Cuba is "rolling museum" of vintage U.S. cars

Wed Jun 17, 2009 9:39pm EDT
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By Tom Brown

HAVANA (Reuters) - Elvis Presley croons "All Shook Up" from the CD player as Florentino Marin wipes down his 1955 Buick Century sedan on a central Havana street.

"It's always been said that Buicks and Cadillacs were the Kings of the Road," Marin says proudly, admiring the paint job on his two-tone, chrome-plated taxi as it glistened under a few drops of steamy morning rain.

"We have a museum here, but it rolls," said Marin, referring to the vintage American cars from the 1940s and '50s that are everywhere in the Cuban capital.

The cars predate communist Cuba's 1959 revolution, having rolled off the assembly line decades before the U.S. auto industry's current crisis of steep losses in reputation and market share.

They hark back to a time when Detroit's Big Three automakers were the envy of the world and a symbol of American economic power.

The years before Fidel Castro swept down from the Sierra Maestra mountains and began his triumphal march across Cuba also came before Detroit embraced so-called "planned obsolescence," a term popularized in the 1950s and early '60s for products designed to break down easily or go out of style.

The crisis now threatening the auto lifeblood of Detroit is rooted, at least in part, in the backlash from consumers who learned that U.S. vehicle manufacturers had stimulated short-term demand by ensuring that their products would fail after a certain amount of use.

"I don't think they ever meant to build cars that would last as long as this," said Jose Antonio Garcia, who drives a 1953 four-door Chevrolet Bel Air.   Continued...

<p>A vintage taxi waits for customers at Cuba's Capitol in Havana in this May 27, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan/Files</p>