A few weeks ago, President Obama took an historic trip to Cuba and made political as well as social waves. For some time since rumors of the opening of Cuba to trade and travel for U.S. citizens began , there have been rumors of a glut of classic Cuban cars coming up for sale. These beautifully colored, 1950s-era, rolling American works of art have caused plenty of stir and stoked the hopes of many a car collector. Yet that dream has not yet become a reality and may never come to fruition.
Cuba’s car culture runs deep. In 1959 when Fidel Castro came into power, he made it illegal to import cars to the small island nation just 90 miles from the coast of Florida. As a result, time stopped for the nearly 60,000 cars that had made it to the tropical port. Mid-century era Buicks and Studebakers became the common form of transport and nearly 60 years later, those cars are still on the road—mostly as taxis.
“On the road,” however doesn’t necessarily mean in original, working order. Because of the restrictions on imports and exports, parts for the aging cars slowly rotting away in the tropics were incredibly hard to come by. When they were available, they were far pricier than everyday Cubans could afford and as a result many of the cars that have remained on the road are, according to various stories on the web, held together with Bondo, duct tape and bailing twine. More than a few journalists like Seyth Miersma over at Autoblog and Wally Nowinksi from Fortune have confirmed this with recent trips to the island nation.
While it could make sense for a diehard American car fan to import a Cuban car, it might not necessarily be the same animal it once was. The argument goes that these cars have morphed into something else—a Cuban car—and that could make it valuable in its own way—just not in the traditional, see-this-multi-million-dollar-Ferrari-go-to-auction way. CNBC argues that because many of these cars have become Frankenstiens--cobbled together with bits and pieces of farm equipment, duct tape and anything the Cubans could find, they've become less valuable to the usual car collector. They just aren’t the originals most people buy--and even if they were--the fact that they haven't been maintained in a traditional way makes them less appealing. Even if a collector decided to grab an American car from Cuba and try and restore it back to its original form, the sheer cost associated with the project would render it worthless. The collector would never make the money they’d need to sink into it, back.
So ultimately, despite softening tensions between the U.S. and Cuba, it doesn’t look like we’ll see any kind of influx of Cuban cars anytime soon. They’ve become too far from the originals to be worth anything to traditional collectors, and even though the import ban has softened in Cuba, prices of new cars on the island are still astronomically high. Most Cubans who have the old American cars are unlikely to sell them because they simply won't fetch enough to purchase new cars. More than likely we’ll continue to see the barely-held-together cars rolling through the crumbling city of Havana for years to come—as long as they have wheels and run, they’ll likely be part of the Cuban landscape.
Digital media content producer/consultant & former CNN senior producer, now running CN'TRL : Cars, Tech, Real Estate & Luxury.