HAVANA, Dec. 4 A time capsule. Dozens of vintage motorcycles and cars, especially American brands, with their impeccable polishes and bright colors,They went out to compete and exhibit themselves in the streets of Havana on Sunday, an event that seeks to resume after the pandemic and show the rich vehicular heritage of the island as part of its tourist attraction.
Some 60 classic cars, including Ford, Pontiac, or Chevrolet and 15 motorcycles such as the powerful Harley Davidson, were registered in the XVII Classic Car Rally that covered about 50 kilometers over an hour and a half.
The pilots and co-pilots – many of whom were relatives or friends of the drivers – took a route through the city that was kept secret until the last minute of the start – it was given to them on a piece of paper before leaving – and which included with checkpoints.
It was a rally of “regularity”, not speed, that is, the organizers established a circuit and set a time for its execution that gives scores to the participants.
“We are re-emerging,” Alberto Gutiérrez, president of the A lo Cubano Antique Car Club, created in 2003 and leading the organization of the race, told The Associated Press excitedly. Last year, it was barely possible to do a small route with fewer vehicles after the interruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The stoppage not only affected this event as a recreational activity but most of the classic cars are usually owned by drivers who make a living from them as a means of transportation for tourism, one of the main industries of the Caribbean country.
Cuba received 1.6 million tourists in 2022, a little more than in 2021, but far from the almost 4.3 million in 2019 before the virus hit the sector. As of July 2023, 1.3 million visitors had arrived.
Sunday’s rally, leaving from the Cabaret Tropicana, took the classic cars -–many of them had the entire families of the drivers on board– through emblematic points of the capital such as the Hotel Nacional, El Malecón, the Capitol and even Revolution Square.
“Something that identifies Cuba are these classic cars, it is also necessary for the new generations to share these moments,” Yusleidys Castillo, a 42-year-old housewife who accompanied her husband Ismael as co-driver and in the passenger seat, told the AP. Behind the vehicle, he carried his teenage son, his daughter, and her boyfriend.
The family made the trip aboard their white and blue 1959 Buick, which they bought in 2011 in poor condition and were gradually repairing, and from which the family now supports themselves financially.
Cuba was a strategic point for the commercialization of American cars in the 40s and 50s of the last century, but when the revolution triumphed in 1959, the import of both units and parts was paralyzed, a problem that became increasingly dramatic since the United States sanctions against the island that closed all possibilities of binational trade for decades.
There were also European cars then and they still run like Jaguar and MG.
The vehicle fleet was not renewed and the old machines were frozen in time, but they continued to be used with ingenious patches.
In the 70s, the island obtained some cars from its political ally, the then Soviet Union, so Lada and Moskvitch vehicles were added. Finally, in recent years, modern cars have been added and in the end, they all coexist on Cuban streets.
“The mechanics of these (classic) cars are ‘Harry Potter’, you have to do magic, many parts have to be handmade… sometimes they adapt from modern cars such as the braking or steering system, which is safer,” he explained to the AP Miguel Ángel Ortega, 38, owner and driver of a 1959 Chevrolet painted in a strident pink and who participated in the rally with his father.
Official figures are unknown, but experts estimate that there are between 60,000 and 70,000 classic cars or “almendrones” as they are affectionately called on the island circulating throughout Cuba.
For Ortega, the race is more a way to socialize with other owners to get parts, mechanical solutions or generate ideas, than a purely competitive space.
The vehicles have, in his opinion, an inestimable value. “There are many who are like family members, some even give their car their own name, they are even heads of the family nucleus because they are the pillar economically,” Ortega highlighted.
In the end, the race concluded with the presentation of prizes to the winners, spare parts for the vehicles, additives from a brand that sponsored the event, and bottles of drinks.
The first-place winners? In the motorcycle category a 1955 Triumph and in cars they took it shared between Austin 1951 and a 1956 Studebaker.