Sunday, August 28, 2016

Automoblog Book Garage: Cuba’s Car Culture

Originally appeared on

Book Garage

Imagine walking down the street and the newest car was a decade old. Even your own vehicle would be that old at least. Now, that’s not to hammer on your trusty pickup that continues to rack up the miles, but imagine an automotive world where nothing was ever current.

In the Republic of Cuba, this is life; an automotive universe frozen in time, where the newest vehicle around is from the late 1950s.

Boom Town

For generations, Cuba thrived with American influence, partly from its close proximity to Florida. Following World War II, Cuba was an automotive diamond, with more citizens purchasing vehicles than any other Latin American country. With a strong middle class, influential labor unions, and solid trade, many Cubans enjoyed a lifestyle comparable to the United States.

However, when Cuba emerged in 1959 at the end of the Cuban Revolution, the dynamics changed. The rise of Communism brought about a trade embargo, forcing Cuba’s car culture to get remarkably creative. Owners had to figure out how to keep their vehicles running without replacement parts. Even recreational and competitive Motorsports became an exercise in ingenuity with the rise of drag racing.

History Alive

Cuba’s Car Culture: Celebrating the Island’s Automotive Love Affair documents Cuba’s pre-Castro car days and racing history. The book examines today’s lost collector cars, street racing, and the challenges of keeping a decades-old car running. Chevy Bel-Airs, Ford Fairlanes, Studebakers, and Soviet Ladas decorate the pages, showing Cuba’s automotive landscape is both unique and endearing in its survival.  

Authorship & Photography

For the past 30 years, Tom Cotter has worked on nearly every end of the car business: mechanic, sales, public relations, marketing executive, auto racing authority, historian, racer, collector, restorer, journalist, and author. He has written for the New York Times and Road & Track.

Cotter is joined by Bill Warner, Founder of the Amelia Island Concours and President of H. C. Warner, Inc., an industrial filtration company. He also owns and operates Bill Warner Racing. Warner won the 2002 Meguiar’s Award for Collector Car Hobby Person of the Year.

Cuba’s Car Culture: Celebrating the Island’s Automotive Love Affair will be available starting October 1st through Amazon and Motorbooks.

Cuba’s Car Culture Gallery

Just a few blocks from the elegant Parque Central, this is a typical street scene. The 1957 Plymouth and 1955 Cadillac are parked next to once-elegant buildings, now in need of restoration. Cuba’s capitol building is nearly an exact replica of the United States Capitol building in Washington D.C. The building has been maintained and remains one of Cuba’s most beautiful. Most 1953 Buicks in the United States have long ago been scrapped and turned into modern Toyotas. But in Cuba, cars are required to provide their owners with a half century (and counting) of service. This bright yellow 1955 Chrysler taxi offers its patrons a spacious interior. Is it still Hemi powered? We never caught up with the driver to find out. A lineup of “tourist” convertibles parked near our Havana hotel. For US$35, a tourist can tour the city for an hour in a classic convertible. No Cuban citizen can afford such an extravagance. Fangio, in the No. 2 Maserati, and Olivier Gendebien, in the No. 36 Ferrari, race through a Havana neighborhood during the first Cuban Grand Prix in 1957. This unidentified beauty poses against Wolfgang Von Trips’s Ferrari 315S prior to the start of the 1958 Grand Prix. Perhaps she rubbed on some good luck, because Von Trips finished fourth. Looking at it through squinted eyes, Esterio Segura’s 1954 Corvette could pass for original. But understand that the entire front end, including the hood, was fabricated in metal instead of fiberglass. And just how did a pink 1962 Pontiac convertible find its way to Cuba during the embargo? This Poncho engine long ago bit the dust, and a Russian diesel engine now powers this car.

Last weekend in the Automoblog Book Garage, we featured the Shelby Mustang.

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