Where Detroit still reigns

HAVANA — The Pontiac Aztek never made it to Cuba. Nor did the Dodge Nitro, Chrysler Crossfire, or any other flops of the past 50 years of American auto manufacturing.

So as news of bankruptcy at General Motors and Chrysler reaches this city, where thousands of vintage cars from Detroit's heyday still rumble through the streets, Cuban drivers have been stunned. Where did these giants of American industry go wrong?

“General Motors is a great company with a great reputation,” said Michel Cruz Armas, a taxi driver. He said it without a hint of sarcasm, and for good reason: The 27-year-old earns a living plying Havana's potholed thoroughfares in a battered 1956 Buick, making $15 to $20 a day — equal to an average Cuban worker's monthly salary.

While many drivers in the U.S. dumped Detroit brands for Asian and European imports long ago, Cuba's peculiar blend of rigid state control and crafty street-level entrepreneurship has time-warped the capital into a clattering tribute to the golden era of heavy chrome, gentle curves and snazzy fins.

“This is a good car. It's even older than I am,” said Alberto Quintero, 46, whose black Chevrolet Bel Air rolled off the assembly lines in 1955.

Before Fidel Castro took power in 1959, Cuba was a short ferry trip away for American auto dealers, who flooded the island with Detroit's finest: DeSotos, Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles and other brands. But imports came to an grinding halt when the U.S. leveled trade sanctions against the Castro government. Only a handful of American cars have made it across the Florida Straits since then.

Cut off from Detroit, the island turned to the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc for its wheels, importing Soviet Ladas and Moskovitches, along with oddities like the dishwasher-sized Polish-made Polski.

Compared to their yanqui counterparts, those vehicles were boxy, boring and cramped, placing function over form in stark contrast to the comfort and style of the American models.

Given a choice, most Cubans today would rather have a new car, and one that doesn't require constant maintenance and huge amounts of fuel, priced at about $4 per gallon here. But it is largely the result of a longstanding Cuban legal quirk that so many vintage American cars remain on the communist island's streets today.

When the Castro government placed strict restrictions on car ownership and essentially banned the private sale of vehicles, it made an exception for those built before 1960. This amnesty has assured a market value for the vehicles, guaranteeing they would remain on the roads as long as Cuban mechanics could keep them there.

Fifty years later, the old American cars — known affectionately as maquinas (machines) or almendrones (big almonds) — have allowed enterprising Cubans to use the vehicles as taxis and earn a living largely outside the state-run economy. The authorities periodically crack down on the practice, and have recently mandated that only licensed owners can operate the vehicles as taxis.

Many of the estimated 60,000 classic cars that remain on Cuba's roads are ruined hulks that lurch and rattle through the streets spewing black smoke, their engines a hodgepodge of cannibalized Russian parts and Cuban adaptations. But others are kept in immaculate condition by ultra-fastidious owners — including some who await the day they might be legally allowed to sell to American buyers.

“Now that Chrysler's out of business, this is going to be worth a million dollars,” joked Mario Hernandez, a 26-year-old who inherited his grandfather's 1954 Chrysler, a baby blue behemoth with enough seating for eight passengers.

Hernandez claimed it was one of only two “Limousine” models that reached Cuba that year, with state-of-the-art features like electric power locks and a built-in icebox. Mindful of the car's resale value but needing to make a buck with it, he removed most of the original parts — the steering wheel, the seats, even the floor panels — and locked them in storage. Hernandez lifted the hood to show off a Russian truck engine he'd installed in order to preserve the original Chrysler one.

“They never made better cars than these, and they never will,” he said.

Each year, Cuba's classic car hobbyists hold a competition, and the 2009 award for best-preserved vehicle went to a black 1958 Dodge Kingsway sedan owned by 44-year-old Ramon Ventura.

In a garage across from the city's largest cemetery, Ventura keeps the Kingsway and a green 1956 Plymouth Belvedere exactly as his late grandfather left them, polishing the vehicles twice a week and taking them out mostly for show. With the exception of the batteries and tires, the vehicles were almost entirely intact in their original state, their engines still jolting to life at the first turn of a key.

“I never imagined Chrysler could go bankrupt,” said Ventura, who is now worried about whether he'd be able to get parts from relatives in the U.S. if he ever needed them.

A fellow Cuban had offered $30,000 for the Kingsway a few years earlier, but Ventura turned him down. The buildings on the block where he'd grown up were now grimy and crumbling, but the cars in his weather-sealed garage remained pristine. “When I come here, it's like coming to another world,” he said. “I forget about all my problems.”

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