Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : December 29th 2014 Contents B5
Monday, December 29, 2014 www.guardian.co.tt Guardian
Dairo Tio cruises the streets of
Havana in a gleaming black 1954
Buick with polished chrome highlights
and the diesel motor from an electric
plant bolted beneath the hood.
When the brakes failed in his beau-
tiful Frankenstein of a taxicab, Tio
couldn t work for 15 days as he waited
for a machinist to hand carve the nec-
The half-century-old embargo on
most US exports has turned Cubans
into some of the most inventive
mechanics in the world, technicians
capable of engineering feats long lost
to the modern world of electronic igni-
tions and computerised engine cali-
President Barack Obama s announce-
ment that he is loosening the embargo
through executive action has Cubans
dreaming of an end to the era of can-
nibalising train springs for suspensions
and cutting tire patches by hand. One
of the measures announced by Obama
last week would allow US exports to
Cuba s small class of private business
owners, which includes thousands of
mechanics and taxi drivers who shuttle
both Cubans in battered sedans for
about 50 cents a ride and tourists in
shiny, restored vintage vehicles for
US$25 an hour.
While the details of Obama s reforms
remain uncertain, Cubans are hopeful
that their publication in the coming
weeks will end a five-decade drought
of cars and parts.
"Maybe it will be possible to get parts
faster, at better prices," said a hopeful
Raul Arabi, 58, who spoke with The
Associated Press while seated behind
the wheel of a cherry-red 1952 Chevy
convertible that still runs on its original
six-cylinder engine. "If they opened a
specific store for this, even better."
Cuba long restricted car ownership
almost entirely to prominent bureau-
crats, high achievers in their fields and
professionals who completed govern-
ment service abroad.
That limit was dropped last year but
replaced by markups drove prices as
high as US$262,000 for a Peugeot that
lists for the equivalent of about
US$53,000 outside Cuba. That leaves
classic cars as one of the only options
for Cubans needing private transporta-
tion for themselves or a business,
although prices around US$20,000 for
old cars mean buyers on the island
often need help for the purchase from
With so much invested in their cars,
new engines, hoods, fenders and trans-
missions is a dream for the owners of
what were once known as "Humphrey
Bogarts" and that remain a fixture of
"It s pretty complicated," said Tio,
27. "The government won t sell you
glass for these old cars. They won t sell
replacement parts for these old cars.
Everything is made by hand."
A few years ago, the only way Tio
could get new tires for his car was to
rely on the generosity of a relative who
brought some back from Venezuela.
In the meantime, necessity will drive
invention when it comes to maintaining
Girls ride on the back of an American vintage car along the Malecon during a 15th birthday celebration in
Havana, Cuba. US car sales have been banned in Cuba since 1959. Cubans have been have been forced to
patch together Fords, Chevrolets and Chryslers that date back to before Fidel Castro's revolution which can
make it appear like the country is stuck in a 1950s time warp. AP PHOTO
New life for Cuba's classic cars?
A mechanic works under a vintage American car in Havana, Cuba. AP PHOTO
the thousands of classic cars that
fill Cuba s cities and countryside.
Many are used for daily needs and
commutes, others transport curi-
ous tourists soaking up nostalgia,
newlyweds, or young girls cele-
brating their "quinceaneras,"---tra-
ditional 15th-birthday celebra-
"When the material doesn t
exist, one has to invent it," said a
mechanic who agreed to reveal
some of his secrets to the AP on
the condition that he not be iden-
tified because he feared possible
Suspension systems are among
the most complicated to repair,
simply because there are no parts
available. But he noted that trains
have similar springs that support
a lot of weight.
Train coil springs are smaller
than those of the cars, but the
mechanic described how they
could be stretched with a manual
press until they are the necessary
"We fix everything, all the time,"
he said proudly.
Such haphazard methods are
not ideal in terms of safety: Putting
powerful engines in cars with old
bodywork and no seatbelts or
airbags increases the risk of dan-
And while Cubans ingenuity at
keeping the cars running is
impressive, the fact that they have
patched together the old cars with
scraps means the cars have little
chance of becoming collectors
items in the US once the market
between the two countries does
"I m not sure there s a single
car on the road in Cuba you could
bring here and put in a car show,"
said Tom Wilkinson, a classic car
lover from Detroit who recently
visited the island as part of a cul-
"You have to admire how
resourceful the Cubans have been,
keeping these cars running and
modernising them as much as they
can," Wilkinson said. "That said,
by the standards of the American
collector, they re way too rough."
That s probably OK with Cuba,
where such cars are like old friends
that would not be easy to let go.
"This is part of the national cul-
ture," said Arabi, who parks his
red Chevy convertible on Havana s
iconic seafront boulevard, the
Malecon, waiting for tourists to
pay for a ride.
"It is part of the culture that
tourists want to see here ... and
it is part of our own culture. ...
Cubans want to celebrate their
weddings, their 15-year-old birth-
day celebrations, in these cars."
With that, Arabi ended the con-
versation with a rev of his engine
as a couple climbed in for a spin
in his classic auto---a timeless ride
that, somehow, despite years of
use and against engineering odds,
keeps on running, day after day.
"You have to admire how resourceful the
Cubans have been, keeping these cars running
and modernising them as much as they can,"
Wilkinson said. "That said, by the standards of
the American collector, they're way too rough."
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