Goodwood, Villa d’Este and Pebble Beach may offer the pinnacle of classic car perfection…but Havana plays host to a classic car display every day – albeit on its streets.
Sailing into the port of Havana, the view of the Malecon (the city’s famous ocean-side esplanade) resembles the backdrop of a 1950s film full of pastel-hued Cadillacs, Chevrolets and Fords with their distinctive curvaceous bodies and that essential styling cue the fin (which is celebrating a lesser-known 70th anniversary this year).
There are an estimated 60,000 cars of American origin on the island – relics from the pre-revolution 1950s when Cuba was a Las Vegas-style playground for the US and one of the leading countries in the world for car ownership.
Now, there are only 38 cars for every 1000 Cubans, largely due to the import ban following the US trade embargo imposed over the last 50-odd years. The embargo also extended to spare parts - which makes the ubiquity of these ‘Yank Tanks’ all the more remarkable, particularly as those cruising the city’s tourist spots seem to be (at first glance) in good condition, with gleaming chrome and hubcaps and pristine bodywork.
On closer inspection, it’s a different story: many of these cars would be spurned by a collector as they are hardly original but rather "hybrids" or even Frankensteins maintained with borrowed parts from the Soviet-era cars and a lot of ingenuity by their owners – the clatter of a diesel engine rather than the roar of a V8 under the hump of a bonnet being the biggest giveaway.
However, the owners of the best examples of these "Almendrones" have spent many hours and dollars (or Cuban pesos) on restoring their Buicks and Chryslers and are finally getting some return (and recognition) by providing a public taxi service for tourists and seem to be delighted to share their pride and joys with an appreciative audience.
There are also several dedicated city tours which provide many a photo or selfie opportunity at Havana’s highlights with or without a restorative mojito. Having travelled with Holland America I was deemed to be a US citizen and so was restricted to taking the cruise line’s designated shore excursion, rather than booking another city option.
Dedicated to the cause, we rose at 6 am for 7 am start. Slightly disappointingly we weren’t met by our cars on the quayside but a brand new (Chinese-built) coach which took us to our meeting point where our rides were lined up for us – an ice cream coloured parade of the finest Americana.
I was in the passenger seat of a 1956 bubble gum pink Chevrolet Sedan, complete with white wall tyres, for the two-hour drive which took in the Plaza de la Revolucion (with obligatory photo call), Avenida Quinta or ‘Embassy Row’ in the upmarket suburb of the Miramar, and of course, the Malecon, part of the short-lived 1950s Cuban Grand Prix street race, a true bucket list moment.
It was two-hours in Petrolhead Heaven even though my driver’s English was as good as my Spanish… the cherry on the cake would have been a ride in a convertible - note to self for the return visit and to take Spanish lessons!
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