Harley-Davidson heaven in Havana

havana-live-harleyDriving It sure felt that way in the tiny garage where Fernando Varera kickstarted a vintage Harley-Davidson. The BLAT BLAT BLAT of a 50-year-old hog is unmistakable and can probably send big enough soundwaves to start an earthquake. After his small audience flinched, surprised by how loud that hog could snort, Varera, who restores old choppers and Harleys here, laughed like it was his birthday and said, “Yes! Scary, isn’t it?” havana-live-harley3This particular Harley he was displaying, with his chest puffed up and a big grin, was used by the Cuban police back in its heyday. In the late 1920s, former Cuban president Gerardo Machado made Harley-Davidsons the official motorcycles of the police. Fernando Varera’s garage in Havana, Cuba, is full of old Harleys. “Look,” Varera says, with something mischievous obviously on its way. He points to the button that starts the sirens.“I like to use it when I’m in a rush,” he says, stomping his feet and bending over from about of maniacal laughter. He takes off his glasses to wipe away some tears. “Everyone gets out of my way.havana-live-harley1”Although they say all Cubans are mechanics out of necessity, Varera does it because he thinks it’s fun. He also comes from a long line of mechanics; his family repaired boats for the Spanish army before landing in Cuba.“The world of Harleys is a very special one,” he says. “People will pay very big money for them, even if they don’t work.”Luckily for Cuban Harley lovers, good ones in working order, although rare, can still be found despite the 50-year-old embargo from the United States.
Varera says he once found a Harley-Davidson on a farm that hadn’t been touched in more than 50 years. All it needed was a spit shine and some fuel, and it was running like it was 1962. He says it’s the solid build quality that makes Harleys such stalwart machines that continue to ignite passion in motorheads. Other times, Varera isn’t so lucky. The embargo makes it near impossible to find parts, so many of the Harleys he works with are actually bastardized, put together with parts from other bikes. Other tinkerers have also resorted to building and machining spare parts by hand. Cuban Harleyheads have to fight to keep their bikes alive, which likely makes their dedication even stronger. According to the documentary Cuban Harlistas: The art of Harley-Davidson maintenance in Cuba, there are about 150 of the classic bikes on the island, with about 80 still in working condition. harleyAfter the embargo from the Unites States was enacted, the Cuban government began to see the hogs as a symbol of American imperialism, which made being a Harley fan a bit more difficult. Although the stigma has lifted, life as a Harley-Davidson aficionado still isn’t easy. Varera says the passion for HDs is obvious when Harley bikers on the island meet on the third Sunday of every June at the famous Colon cemetery in Havana. The rally, of which Varera is a dedicated patron, is called Dia del Motorista Ausente (the Day of the Absent Motorcyclist) in honour of José Lorenzo Cortes, a Cuban Harley mechanic and master restorer who allegedly disappeared in 1990. Cortes is a legend in Cuba, credited with being the father of the art of Harley maintenance on the small island. Fernando Varera’s garage in Havana, Cuba, is like a graveyard of spare Harley parts. Cuban Harlistas says that, in 1992, the Club of Classical Motorbikes in Cuba was established to help Harley lovers on the island organize rides and exchange information and spare parts. The club is admired by Harley organizations all over the world, because they appreciate how difficult it can be for Cubans to keep their bikes running. The club often gets donations of spare and tires from these organizations, and every little bit helps. The club’s rally has become sort of a mecca for Harley lovers from all over the world, and despite there being a language barrier, the passion for Harley-Davidsons is universal. The hog only speaks one language, and it’s a language of love and perseverance.havana-live-harley5

Source Photos Jodi Lai