Cuba’s Four-Wheeled Zombies

Driving the dead! Cuba’s car culture fascinated me. They have the most resourceful drivers and mechanics who defy the odds and break all the rules to make sure that the American 50s classics…really never die. The four-wheeled zombies are alive and well in Cuba!

Before visiting Cuba, I thought that only Havana’s streets would be like a 1950s Hollywood movie. However, the old classic cars are everywhere, used for everything from taxis to tourism novelties, and incorporated into daily life in every aspect of Cuba’s culture.

The four-wheeled zombies rose from the dead on February 8, 1962. With a stroke of President John F. Kennedy’s pen, the noose was dramatically tightened on an existing trade embargo that prohibited most Cubans from buying brand new cars after Castro took the reigns in 1959.

For Cuban car owners, drivers, and riders, the embargo sealed the fate of the existing American cars that already existed on the island. They had no choice: either resurrect the old cars or succumb to a transportation crisis the likes of which had never been seen before.

Savvy residents cashed in on the novelty by embracing Cuba’s old-car culture.

Salivating affluent tourists lineup at the best hotels willing to pay for the privilege of touring Cuba in a vintage car.

At the Revolutionary Plaza in Central Havana, the four-wheeled zombies are displayed in colorful rows of candy-colored treats. For 40-50 CUCs per hour, drivers transport tourists back to the 1950s in cotton candy Chevy convertibles as they tour the malacon, hair blowing in the wind passing by crumbling terra-cotta buildings.

The contrast between old and new exposes the disparity in Cuba…but more about that in another post. Cruise ships arrive daily, the classic cars transport tourists into a 1950s Hollywood set, and everyone is happy including the Cuban drivers who can make 100 CUCs an hour.

Most of the museum pieces look amazingly good besides the fact that they are well beyond retirement age and haven’t stopped working full-time for decades.

I knew to expect to see a few classic cars in Havana, but the old “yank tanks” are everywhere.

They are surprisingly comfortable and provide a spacious ride throughout the island country.

When we arrived at the airport, Ron’s sister walked to a restaurant across the street to find us a vintage taxi to take us to our Airbnb in Havana. The vintage taxis are not permitted to enter the airport, and it is illegal for them to take tourists from the airport.

Because Ron’s sister is married to a Cuban, she knows all the ins and outs of Havana since she has visited for many years. We quietly exited the airport with our luggage and stuffed it into the roomy trunk. Then, the taxi driver kept looking in the rearview mirror to make sure the police didn’t see him transporting tourists.

At one point he saw a police car, and we thought we would have to duck our heads so we weren’t visible. We laughed at the thought of our first day in Cuba being chased by the police.

Ron knew all the old cars and called them out by year and model. “There goes a 58 Chevy Impala! Coming up on our left is a 57 Buick Century.”

There were some drawbacks to riding in the four-wheeled zombies. We couldn’t roll down the windows in the back without a wrench. The drivers removed most of the window cranks. I’m not sure why, but if you don’t have a wrench handy, ask the driver. They always have a wrench and will be happy to accommodate you.

The fumes and exhaust from the old cars were nauseating. There was a permanent lingering smell of exhaust fumes in Havana where there was an abundance of the “yank tanks.”

Above is Ron’s favorite car…a Chevy Bel Air beautifully restored.

How do the resourceful Cubans repair and maintain these vintage tanks without access to parts and proper tools? We discovered that most of the four-wheeled zombies are not original, but mutants.

Using parts either “obtained” from sources unknown, or expertly crafted from bits and pieces of other brands of cars, the backyard mechanics make no apologies for the lack of materials to hone their craft.

Maintenance is very expensive and most of the parts are smuggled in. The mechanics have in their outdoor garage only the most rudimentary tools like hammers, wrenches, and handmade soldering tools. The non-government approved mechanics and shops are in low-key locations, usually in tiny garages or alleys. They exist with a thriving black market environment which is essential to keeping the ancient machines running.

When I stopped to talk to the mechanic in the photo above, I asked him if I could take a photo with my iPhone. He laughed and said he would gladly trade his car for my phone. That’s Cuba in a nutshell…always looking to trade up and in a love-hate relationship with their cars.

After 2014 the Cubans are now permitted to buy non-American new cars without special permits. Yet, for most Cubans who barely survive on government wages that average 35-40 CUCs per month, the thought of buying a new car is purely a dream.

The new cars we saw were rare and most of them were Russian or Korean cars. I can’t speak highly of the Russian Ladas, either. We rode around in a few of the old ones and it was like riding in a hot, tin can. We took one of the Russian Ladas to Viñales from Havana and it broke down on our way into Viñales. We coasted down a mountain into the valley only to be told by our driver when we arrived that not only were we driving without a fan belt, but he didn’t have any brakes going down the mountain!!

This is only the beginning of my impressions of Cuba. I learned so much about this small island country. We were fortunate to be traveling with Ron’s sister who has family in Cuba, so we got the inside scoop and a perspective of Cuba from the locals that we wouldn’t have otherwise had.

Stay tuned for more posts about Santeria, Cuban burial practices, the lack of technological advances ( mainly the internet), Cuban politics and black markets, and much more from an insider viewpoint.

We are in the mountains of Patzcuaro, Mexico for a month enjoying the cool weather and a perfect place to write of my impressions of Cuba.

16 thoughts on “Cuba’s Four-Wheeled Zombies

  1. What a wonderful article and yes ,,,the cars are really something else ….
    as are the ….artists ….whom have had to rely on continually remaking and redoing the engines and etc. for sooooo many years,,,cuz they HAD TO!!!!
    I was there over 20 years ago now ,,,bought amazing art off the streets for nothing , ate at old dilapidated houses with expensive antiques shrouded in cob webs…
    where the chefs had to give 80 % to their government ,,,sad…
    so many young hookers with guys from Spain etc ,,sad…
    Much pain in that country…that still prevails,,,,
    change is coming ….
    like in the states ….
    it will be an interesting …
    Light to you ,
    from Lake Atitlan,

    • Heidi, I don’t think much has changed in Cuba, except for the fact that tourism is the main livelihood of Cuba. It is more expensive than I thought, especially transportation.
      What town are you in on Lake Atitlan? I have a good friend in San Pedro.

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