December 10, 2008 / 4:26 PM / in 9 years

Cuban vintage cars evoke U.S. industry's better times

HAVANA (Reuters) - U.S. automakers are struggling to survive the financial crisis but in communist Cuba the cars that Chevrolet and Ford built decades ago are still cruising the streets and their owners have a message for the manufacturers: they don't make 'em like they used to.

Buicks and Plymouths made in the 1950s growl through Havana alongside Ladas and new Korean and French cars with Cubans creatively keeping the old vehicles running despite a four-decade-old U.S. embargo against the island.

Patched up with Russian spare parts and often motors salvaged from other cars, their owners say the sturdy classics could run for years more even as the industry that made them seeks billions of dollars from the U.S. government in a bailout.

"They are never going to have quality like this again. Modern cars are made to last three or four years, these were made for 50, 60," said Argelio Hernandez, tapping the bumper of his blue 1952 Ford taxi in Havana's old quarter.

"The companies are never going to build quality cars because they need the market."

With car sales falling the fastest in years, the White House and congressional Democrats are trying to push through a rescue package for automakers that were once a symbol of U.S. economic power.

The plan, which needs to be approved by the U.S. Congress, could provide $15 billion in short-term loans to help General Motors and Chrysler LLC stave off bankruptcy. Ford Motor Co. has called for an emergency credit line.

BEFORE THE REVOLUTION

In downtown Havana Vieja, a sprawl of Colonial era buildings, lines of pastel-colored Chevrolet Deluxes, Fords and Plymouths wait to ferry passengers for less than $1 to nearby suburbs. Complaints about high fuel prices and repair costs are as common as in other taxi lines.

The cars still run, and many are in decent shape, although in some cases the stolid chassis is only original part. Around 60,000 vintage cars are still running in Cuba, where private car ownership is restricted and the public transport system is deficient.

"This is all about invention," said Luis Hernandez, a mechanic who was slapping grease on an axle of his black and yellow 1956 Buick, his tools spread out on the sidewalk.

Some of the cars are older than their drivers, handed down from father to son. Many date from before 1959 when Fidel Castro came to power in an armed revolution. He then became a Cold War enemy of the United States and Washington has refused to end the embargo against Cuba.

Raul Castro, who took over the presidency in February from his ailing brother, has said he would be prepared to sit down with U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, although talks seem distant.

Chomping on a cigar as he took his worn-out 1956 Buick for a spin along Havana's Malecon boulevard, 65-year-old Daniel Vencomo is not so sure about ties with the United States, but he has little doubt about his car's durability.

"I reckon this car is going to outlive me," he said. "I am going to pass it on to my youngest boy to see whether he can finish it off."

Reporting by Patrick Markey in Havana; Editing by Kieran Murray

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