It’s no surprise that Cuba, aside from having free state health care, is a haven for old American cars. The streets are lined with classics of the fin era ending in 1959, an estimated 60,000 of them, and you’re more likely to see a ’58 Eldorado or a ’56 Dodge Custom Royal Lancer than a modern Russian car. But the rules that kept those old Yank tanks on the road — often, due to the economic embargo, with Soviet-era engines and hand-made parts — are changing, and the big beneficiary could be the American classic car buyer.
Since 1959, new cars — hugely expensive — were sold only at state-approved dealerships, and you needed a permit to buy a car, with preference going to those with connections. People waited many years for those permits. That, combined with a 100 percent import duty, meant that even modest newer cars were worth a fortune — how does $65,000 for a 2005 Honda Civic with 60,000 miles sound? Or $40,000 for a seven-year-old Hyundai Accent?
The artificial barriers also inflated the value of the pre-revolution American iron — until 2011, the only cars that people could legally buy and sell without a permit. Even patched-together jalopies from the Big Three sold for tens of thousands of dollars. For the last two years Cubans have been able to trade in newer used cars, but the new reform just announced by the Council of Ministers does away with the permit process, though the state retailers will remain in place.
There are two possible outcomes of this. The first: business as usual. People in Cuba don’t have a lot of disposable income, so there’s not going to be a big rush of new car buying. And the American cars — still the cheapest option — will keep their place as treasured family transportation.
The second option is that there’s so much pent-up demand for new cars (as there was in the U.S. after World War II) that Cuban consumers will tighten the belt elsewhere to buy something modern. And that will dramatically lower the value of the hardly original but rust-free classics that have largely disappeared elsewhere.
Most of the old American cars in Cuba have stayed there for various reasons, but the government is now making foreign exchange a priority. A provision of the new law appears to encourage “a marketing entity foreign or domestic” to buy cars and export them.
How about an exchange — we give them slightly used Civics and Corollas, and they give us ’58 Impalas and ’49 Ford Woodys? Let’s just say that, given all the shade-tree repairs, these cars will be challenging restorations — despite the rust-free sheet metal. But what a story you could tell! It's almost as cool as smoking a Cuban cigar smuggled out via pigeon. Here's a look at the classic car treasures still on Cuban streets:
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