June 18, 2009 / 12:13 AM / in 8 years

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

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.

<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>

“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.

“This is a tank,” Garcia said. “It’s not something disposable like the clunkers that came along later.”

The classic American cars of the early post-war years were indeed durable, as can be seen in the tens of thousands of them still running in Cuba.

ENGINE SWAPS

Iron-clad chassis, scooped body and once lavishly appointed interior often seem to be the only original parts of the cars built during the heyday of General Motors Corp, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler, now run by Fiat of Italy, that are seen lumbering down Cuba’s roads today.

A peek under the hood and second-hand paint job on Marin’s Buick, for instance, reveals that he swapped out the original V-8 engine for a more fuel efficient four-cylinder diesel powerplant from Toyota Motor Corp.

<p>A vintage car drives past Havana's University in this June 5, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan/Files</p>

Engine replacements have been made on most of the aging Dodges, Fords and Chevys that serve as taxis alongside the Russian Ladas and new Korean cars in Havana, as high fuel prices force drivers to sacrifice power for savings at the pump.

Drivers say most of the engine changes are performed by themselves, with the help of some strong-armed friends or neighbors to cut out the cost of hiring a professional mechanic.

“Unfortunately, to tell you the truth, Cubans are very good at improvising,” said one driver, who asked to remain anonymous.

“It’s a question of necessity and because of the shortage of everything here including money,” he said.

The 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo, imposed by President John F. Kennedy in response to Cuba’s alignment with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, has helped ensure that factory-made or even aftermarket replacement parts for American-built cars are extremely hard to come by in Cuba.

<p>A combination of file photos of vintage cars driving past Havana's University June 5, 2009. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan/Files</p>

The embargo, which Cuba calls an “economic blockade,” still prohibits U.S. vehicle exports to the island even as some fuel-sipping Chinese-made cars have begun grabbing a share of the tightly controlled market for new cars.

Some owners, including members of at least one collectors’ club, pride themselves on maintaining their original V-6 and V-8 Detroit motors, however, and the difference can be heard in their distinct rumble rather than the clatter of diesel replacements.

“I’ve got a ‘55 Bel Air with the original engine and everything,” said Robert Enriquez, who added that the only replacement part was the gearbox.

“I‘m not rich but I wouldn’t sell it for anything,” added Enriquez. But when he’s eking out a living as a cab driver, he drives a modern compact, he said.

Cuba’s state media, in reports on the U.S. financial crisis, have highlighted events like GM’s bankruptcy as symptomatic of everything gone wrong with the United States and the failure of unbridled U.S.-style capitalism.

But few if any owners of U.S. cars on the streets of old Havana seem to be gloating about the economic meltdown or the fact that the wheels have nearly fallen off the U.S. auto industry.

“Do you think a company as big as General Motors can really go broke?,” asked Marin, as he sat behind the wheel of his ‘53 Bel Air.

“We Cubans, as a people, don’t hold anything against Americans. In fact we share a lot in common,” said Marin, as he waited for his passengers outside Havana’s ornate Washington-style Capitol dome.

“The bankruptcy of GM will always be a tough thing, that’s for sure,” he said.

Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Philip Barbara

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