Petrol and p****!” grins the old-timer as he sniffs the air and pushes his way into the 1982 Moskvich taxi at José Marti Airport, insisting we share a ride into central Havana. “I beg your pardon,” I say. “Petrol and p****? Can’t you smell it?” he replies. “It’s the unique scent of Cuba.”
Fifty-odd years after the revolution, the oldest profession is clearly alive and well here. But I’m in town to look for something rarer, racier and more highly prized than the horizontal rumba: cars.
You don’t have to love cars to love Cuban cars. The buildings are frozen in time, unchanged since the glorious revolution/communist takeover* (*delete according to your politics). The people are caught in a time warp too, cut off from the outside world by the US embargo. But the cars. Ah, the cars! You can tell more than half a century of history on four wheels.
Through my taxi’s windows, held together at the corners with dusty brown gaffer tape, I can see a chronicle of times past. There’s a 1952 Chevrolet Impala, a bright green 1956 Pontiac, a 1956 DeSoto, a 1952 Oldsmobile convertible and a glistening Cadillac Continental. Dictator Fulgencio Batista may have been defeated by Fidel Castro and his merry Marxist men in 1959, but the cars that drove his Mob-fuelled casino capitalismo are still going strong.
Words: John Arlidge
Photos: Charlie Turner