How Cubans have restored America’s classic car legacy

The doors of the rusted container that Roberto uses as a garage in the working-class Havana neighborhood of Mariano groan as he shows me the treasure hidden inside: a purple 1954 Chevy that shines as if brand new.

Roberto says he found the car out in the provinces and has spent the last two years restoring the Chevy to its former glory so he can now sell it. His asking price: $34,000, a fortune in Cuba.

Many of the car parts that Roberto needed he was unable to locate on Cuba’s black market so he paid “mules,” the Cubans who travel back and forth to the island carrying hard to find items, to smuggle in the pieces. “We got most of this off eBay,” Roberto says, popping the hood to show me the brand-new engine block inside. Roberto insists we go for a test drive.

Technically Cubans can only sell cars to other Cubans, but Roberto doesn’t seem to think there’s anything strange about an American like me shopping for “un carro clásico.” Apparently all kinds of people are interested in buying from the Cuban car market these day whether it’s legal or not.

We speed off and in just a few minutes the car’s new air conditioning system chills the Chevy to a deep freeze. A screen mounted on the dashboard blasts reggaetón music videos on a loop. Across the back window, Roberto has inscribed “lo más tigre” — loosely translated, “the fiercest.”

I tell Roberto I can’t believe he really wants to sell the Chevy after putting so much work into it. “I have to,” he responds, “I need the money to fix up two more cars I am buying!”

Roberto, a mechanic in Mariano, Havana, is hoping to sell this restored Chevy for $34,000 — a fortune in Cuba. Credit: Courtesy Patrick Oppmann

When I first came to Cuba for work 1998, there were more Chinese bicycles on the road than classic American cars. I often pedaled a Flying Pidgeon model single-gear to get to work.

American cars then were considered something of a burden; gas guzzlers whose parts were impossible to…

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