Hacker Island: Preserving Cuba’s Classic Cars – Hackaday

Posted: Monday, February 15, 2016

The spirit of hacking takes many forms. We cobble things together to make our lives easier, to prove that a drawing-board theory will work, or just to have fun and explore. For the people of Cuba, hacking is a necessity. This is especially true when it comes to getting around. Transportation has been a big problem for decades, especially in the major cities. But the resourcefulness of Cuba’s citizens has fueled a revolution of creativity that has sparked imaginations and kept people moving.

It is believed that Cuba has the world’s largest collection of classic American cars. There are approximately 60,000 of them on the road nationwide in various states of repair. Some are kept in pristine condition by card-carrying automobile club members who baby them and keep them as close to stock as possible. But most of these cars see daily use as cheap public taxis. They are not for-hire cabs that can be easily hailed from the sidewalk, though. They are designed to maximize utility and carry as many passengers as possible along fixed routes. Taking one of these taxis is expensive, but the alternative is waiting hours in the hot sun for an overcrowded bus.

Cuba’s Car Culture

From the dawn of the automobile until the Great Depression, export sales to Cuba were consistently high. Year after year, the island was one of Detroit’s largest markets. Sales came mostly from the middle and upper class citizens who were benefiting from the sugar cane industry. After WWII, Cuba experienced a widespread economic boom. The country’s middle class expanded as a result, and this population was eager to buy American things, especially cars.

Hanging out. Image source: David Alan Harvey
Hanging out. Image source: David Alan Harvey

Cuba has had a long-standing love affair with American culture, especially the cars. Cars here are precious heirlooms that are passed down from father to son to grandson. With each one comes the mechanical savvy required to keep it going. The car culture is deeply ingrained into Cuba’s society and revolves around the finest steel ever put out by Detroit — the huge, hulking, curvaceous machines of the 1940s and 50s that were as indestructible as they were beautiful.

Communism-based tensions and a string of unrealized trades between the two countries led to the United States embargo against Cuba. This mandate effectively shut down all consumer exports from the US to Cuba except for certain foods and medicines. Within a year, no new American cars were coming in to the island, at least not through legitimate channels.

After seizing power in 1959, Fidel Castro encouraged the people of Cuba to be self-sufficient and to re-use and re-purpose. These abilities became especially important during Cuba’s Special Period in Time of Peace, which refers to the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. About 80% of both its imports and exports dried up during this time, leaving the economy in shambles and the people of Cuba to do without many of the goods they had become accustomed to having.

People made oil lamps from glass food jars and TV antennas from metal food trays. Clothes dryer motors were re-purposed en masse to run other things like key-cutting machines. To help solve the transportation issue, people converted bicycles into motorcycles. These bikes known as rikimbili typically use small motors and have gas tanks made from plastic soda bottles.

A converted bicycle. Image source: Ernesto Oroza
A converted bicycle. Image source: Ernesto Oroza

Keeping Them On the Road

So how is it possible that there are so many cars still tooling around Cuba that are 55, 60, even 70 years old? There are a couple of reasons. Beginning in the 1960s, the island was flooded with boxy diesel cars from Europe and the Eastern Bloc. This influx of cars provided enough parts that it became possible to convert the larger and more spacious Detroit models to diesel. This is typical of the Fords, Cadillacs, and Chevrolets that have seen decades of daily use as privately-owned public taxis.

Roadside repairs are a fact of life. Image source: The Detroit Bureau
Roadside repairs are a fact of life. Image source: The Detroit Bureau

Although the Cubans by and large prefer the American cars, gasoline is expensive enough that there’s a black market for it. Even on the black market, it’s still not cheap. Many owners don’t want to convert their cars to diesel because doing so wears out the transmission and drive train. They’ve taken measures to make gasoline go farther by making the engine more efficient.

They will also bypass or remove the stock gas tank and rig up a small plastic jug that sits right under the hood, making it easy to manage fuel consumption on a microscopic scale. They scavenge and adapt parts from Russian and European cars wherever possible to keep the American cars going as long as possible.

The mechanical ingenuity of Cuba’s mechanics goes a lot farther than Frankensteining different car models together. They can’t get replacement parts or even basic maintenance items like brake fluid, so they make their own from a mixture of shampoo, oil, and dish detergent. These mechanics make do by re-purposing household items into car parts, like turning enema hoses into fuel lines. There is at least one garage where replacement wraparound windshields are made using wooden molds made in someone’s backyard.

Cuba’s salty air is a big problem for all the chrome on these beauties. Some garages specialize in making new chrome parts by hand that are faithful to the originals like trim, tailpipes, and grilles. The general condition of the roads in Cuba does’nt help the situation. Some roads are cobblestone, and others are just a path in the dirt. Even where there are paved roads, they are often riddled with potholes.

Driving the Future of Cuba’s Classic Cars

How much longer can these cars possibly go? This question is as interesting for US and Cuban car collectors as it is for the citizens who rely on them day after day. A group called TailLight Diplomacy is determined to see them last as long as possible. They want to promote Cuba’s classic cars as a cultural icon. In order to maximize their lifespan and value, the group wants to send shipping containers full of parts and repair manuals to help restore the cars to international classic car standards.

Although the trade embargo is still in place, diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba are beginning to defrost. The cars have already lasted this long. If enough parts and manuals can get to Cuba in the foreseeable future, they might be able to go another 50 years.

Main image via Boston University.


Schweid, Richard. Che’s Chevrolet, Fidel’s Oldsmobile: On the Road in Cuba. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Print.


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