Cuba Yank Tanks (16.01.16)
Cuba’s collection of vintage cars has to be one of the most outlandish, remarkable and frankly coolest on the planet. It is certainly the biggest.
The majestic sight of so many beautiful classic 1940s and 1950s American cars is, even for non petrol heads, one of the island’s most exciting national phenomena. Travelling across Cuba today you could easily believe you were living in a 1950s movie, for all the Chevrolets, Buicks, Pontiacs, Ramblers, Plymouths, Dodges, Chryslers, Oldsmobiles, Fords and Studebakers that drive by.
Every shape, size and colour of car rumbles, grumbles and flashes past whether you are negotiating the busy streets of Havana, long tropical coastal roads or the mountain dominated interior. With such a history of frosty relations between the island and the USA, it is ironic that a legacy of American engineering and design so dominates the landscape of Castro’s Cuba.
‘Yank tanks’ prevail thanks to the love, sweat and tears of hundreds of thousands of Cubans over the years.
With as many as 60,000 vintage vehicles making up what has been an otherwise fast-shrinking fleet of cars across Cuba, their everyday presence is ubiquitous throughout the island. Indeed today, one in five cars on Cuban roads dates back to before the revolution in 1959.
Their national classic car legacy goes back to the 1950s, when a large affluent Cuban middle class imported all manner of American vehicles. President Batista’s own son drove around in a 1956 Corvette. However, the revolution and frosting of relations between Cuba and the Americans led to the US trade embargo in 1960 – effectively freezing the import not only of the Yank tanks themselves, but also of their valuable parts.
Ever since then, the vast majority of classic cars has remained on the go thanks to their owners’ loving care and attention. Hampered by a lack of original parts, hard currency and strict legislation over who can own, import and sell cars, the job of keeping such majestic vehicles on the road has fallen more on people’s ingenuity than anything else. Over the decades, as the old classics have crumbled, the scarcity of automobile technology and hardware has been compensated for by resourcefulness and tough love. In many cases this has meant welding and smelting everyday implements, as well as stripping, mending and bending repurpose parts from vehicles such as the Volga, Lada, KrAZ, Zil and Moskvich from the then Soviet Union.
Whether jumping in a taxi, cruising the national highways or renting one of the pristine Havana tourist cabs, you can delight in what feels like being part of an old 1970’s Whacky Races cartoon. Their overwhelming presence is a constant reminder of another era.
As these recent photos show, the magnificence and abundance of these old classics is there to be seen by all, across the country.
How long for? Well that depends on the politics of the new Cuba, as as future trade restrictions.
So make sure you get to Cuba in time to enjoy, among many other attractions, this most special of ‘petrol head’ moments.