When Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, elegant American cars were all the rage on the streets of Havana. Castro’s ban on auto imports coupled with the U.S. embargo froze these cars in time—no new vehicles and no parts to fix the old ones for over half a century. Rather than being daunted, Cubans got inventive, refitting and rebuilding their rides time and again over the decades, using anything from Soviet-era tractor engines to spare parts they machined at home.
Roberto Rodriguez Mendoza, a 53-year-old cab driver, is the proud owner of a frequently refurbished 1952 four-door Chevy Deluxe. “There’s no way to know how many miles these vehicles have on them, they’ve been rebuilt so many times,” he says, pulling into the lot where he is currently working on another car, which he plans to sell. Sheet metal, old fenders, rusted clutch pedals and a mattress line the yard.
“I use springs from this old mattress to make the car seats more firm, and now it’s much better than new!” he says. “We try to do the best with the circumstances. Everything is from scratch. This is the mentality here: Find a solution, solution, solution. We don’t throw anything away, because we never know when we might be able to use it.”
Mendoza’s Chevy is a fine example of these make-do principles. Though the dash and steering wheel are original, the elaborate grille, taillight fixtures, character lines and rear emblem are all the handiwork of local metal workers who’ve developed a cottage industry. Large sections of the body were shaped from sheet metal and welded into place by a friend. The four-year-old engine? Not a Chevy but a Ford four-cylinder 1.8-liter diesel from England that gets him 32 mpg if he drives slowly—a habit practiced religiously by Havana cabbies to save money.
Though new cars are now available, imported cars are so pricey that almost nobody here can afford them (a $29,000 Peugeot 508 was recently listed at $262,000). Besides, Mendoza and other mid-century owners take a certain pride in their resourcefulness. “We don’t want to let these things die because we need to use everything until the end. It is part of our heritage,” he says, adding, “You give a Cuban the parts, he’ll take you to the moon.”