When I first thought of traveling to Cuba, like most other males born in the 1950’s, my initial vision was of those classic old American cars gliding down the boulevards of Havana. After only a few days of being here, I can tell you that there is a lot more to Cuba than those American cars, but Cuba’s Classic cars are a great place to start. According to Wikipedia, “Yank tank or máquina” are the words used locally to describe the many classic cars present in Cuba, with an estimated 60,000 of them still driving the roads today. I did confirm the terminology with our guide….she refers to these cars as máquina (markina). When I asked her for a translation, she said that máquina just means these old cars.
Together with our Cuban travelling companions (and very good friends), Gail and Paul, and prior to arriving in Cuba, we had reserved our spot on the 2 hour Classic American Car Tour of Havana on our very first afternoon in town. The tour was billed as “seeing Havana in style by classic 1950’s American convertibles. Cruise through famous Havana suburbs, and keep up the class with a delicious sunset cocktail in the famous Hotel National, overlooking the legendary Malecon at dusk.” With words like “in style, classic, famous and legendary”, we were really looking forward to our afternoon out in Cuba’s classic cars. We weren’t disappointed.
Although the sky was threatening to open up in a huge thunder storm, Mitchell, our driver reassured us that we would be OK in his 1955 pink convertible Chevrolet. Apparently it had a fold up roof. As it turned out, the storm passed us by without any drops of rain spoiling the afternoon, so we didn’t get to see his roof. What we did get to experience during the afternoon was a sense of Havana City, its suburbs, parks and rivers, some of its memorable history with a stop at Revolution Square, and a feeling of notability, travelling through the City in this bright pink classic convertible Chevy, and ending our journey at the ritzy Hotel National. I’m told that this was the regular hang out of the “US Mafia”, prior to Fidel Castro seizing back power in 1959. The Mojito cocktail they serve there is pretty good too.
It’s important to understand why Cuba’s classic cars still travel the streets of Havana, and other Cuban cities. To quote a story from the Vancouver Sun, “Thousands of American cars were brought into Cuba up until 1960, the year that the United States government declared a trade embargo that stopped all imports. This was a year after Fidel Castro had seized power in the January, 1959 revolution that negatively impacted American companies operating in the new Socialist Republic of Cuba. From that time on, the innovative Cubans found ways to keep their prized American cars in operation, even though they could no longer import parts from the U.S. The majority of these cars have been re-powered with diesel engines, either from Russia or Japan.”
Mitchell told us that his 1955 Chevy had a Mitsubishi diesel engine, an automatic gear box and Audi brakes. His car looked great from a distance, but the closer you got, the more you noticed, like; gaps in the doors (no seals), interior door handles held on with bent nails, gleaming white upholstery held in place with varying size screws and fixings. I don’t share this information to devalue our wonderful experience or to discredit Mitchell or his Chevy, but rather reflect on the ingenuity and innovativeness of these Cubans, and congratulate them for keeping these iconic cars on the road to become the special part of Cuba that they are today.
There is an estimated 60,000 Yank tanks or máquinas still on the road. The majority are operating as taxis. I think Anne enjoyed getting behind the wheel of her máquina……of course I couldn’t drive with my injured leg. Long live Cuba’s classic cars.