magasine all about these cars next to hot rod or trucks it would definatly sell or a tv show.You dont hear anything about cuban enginearing.Once in a while mabe you see some cubans convert a truck into a submarine to get to florda but thats it.

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On November 30, 2004, Glen Bibby wrote:

Why can’t parts be sent to Cuba from Canada, course politically it’ no problem, but has anyone actually thought of that? A lot of Cucharros are actually of Canadian manufacture anyway, the 1959 6 cylinder Powerglide Pontiac Parisienne that Fidel did his victory cruise in is a perfect example. A Bonneville lookalike with a Chev Chassis and drive train. Most of GM, Chrysler, and Ford export models, worldwide, especially 55-68, were sourced from Canada. It was easier for the smaller prodution runs that could have such on line mods as Kilometre speedos, right hand drive, that would have disrupted the cookie cutter US line with a much bigger market that needed no deviations to fulfill quota.Also the smaller engines normally ordered by frugal Canadians made more sense in other countries who never had 25 cent gallons.

 

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On February 14, 2005, pjernigan wrote:

I am considering persuing a doucmentary on the connection between Cuba, its cars, the American manufacturing, and the people who keep them running today. I have researched the literary end of things, but was wondering if anyone has ideas on the film-side - contacts, previous documentaries, interested parties, etc. As far as I know, an in-depth look has not been covered for film. Thanks - please respond here or to: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  [preferred].

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On July 18, 2007, lsr wrote:

Hi, Anybody have any experience in exporting cars from Cuba (to Europe)??? Any info would be great, thanx grin
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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On July 18, 2007, publisher wrote:

I have not heard of anyone exporting cars and I’m not sure you would want to. Most of the old cars are all beat but there are some nice cars.

All cars are property of the Cuban government so you would need to work out a deal with the Cuban government that I can guarantee would never happen.

If you like Cuban cars, visit our photo gallery of Cuban cars at http://havanajournal.com/gallery/category/C3/

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On July 18, 2007, lsr wrote:

Hi Publisher

Thanx, buy you get me all puzzled here; I hear that the older cars are all privately owned and change hands freely (well, at least among the locals); never heard of the classics being government owned?
Working on this for a client who wish to pursue this commercially, and yes, we do know that most of these cars are pretty tired grin)

Thx

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On July 18, 2007, publisher wrote:

Everything is owned or controlled by the Cuban government. Individuals may have usage rights of the cars they drive but I am not sure they “own” them in the sense that they can sell them, especially to a foreigner and most likely not for export.

They can probably issue ownership to another Cuban citizen in good standing with the government but an actual sale? I’m not sure that is allowed.

Expect a MOUNTAIN of paperwork, bureaucratic delays and many NOs along the way.

I seriously doubt that it would be worthwhile for you to pursue but go to Cuba and start asking around and see what kind of answers you get and keep us posted.

Good luck.

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On July 18, 2007, lsr wrote:

Phew, thanks, not sure what I am getting myself involved in here grin Will dig into this and post any news ...

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On July 18, 2007, publisher wrote:

I would suggest doing some research and writing up a business plan then putting it away until the days of a post Castro post Embargo Cuba arrive.

You say you want to export the cars to Europe. Talk with a local politician who can get you in touch with your embassy in Cuba and then ask them and see what they say.

If you are American, you can’t do any business with Cuba.

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On July 18, 2007, lsr wrote:

You are probably right; everything will be a lot easier sometime in the future ...
Thanks for feedback - and no; I am not american; makes it slightly easier grin

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On October 02, 2007, Jonathan wrote:

Your article makes it sound like cuba is a warehouse for the usa. I don’t think of it like, I think the Cubans need american parts. I also beleive, even post castro, the cubans won’t trade with americans.

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On January 10, 2008, C Clark wrote:

I have connections with a car club in Canada and am heading to Cuba with a group. I’m interested in getting in contact with someone in Havana who could set up a little car show for me in exchange for bringing over some parts.. curious as to what parts would be in highest demand also… Anyone got a # for a club in Havana?

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On January 11, 2008, James August wrote:

Bring Bondo and lots of it     grin

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On March 29, 2008, andy wrote:

i have a buisness plan, and know my way around many of the obstacles. intend to get the car bodies into the U.S. via a secret loophole i discovered. totally legal. looking for investors.  interested parties contact me. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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On March 29, 2008, publisher wrote:

Getting them OUT of Cuba might be more of a challenge than getting them into the US.

I doubt you can just drive them into a container and load the container on a ship without the Cuban government knowing about it.

I’m not sure they are crazy about exporting their heritage.

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On March 30, 2008, bb wrote:

I knew a machinist from Cuba, we called him Henry. The only way he was able to have a car there at all was because he could make the parts he needed, and trade those parts for the ones he couldn’t make. As it was, his “chevy” was a hodgepoge of many cars of many different years and companies, as well as more than a few russian and czech parts. In other words, it was a piece of shit. The climate of Cuba is wretched for cars; muddy unpaved roads, damp salt air, torrential rain and blistering heat. The only reason they have “Yank Tanks” there is because it takes a lot for three tons of iron to rust away completely. Eastern Bloc (think Yugo, Trabant) cars have not fared so well.

Henry was very proud of his car: It was and is a remarkable achievement to keep anything running under such conditions. It was a real source of pride and status for him.

There are plenty of cheap, not rusty classic cars in the southern and western US. But I do think we could sell a lotta parts to Cuba… G.W., you listenin?....(echo.)

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On March 31, 2008, publisher wrote:

Interesting business model but I would think the Cubans would gladly drive a new car if they had the money.

Those old wrecks will be off the island within one year of a post-Castro post-Embargo Cuba.

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On January 30, 2009, Lucien Lenoire wrote:

I was in Cuba over New Years to celebrate the 50th Anniversary (not mine, the Revolutions)  I asked the driver of a 1958 Chev Impala Convertible (red, of course) if he would be interested in selling his car.  he qwuoted me a price of $2500 USD for the car.  I understand from the discussion here htat the Cuban gov’t, which I support, wouls not let ANY of these autos out of the country.  I can’t say I can blame them; these cars are unique.

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On February 02, 2009, Malo wrote:

Welcome to Fidel’s used car lot.

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On February 26, 2009, publisher wrote:

Sorry, user banned for comment spam.

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On April 09, 2009, Mr Lacarrera wrote:

What is the biggest car club in Habana?  Is there any grass roots racing/rallying going on?

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On October 16, 2009, carlos wrote:

Are there Yugo cars from the old Yugoslavia in Cuba?

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On November 07, 2009, my name is FRANK KONTOS wrote:

YOU have the cream of the crop in your hands all those antique cars paint faded but still running great . When my dad was 27 years old he had a 1957 chevy belair 2 door hard top. that was his pot of gold . He treasured that car with a passion .But one day that passion ended with a big bang . the car was totaled and was left in the u.s at a scrap yard .Wat’s the old saying when you loose something special it/s hard to get the same thing back again .My dad and i are mechanics in the auto industry .If it would ever be possible to find out all the details on what steps and the big question what would be the price. i know it would be a long shot .but hay wat/s the harm in trying Thank you for your time FRANK KONTOS

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On February 07, 2010, NORTHERN wrote:

I have travelled to Cuba several times over the last few years and tales of the classic cars are true.There are lots of them around and not just American but British Consuls, Anglias, Heralds, Land Rovers(and the strangest MGA I have ever seen) and European Mercedes, VWs etc as well. The Cuban people keep them on the road with whatever they can. I saw a Hudson with four wheel disc brakes in Matanzas! However, it seems the old cars are fewer in number than a couple of years ago. in Havana there are scores of Ladas, Geelys and Skodas(badge engineered VWs) starting to replace the old stuff. Incidentally, the yellow plates are personally owned vehicles and are commonly seen on the classic cars, some of which are kept in outstanding condition by their owners. Many classics are in use as Taxis and they sport a blue licence plate.These classics all have a logo on the door and are government owned.
My understanding is that a private individual must sell the car to the government if it is to be exported. Colin Crabbe from the UK did this successfully in the 80’s to get out a couple of XKSS’s and some other interesting stuff. However, a lot still remains and they are not as bad some would have you believe. Cuba was the largest export market for Cadillacs in the 1950s and it shows. They are still everywhere. I saw two convertible 59’ Cadillacs being used as cabs in Veredero two weeks ago. They are a little beat up, but they are solid, complete, seem fairly original and are running and driving. I am certain even a basket case of this model is worth a few bucks if you could find one.
They would certainly welcome spare parts but there are couple of drawbacks. A Cuban friend of mine with a decent job there makes about 160 pescos /8 CUC or apprx.$8.US a month. That is not going to buy much. if you ship it to Cuba there will be additional fees/ taxes and it may never make it. If you bring stuff in your luggage that is OK but you will have to pay duty, usually not much, and this seems to be a popular way of doing it.
At present Americans can only seem to travel there for business or to visit family but there are plenty of Europeans and Canadians that the Cubans have contact with for parts.
I haven’t seen any recent domestic American cars there other than Jeeps but there are a lot of current American trucks like pick-ups, school buses and semi’s.

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On July 20, 2011, Lee (from England) wrote:

Just got back from Cuba last week, fantastic cars there, saw lots of American classics, mainly Chevrolets, Buicks, Fords etc also many 1950s English Fords, some Hillmans, Triumph Heralds, mk1 Victor, Jaguar and saw 2 100E estates (station wagons) and a MK1 Consul estate now very rare in the UK, and many 100E Ford Prefects & Anglias all converted to Lada or Skoda power mainly pre 57 smaller rear window models. saw the two 1959 Cadillacs in Varadero mentioned in previous post and also a 59 Cadillac limo, many cars are rough but there are also some immaculate looking cars, saw some fine 55 & 57 Chevrolets, and some really nice Dodge Royal Lancers & Coronets.
This is the place to go for a car show and a vacation all rolled into one, awesome.

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On July 20, 2011, publisher wrote:

Not sure why I feel like saying this but poverty is preservation’s friend.

Cubans have paid for the maintenance of those cars with their freedom.

I hope you enjoyed the show.