By Brian McNeece
When my son Colin, friend Ray Soto, and I landed in Cuba for a 12-day tour of the island, we were surprised at how many pre-1960 American cars still ran. Although there are new cars, mostly taxis and rental cars, the roads are still eerily jammed with cars that date back to before Fidel Castro’s Revolution 58 years ago!
In Havana proper, these almendrones, or “big almonds” as the Cubans call the large, rounded Chevy’s, Fords, Dodges, and Plymouths, are constantly stopping to pick people up, as they function both as official and not-so-official taxis themselves.
I asked an experienced Canadian tourist how many of them were, in fact, taxis. “Oh, almost all of them!” Few Cubans own a car, and the streets of Havana are lined with people with their index fingers up, and the almendrones are packed with folks needing a ride.
They are lovingly kept. When our bus broke down, and the two drivers had to replace the water pump (they kept their neckties on), I chatted with an elderly owner of a baby blue 1946 Ford. A retired junior high principal, he had just finished his shift selling sandwiches, soda, and beer at the roadside cafÃ© and was polishing the mirrors on his car.
I asked him if the motor was original. Oh no, he said. The original motor gave him only five kilometers per liter, but his rebuilt 1989 Isuzu engine gave him ten! (About 23.5 miles per gallon) And the car could go 100 kph! (62 miles per hour). He was very proud.
I asked him if he would lift the hood. The cavernous engine compartment dwarfed the 4 cylinder engine. My new friend CuÃ±arro began pointing. “The Isuzu engine had everything new a few months agoâ€“sleeves, rings, pistons, seals, head gasket The radiator is Russian, the transmission is Mitsubishi, and the rear end is Chevrolet.”
Getting all those disparate components to match is part of the Cuban genius.
Although we had rented bicycles and pedaled about 300 miles during our trip, we used taxis twice. The first one was a 1948 Dodge. We piled three bikes on its rooftop rack and had a smooth ride from the southern port town of Cienfuegos to its northern counterpart of Matanzas, a journey of 107 miles. Ray noticed the airbag type steering wheel and asked the driver about it. “Nah, there’s no airbag in there,” answered Ricardo. His Mitsubishi engine purred along.
Our final ride was in a 1946 Plymouth station wagon, also equipped with a rack. The rear windows slid sideways to open. It had a Russian diesel engine and perhaps one set of original componentsâ€“shock absorbersâ€”or none at all. In that rattle-trap, I figured we would average about 40 mph on the trip back to Havana.
But once it got up to speed, the driver treated the road like his private race course, warning horse-drawn carriages with an ambulance siren. Once we hit the freeway, we careened along between two lanes at 80 mph plus, getting a smooth ride only when the driver put it in neutral on the downhills.
Because I was curious about these old American cars, I did some internet research. According to one site, there are still about 60,000 pre-1960 cars cruising the roads of Cuba, or 34% of the island’s total. A little math shows that there is 1 car for every 63 people in Cuba, compared to here in the USA, where we own 4 cars for every 5 people. In terms of cars, that makes us 50 times richer.
Many Americans long for the day when they might cherry-pick their favorite collector’s item among Cuba’s “almendrones”; instead, they’ll find a pile of old jalopies running on a prayer, kind of like Cuba itself.