Sunday, October 09, 2016

Cuba's Car Culture, book review

Tom Cotter (author of the barn find books Cobra In A Barn, etc) and Bill Warner (founder of the Amelia Island Concours) have made the most complete book on Cuba's pre-Castro car and racing history and today's current problematic economic and automotive situation, that we are likely to ever need. Seriously, I think this covers the topic, the problem, it's cause and effect so thoroughly, that I doubt another ever needs to be printed. 

By the numbers,
188 pages
12 chapters
and normally I count the photos, but this is a photo heavy book... not a book that is word heavy like so many I've reviewed in the past

The re-establishment of international relations between Cuba and the USA is just getting somewhere, but there isn't yet a way for the cars to get fixed, it seems. The people of Cuba are still unable to afford to replace the 6 decades old cars they've been stuck with since Castro and the revolution led to events that stopped all trade and business between most car producing countries and Cuba. (Germany still could export to Cuba, and dictators love BMWs)

I'm not very informed on the who, and when and why, but a couple years after Castro defeated the dictator Bautista, who took off to the Dominican Republic on New Years 1959 with 500 million dollars worth of gold (the world was still on the gold standard), Castro decided to try for a utopian ideal of communism for the Cuban people where everyone was supported by the government, and received a stipend for income, and there is no car insurance (great idea!).

So, anyway, to get to Cuba, you get a ride from Eastern Airlines... yes, they did go bankrupt 25 years ago, but it was bought up by the Havana Airlines CEO, and now, bingo, they are in business to get tourists to spend money in Cuba.

Cuba, is only known for 4 things; cigars, the cars, and the embargo that seemed to never end between 2 countries only 90 miles apart, and the Russian nuke missiles that were heading to a new home in Cuba when they nearly caused WW3.

Well, the missiles were never delivered, the embargo is nearly ended, and the cigars were never stopped from getting into anyones hands that wanted them, and now... the cars. They aren't changed a bit from decades of desperate repairs to keep them on running.

A lot of this book is about how they keep these cars going, replacing all the running gear with Russian car parts. What there is left on the roads of Cuba have had decades more of bad roads than any New York cab, or other steroetypical horrible road vs daily driver. Road repairs in Cuba may have happened since '59, but it seems they have been less maintained than any other, and they weren't much to begin with as the people running Cuba have been the same as any other rulers, greedy and not devoted to the simple duties like keeping the roads fixed.

Then, as the trouble rolled downhill, it ended up settling into the cars, and it spread it's problems through them all. Without replacement parts, they've been making due for about 4 and a half decades. Maybe the Russians reverse engineered some Fords back when (1930s?) but it seems they didn't bother with any in the late 50s, and then provide those parts to the Cuban auto parts stores. That actually would have been ironic, and kinda cool for the car owners of Cuba.

The 5th chapter is the history of cars in Cuba, and it's pretty cool. I didn't know that Cadillacs were sold in higher numbers per capita in Cuba than any other country, including the USA before the embargo.

Chapter 6 is all about racing in Cuba's history, and if you have been interested in the gran prix's and Fangio's kidnapping, you'll enjoy this chapter. Did you know they had stock car racing? And there were Edsels, Studebakers, and Dodges racing in stock, and in the sports car classes were Porsches and Mercedes 300SLs.

But, did you know that the GP races were almost not held in Cuba due to the deaths when the Mercedes went through the grandstands and killed 80 at the 1955 Le Mans? And, of course, something similar happened in Cuba, as the track wasn't anything more than city streets, and the rumor is that the people were not happy with the rich and wealthy racing, and the poor getting poorer due to the Castro regime,  so they oiled the track on a fast corner, and a car wiped out and killed 6 and injured 40 more. Bet you never heard about that. But the lack of race organizers, and complete lack of safety, meant that no warning was given to incoming race car drivers.

And the 1960 Cuban GP was missing Briggs Cunningham, becuase the Cubans had seized his business in Cuba, so he boycotted the race - and seriously, would you take part competing in a country that had stolen your property and business?

Chapter 9 is about the celeb cars, like Hemmingway's. Can you believe David Soul (Starsky and Hutch) is funding it's restoration? It still has it's original hemi too.

So enjoy the book! You'll get fully informed on Cuba's Car Culture. It's far more in depth than I thought it would be, and terrifically full of photos of the cars and Havana.


  1. Cuba is a destination I have longed to visit.
    The cars of Cuba seem almost an erroneous topic though.

    Seriously, would you really want to own one?
    They make a beautiful sight rolling through the streets of Cuba and make up part of their cultural identity, but the vast majority have had more hits than Elvis and patched up to perfection by Micheal Jacksons nose surgeon.
    I know there are some real rarities hidden away though, and need rescuing due to their significance. It could also be said that the price of raw material is going up, and the unrestored is in hot demand.
    Forget the Lada BelAirs. Surely, the amount of US dollars/Euros gained from just selling the remains of a collapsed Gullwing merc would go a long way in an economy like Cuba........ selling rust could almost double their GDP!

    'Photo Heavy' you say, sounds like my kind of book.

  2. I read an article years ago about how the Cubans kept those antique cars running, making many of the parts themselves. One man used cast iron pipe to make piston rings, IIRC.

    1. right, and a certain shampoo with a high silicon level for brake fluid. Power steering fluid is probably not in high demand for pre 1960 cars, ditto air conditioning refrigerant. But they seriously had issues with brake pads, and suspension.