Connect to share and comment

Where Detroit still reigns

News of bankruptcy at General Motors and Chrysler stuns Cuban drivers.

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.”

Read more about automobiles:

Prius vs. Insight, round 3

All-electric, all-Texas

On the death of Pontiac