Driving the Cuban Way

Cuban cars do strange things to people. Like the buildings, they are beautiful and tragic, frozen in time, barely changed since the end of the revolution in 1959. John Arlidge recalls an unforgettable Cuban drive.

Classic cars in Havana, Cuba

John Arlidge

John Arlidge likes cars but he likes money more. He writes about both for the Sunday Times, the Times and Wallpaper* magazine in London and for Conde Nast in New York. He was nominated and highly commended as Feature Writer of the Year in the British Press Awards in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and as Business Writer of the Year in 2013. He lives in west London with former BBC Economics Editor now chief market strategist at J P Morgan Asset Management (Europe), Stephanie Flanders, and their son and daughter.

Something is missing at Ernest Hemingway’s villa on the outskirts of Havana. There, in the house that is now a museum of his life, are his books, shirts, trousers, bottles of rum, specimen jars full of the local bugs that he used to collect, and the notes he scribbled on the bathroom wall, detailing his various ailments and medications. He was a raging hypochondriac. Even his fishing boat, the Pillar, where he reeled in his marlin, is in dry dock next to his swimming pool. But his car — his beloved 1955 Chrysler New Yorker convertible — is nowhere to be seen.

I ask Ada Rosa Alfonso Rosales, the director of the museum, where it is. “I’ll have to ask David Soul,” she replies. “David Soul, the actor?” I ask. Yes, she says and starts dialling 00 1 44 208…. on her ancient desktop phone. (Soul lives in Highgate, north London). He has been funding a project to find and restore the cabriolet “because I love Hemingway, I love cars and I love Cuba,” he tells me when Rosales hands me the phone to talk to “Hutch.” “Can I see it?” I ask. “Yes, as long as you don’t say where it is,” he replies. “We don’t want anyone to know where it is until it is restored and ready to put in the museum.”

And that is how I came to be standing amid chickens and goats in a tiny yard, down a track between two houses, in the San Francisco de Paula district of Havana, five minutes’ drive away, admiring Hemingway’s car. Not that there is much to admire. It’s a wreck from the chassis up and will take the local mechanics Soul has hired to restore it years to complete their task.

Cuban cars do strange things to people. Like the buildings, they are beautiful and tragic — frozen in time, unchanged since the glorious revolution/communist takeover*. (*delete according to your politics). Like the buildings, they are beginning to change as the US trade embargo on the island eases and the Castro brothers, who run the sunshine socialist state since the end of the revolution in 1959, begin to dabble in a little light capitalismo to help balance the nation’s battered books. You can tell the whole history of Cuba on four wheels — past, present and, now, future.

What does work, if that’s the right word, is a lantern mounted on the back of the passenger seat, wired to the cigarette lighter.

Through the windows of my Lada that I am driving from downtown Havana to Hemingway’s villa, I can see a panorama of history, each chapter, each car caught in the pane like a sepia snapshot. There’s a 1952 Chevrolet Impala, a bright green 1956 Pontiac with its elaborate grillwork, a yellow Packard, a 1956 Desoto, a 1952 Oldsmobile convertible and a glistening Cadillac Continental. Dictator Fulgencio Batista may have come to a sticky end at the hands of Fidel Castro and his merry Marxist men in 1959 but the cars that drove the mob are still rolling.

When Castro seized power in 1959, new cars suddenly began to arrive. My Lada cruises alongside Russian Moskvichs and Volgas from as far back as the 1960s. But I also spot Polskis, ancient Polish-made versions of Fiats. All these former eastern bloc fossils run on a noxious blend of fossil fuel that farts out a gritty stench of poverty. You can taste the dinosaurs in it.

Looking carefully, over the potholes and past the stray cats and housewives gossiping over cigarillos, I notice that the first modern cars are beginning to arrive, as the local economy opens up. First, there are the Chinese-built Geelys, Cherys, Seaic Wulings, Zhongxings and Great Walls. Communists stick together. Then, later that day, the hated imperialist West turns the corner. An Audi A4! A BMW 5 Series! There’s even a rumour that someone — nobody knows who or, if they do, they’re not saying — owns a Bentley Continental. What would Che say?

Cars are back for sale, too, after years when the state controlled the market and reserved cars for senior party officials, military men, Marxist academics and assorted fellow travellers. On my first day in Havana, I decide to try to buy one, to do my bit for Cuba’s economic renaissance.

In the Plaza de Armas I meet Yojan Diaz. He’s 48 but looks much older. His hands are shrivelled like dried tobacco leaves. He pulls a school exercise book from his pocket and shows me a photograph of what can only be described as a “Frankenstein car” that is for sale. It’s parked nearby, so I agree to take a look.

The chassis is a 1960s Austin Healey Sprite. The engine is ripped from a two-litre Lada Riva. The windscreen and windows are Opel, the brakes from an old Audi Quattro and the bucket seats salvaged from a TT. The transmission is SEAT, the instruments Daewoo and the steering wheel is a fake Sparco, linked to a steering column salvaged from a bus. The tyres “are Japanese. I don’t know from where,” says Diaz. The steel fenders come from a Lada and the badge atop the bonnet is — well, what else? — Ferrari (fake).

My favourite feature is the lights. Chevrolet, since you ask. They do not work. Naturally. What does work, if that’s the right word, is a lantern mounted on the back of the passenger seat, wired to the cigarette lighter. “There are a lot of cars like this in Cuba,” Diaz explains apologetically. “After the revolution, we couldn’t get parts. We had no money for imports. So, we just used what we could find.”

Can I take the Austin-Healey-Lada-SEAT-Audi-Chevrolet-Daewoo-Ferrari for a test drive? “It’s tricky,” says Diaz. He forgets to mention downright dangerous. After the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, the Cuban economy nose-dived. Fuel was so scarce that motorists did not leave it in their car’s tank, partly because few could afford to fill a tank but also because they feared thieves would syphon it out. So, they took to using small plastic bottles of fuel that they hung on the rearview mirror with a rudimentary pipe running to the engine. The car Diaz is selling still has this “fuel rejection” model.

Undeterred by the Molotov cocktail in the cabin, we set off from the Plaza de Armas on a test drive. The handling is, well, nonexistent. All there is is jerky, unpredictable movement. The drivetrain bends and lurches one way and the chassis the opposite way. And that’s just on the straights. Navigating the sun-cracked corners, it feels like the axle is going to snap off from the chassis altogether and leave us pedalling madly like the cavemen in "Wacky Races." The exhaust sounds like firecracker erupting in an empty vat of rum. It’s hopelessly — wonderfully — Cuban.

“At last, we’re on the freeway!” says Diaz proudly as we exit Havana and hit the main road to the tourist resort of Varadero, a ghetto of white sand and whiter westerners, who sip white rum mojitos.

Freeway is a bold, evocative name from a country where freedom is only a drive away. But in Cuba, there is no freedom. Or is there? The road ahead is certainly free of any number of frustrations you see in a shiny, capitalist country. It’s free of central reservations, tolls, speed limits, speed traps, speed cops, road markings, road signs, lighting and, apart from the odd belching, ramshackle tractor, it is pretty much free of other cars too.

All this makes me feel pretty damned free, so I speed on — at 40mph that feels like infinity — under symphonic Caribbean clouds past groups of tirelessly hopeful, long-distance hitchhikers. It’s all going well until we stop. Not on purpose. Not because we have to. Just because we do, sputtering to a halt opposite an old Communist Party hoarding that reminds the inner car dealer in us that capitalism is “humiliating and degrading to human dignity.” We’ve forgotten to keep an eye on the fuel bottle.

“Where’s the nearest gas station?” I ask. “We don’t need a gas station. Come with me,” Diaz replies, unhooking the bottle from the rearview mirror and heading off into the bush. It’s so hot my head feels like a conch fritter, and I swear my shins are sweating. Thankfully, it’s not long before we reach a village.

“Gasolina?” Diaz asks the old farmer, who has been toiling in his tobacco fields for so long his face is gnarled like a ginger root. “How much you need?” he replies, as if it were the first question he would expect anyone to ask in these parts. And the funny thing is, it is.

Like all of us, Cubans don’t like paying for fuel. So they steal it, usually siphoning it out of the tanks of the state-owned buses and lorries. They then sell it to people like Diaz and me for 6 pesos a litre, compared with 28 pesos at the pump. Back on the road, a few pesos lighter, we drive back to Havana, this time taking the Malecon, the city’s corniche that Fangio drove in the 1958 Havana Gran Prix, before he was (briefly) kidnapped by the rebels that finally overthrew Batista a year later.

“How much?” I ask, as Diaz and I clang-clatter back into the raucous elegant decay of the Plaza de Armas? “$25,000,” he says. In Cuba, that’s probably a fair price. Cars are still so scare some cost more than houses. But it’s too rich for me. I pass on the boneshaker and drive my Lada back to hotel.

I’ve been driving for almost four decades. I’ve gotten behind the wheel of more cars than I can remember. Most I’ve forgotten. But I’ll never forget the unpredictable, time-warped yet strangely glamorous ride that summer’s day in Cuba. And if I ever change my mind about buying the Austin-Healey-Lada-SEAT-Audi-Chevrolet-Daewoo-Ferrari, I know it will still be on the road the next time I land in the strangest car country on earth. It’s the Cuban way.