Cuba's vintage cars won't join cigars in the U.S.

Angela Greiling Keane
Bloomberg News

Well-heeled Americans eager to check off Cuba on their bucket lists can bring home Cuban cigars, small-batch rum and handicrafts. But if they fancy one of the vintage ’57 Chevys tooling the streets of Havana, that dream may go unrealized.

Thousands of U.S. cars pre-dating the 1960 trade embargo still chug along on Cuba’s ramshackle roads, a half century later. Many of them are points of pride for owners who aren’t eager to sell. Among the many hurdles to acquiring one of those rolling antiques are questions about their real value.

“People call me all the time and say how can we buy one of these?’ ” said Brenda Priddy, an automotive photographer who leads tours to Cuba focused on the country’s cars. “I say, why would you want to do that? It costs so much more to restore a vehicle in Cuba. Why wouldn’t you just restore one here?”

President Barack Obama has made restoring U.S. relations with Cuba a centerpiece of his second-term foreign policy, raising the prospect of greater economic exchanges between the countries, including increased tourism and fewer restrictions on purchases of Cuban products. The vintage U.S. cars in the island’s automotive fleet, though, seem likely to stay put for the foreseeable future.

U.S. trade regulations effectively bar cars from Cuba because most vehicles that would interest collectors were made by Detroit automakers before 1960. Regulations under the embargo allow American travelers to bring back with them items made in Cuba. A spokeswoman for the Cuban embassy in Washington didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Not giving them away

On the island, the cars are both a matter of livelihood and national pride. Cristian Paez, 40, said he has no intention of letting go of his 1956 purple and beige Bel Air convertible, purchased long ago by his grandfather.

“Not possible,” declares the burly 40-year-old, not for any price. “I love driving this car."

Paez gave up his job as a primary school teacher four years ago to drive full-time. On weekdays he arrives with his vehicle at Havana’s palm-lined Parque Central by 8 a.m., ready to hire out to tourists as a driver. Most Sundays, he is at the Hotel Nacional, proudly participating in a weekly procession of antique cars.

Collectors love iconic look

The journey may begin by fiddling under the hood. He putters along the streets at speeds of no more than 20 miles per hour. Despite many costly replacement parts acquired with the help of friends and family abroad, the vehicle shows its age: The steering wheel is worn down to metal at the edges and the driver’s door handle is missing. A strand of orange twine holds the glove compartment shut.

Car collectors in the U.S. especially love the iconic 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, still popular on Cuban streets. In the U.S., a restored Chevy of that vintage sells for $80,000 to $120,000 depending on its quality, said Mark Lizewskie, executive director of the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Slab-sided shoebox Fords from the late 1940s and early 1950s also have a large fan base, as do other cars from the late 1950s.

“You’re looking for something that’s fairly complete, has a good percentage of original parts, something that if it needs restoration isn’t a complete basket case,” he said.

Hard to get needed parts

In Cuba, most cars don’t fit that description. The U.S. embargo banned the export of all American products including cars and parts. Because of their age and the fact that Cubans have kept them running out of necessity, the cars have jerry-rigged modifications. Priddy says she sees snow tires, boat engines under the hood and many gasoline-powered cars that have been converted to run on diesel.

Part of the “unique customs experience” of traveling to Cuba is seeing fellow travelers with car parts jammed into their bags, said Max Horwitz, senior program officer at the Business Council for International Understanding.

“Bringing in car parts is one of the largest requests from anyone in Cuba,” he said. “Having a fantastic car in Cuba is so widely noticed and respected.”

American museums may be interested in obtaining Cuban cars that have been kept running through the decades, Lizewskie said.

“If it was a ’50s Chevy somebody had found in an alley in Chicago or Miami and it had a diesel engine in it, people probably wouldn’t look twice at it,” he said. “But these have a mystique. Something that has a unique ownership history does command a little more money.”

About 60,000 vintage American cars are left in Cuba, according to Toni Rothman, a board member of the Hershey museum who just returned from a car tour to Cuba.