For the bangers of Havana, it's the end of the road

Cuba's rusting, outdated cars are part of the city's tourist appeal. But their days may be numbered

Simon Calder
Friday 30 September 2011 00:00 BST

You step off the plane at Jose Marti international airport outside Havana, and immediately find yourself in a rumbling, rusting automotive museum. The highway into the centre of the Cuban capital comprises a noxious, noisy procession of trucks and cars from either side of the Cold War. The lorries that clog up the carretera are vile Soviet brutes that, you suspect, would survive any nuclear attack.

Growling as they weave between them are the relics of capitalism in its most glorious incarnation: 1950s Detroit. And it is thanks to the US that the monsters of Motown are still providing "transportational solutions" to the citizens of Cuba.

The best way, believes Washington, to "assist the Cuban people in regaining their freedom and prosperity, as well as in joining the community of democratic countries that are flourishing in the Western Hemisphere," is to impose harsh economic sanctions against the Caribbean's largest island. Five decades and 11 presidents later, the embargo has failed to substantially shift the regime.

On Wednesday, though, circumstances did change a little. As part of a broader programme of economic reforms, President Raul Castro, younger brother of Fidel, relaxed the rules on buying and selling cars; hitherto only pre-revolutionary vehicles could be traded freely. The rule change will still only apply to foreign nationals and Cubans who have official permission. But the pace at which the gas-guzzlers are replaced will accelerate.

At the moment, as far as cars go, the music stopped in post-revolutionary Cuba in 1960, when, even if the nouveau-Marxists could afford new vehicles from the US, car-makers were not allowed to export them.

So an astonishing five-decade programme of "make do and mend" began, with inventiveness battling against built-in obsolescence – and just about winning. A combination of backstreet welding and mechanical excellence kept the Pontiacs and Studebakers on the road.

In Havana, vehicles with thirsty V8 engines have long provided the alternative to the overcrowded bus service. Even in the depths of the "Special Period", following the collapse of the USSR, they kept rolling.

In the 21st century their numbers have slowly diminished – not because they have rusted to death, or hit one bache (pothole) too many, but because of the demand from overseas collectors. The Cuban government began doing what it is now allowing its people to, in the 1990s – buying up the best-preserved saloons, offering their owners a new Russian-built Lada instead. These cars were sold to collectors to earn precious hard currency. And as Havana became the venue of choice for fashion shoots, some of the remaining vehicles were bought and fixed to provide automotive chic; the Hotel Nacional de Cuba built up a fleet, offering stylish airport transfers.

Yet as Cuba's economy has emerged from the post-Soviet depths, the American beauties have become a lumbering sideshow. They were squeezed out of the taxi market by modified Ladas holding up to nine passengers, and are now taking a back seat to Mexican-built imports of Japanese marques.

Ironically, by the time US citizens are able freely to visit Cuba (current laws forbid tourism) their idea of an island filled with relics of an innocent America are likely to be misplaced.

Not nostalgia all is lost, however. The pride of Cuban Railways comprises rolling stock from the 1960s for Trans Europ Express trains between Amsterdam and Paris, while the line through the canefields east of Havana uses equipment almost a century old.

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