A few years ago I took a guided bus tour across Cuba. In a casual conversation with the Cuban guide, one of us wondered what would happen to the American cars there if trade with the United States were ever normalized. He offered that he thought that there would be a big demand for the cars from the ‘50s and that there would be a dramatic rise in prices as American collectors tried to buy up this stock of rare old cars. I thought for a moment and then I said that I didn’t think that this would be the case, that these were worn out “million-mile” cars that would have virtually no value on the open collector market.
I returned to Cuba this winter just as the US had finally made some small moves towards opening up relations with Cuba and the prospect of American collectors streaming down to Cuba to scoop up the “valuable” old cars seemed to be a lot closer. Who’s right? A valuable horde of collector cars preserved in aspic? Or a big rolling junk pile of virtually worthless old wrecks?
For sure, the large numbers of old American cars in Havana and the other major cities is an iconic part of the Cuban scene. And, for a car guy like me, who almost obsessively tries to identify every car he sees on any street, especially in foreign countries, these masses of old cars (and the more modern Russian and Chinese cars that share the streets with them) are almost enough to make my head spin. Right now, these old cars are an important tourist attraction in Cuba.
In the 55 years since the border slammed shut, there has been no supply of replacement parts for the American car fleet in Cuba. Private owners, who were barred from getting their hands on any newer cars resorted to keeping the old rolling stock on the road any way they could. This meant, scavenging spare parts from other wrecks – whether they were an exact match or not – making replacement parts by hand; this included beating out large sheet metal body panels by hand on the side of the street – filling rust holes and dents with lots of body filler and painting it over – often with a brush.
On my first visit, I asked my tour guide to identify a car I saw in a back street in old Havana. He dismissively answered that it was a 1952 Chevrolet. I could see that but I thought there was more to the story. The bus driver, who also spoke perfect English, filled me in: the Chevy body was mounted on a Russian jeep chassis, complete with solid front axle and extra ground clearance and the engine was a Perkins diesel originally mounted in an irrigation water pump. Once I was clued in to this and knew that it was useful to check out the undercarriages, I saw evidence that many of the old cars were “hybrids” of the old American bodywork mated to more modern, mostly Russian, engines and other major components.
In the collector car business, originality is everything. In Cuba, few of the American cars we see are anything close to original. And as such – after 55 years of curbside jury-rigged maintenance – they have little or no collector value in the normal sense.
Indeed, as the rules of private ownership have loosened in Cuba so that individuals may acquire (albeit at high cost) more modern cars like Ladas or Chinese cars, the market price of the old Americans has dropped dramatically in the Cuban market.
People like to fantasize about the possibilities of hordes of really valuable ‘50s cars hidden away in sheds somewhere in Cuba. Perhaps there’s one or two cars like this that will show up eventually, But the popular idea that there is a cache of Grand Prix cars left over from the ‘50 Cuban Grands Prix has no foundation. First, the cars used were sports cars, not single-seaters, and nearly all the cars were foreign-owned, shipped in for the races and back out of the country immediately after.
Even if the borders open up and there can be a new influx of proper replacement parts for these old cars, most of them are too far gone to be a good prospect for a serious restoration job. Better to seek out a hulk bleaching in the sun of the Arizona desert as a starting point.
For my money, these old Cuban American cars do have some collector value – but as examples of what they are – the hybrids which have resulted from the years of makeshift maintenance in the isolation of Cuba. I think a decent museum in Havana which preserved these exceptional examples of mechanical ingenuity could be a big tourist draw. Perhaps a similar museum in Florida (Miami?) might also work. But that’s it in my view.
Probably the best thing is for you to find your way to Cuba soon, go to Havana and stand on the side of the street for couple of hours and become mesmerized by the passing parade of old cars swirling around the capitol building.