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Top Gear meets the cars of Cuba

  1. 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

  2. When Castro seized power, new cars suddenly began to arrive. Cuban taxis are Russian Ladas, Moskvichs and Volgas from as far back as the Sixties. But I also spot Polskis, ancient Polish-made versions of Fiats, without the ‘good’ bits. 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. First, there are the Chinese-built Geelys, Cherys, Saic Wulings, Zhongxings and Great Walls. 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. A Bentley in Cuba! Que pasa?

    Cuba is changing. For years, the country has relied on ideological fellow travellers to keep it going. First the USSR. Now Venezuela, which supplies $5bn of oil each year in return for doctors and security personnel. But, with Venezuela’s economy slumping, no one knows how long this deal will last. So, reluctantly, the old comrades are introducing reforms to kickstart the economy.

    Cubans can now buy and sell all manner of goods and services that were once tightly controlled by the state and can become - whisper it - capitalists. The ancient Moskvich estate I’m travelling in is a big part of the story.

    The driver, Jorge Arias, bought the car for $20,000, becoming one of the first of a new breed of auto-entrepreneurs. “The government used to decide what cars were imported, who could buy them and who could drive them. If you were a party official or had an important job like a doctor or lecturer or you were a sportsman or musician, you could get a car. But no one else.”

  3. But now ordinary Cubans can buy and sell cars “without prior authorisation of any authority”, as Raúl Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, who is now president, puts it. Arias, 36, jumped at the chance. “I used to be a chemical engineer in the Ministry of Agriculture, but I can make more money driving a car, so I borrowed the money to buy this car. I’m a taxi driver now,” he says proudly.

    Arias is not alone. The local vehicle registry, the Departamento Nacional del Registro de Vehiculos, records around 10,000 sales a month. That’s a huge figure when you consider there are only 600,000 cars in Cuba and a microscopic percentage of the 11 million population have the cash, usually from relatives abroad, to buy cars.

    The market is growing so fast that queues form outside the tumbledown offices of Cubisima, a Havana-based answer to Craigslist. “Every day, we get more people looking to buy and sell,” the website’s manager, Mayelin Aguilar, tells me as she keys the latest listings into her bulky Russian-built desktop computer that is so old it still runs Windows 95.

    The website has logos for the most prized marques. Top of the list: Lada. “It’s the best not because it’s the best but because we can get spare parts for it,” explains Aguilar. Scroll down, and you’ll find brands that have long disappeared elsewhere. Hillman, anyone?

  4. This being Cuba, however, the rules that govern the car market are complicated and, occasionally, bonkers. Only secondhand models can be bought and sold. New ones are still reserved for the state. The Castros’ private BMWs and the Audis that ferry fancy tourists and top apparatchiks around are bought direct by the government for hard currency. It’s not clear whether the same goes for all the new Chinese cars, or whether these are traded for the rights for Chinese firms to prospect for oil offshore. Reserves have been discovered in the Straits of Florida.

    Since new car sales are banned, none of the major global car firms, which pulled out of Cuba decades ago, plans to return. “We’d like to import from Mexico,” says the Latin American boss of a major global manufacturer, “but the reforms don’t go far enough. There’s no guarantee the state wouldn’t nationalise our operations as it has done in the past. Ask me again in another 20 years.”

    While it is legal for ordinary Cubans to buy and sell cars, it is illegal to set up in business as a car dealer. A Canadian of Armenian origin who settled in Cuba found out the hard way. Sarkis Yacoubian created a company importing Hyundai sedans. State security officers raided his office and took him to Havana’s notorious detention centre, Villa Marista.

    What’s more, after years spent living in fear that the state will investigate their finances, many ordinary Cubans who buy and sell cars perfectly legally do not want to be seen to be making money doing so. When you meet sellers, most introduce themselves by first name only. The cars they buy and sell are known not by their marque or model but by their owner’s first name. Ask what model is for sale, and the answer is: “Oh, it’s the car that Maria drives,” or “That’s José’s car.”

    It’s quaint, at first. Then really annoying as you do not know what model you will be looking at until you meet Maria or José and they decide whether or not you’re a government investigator. Only if they trust you will they open their ancient garage doors and show you their prized jalopy.

    Still, it’s time to chance it. What’s for sale?

  5. In the Plaza de Armas, the market stalls offer almost nothing, unless you fancy a faded manual of Marxist instruction. But in a shady corner I meet Yojan Diaz. He’s 48 but looks much older. His hands are shrivelled like dried tobacco leaves.

    Diaz is so convinced the government will liberalise all car dealing that he is happy to give me his full name. He pulls a school exercise book from his pocket and shows me a photograph of what can only be described as a Frankenstein car. It’s parked nearby, so I agree to take a look.

    The chassis is a Sixties Austin Healey Sprite. The engine is ripped from a 2.0-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 that’s linked to a steering column pinched from a bus. The fenders come from a Lada and the badge atop the bonnet is - well, what else? - Ferrari (fake).

    Last - and my favourite - are the lights. Chevrolet, since you ask. But they do not work. 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.

  6. “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.” It’s the same for maintenance. “We use shampoo for brake fluid. We cut up iron pipes for piston rings. Coca-Cola [the local Communist variety] loosens bolts. And we paint the cars with sponges and buff them with toothpaste. We call it ‘the Cuban way’.”

    How does this Austin Healey-Lada-Seat-Audi-Chevrolet-Daewoo-Ferrari handle? “It’s tricky,” says Diaz. He forgets to mention downright dangerous. After the Soviet Union collapsed in the Nineties, the Cuban economy nosedived. Fuel was so scarce that motorists did not leave it in their car’s tank because they feared thieves would siphon it out. So they took to using small plastic bottles of petrol that they hung on the rear-view mirror with a rudimentary pipe running to the engine. The car Diaz is selling is this type.

  7. Undeterred by the Molotov cocktail in the cabin, we set off from the Plaza de Armas on a test drive. The handling is, well, non-existent. All there is is jerky, unpredictable movement. The drivetrain bends and lurches one way, and the chassis the other. 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 a 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 mojitos and snap up Che Guevara T-shirts without bothering to wonder what Che would make of them splurging Yankee dollars on a swanky holiday.

    Freeway is a bold, evocative name from a country where freedom is only a drive away. 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 free, so I speed on - at 40mph that feels like infinity - under symphonic Caribbean clouds past groups of eternally 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 rear-view mirror and heading off into the bush. It’s so hot my head feels like a conch fritter, and I swear even my shins are sweating. Thankfully, it’s not long before we reach a village.

  8. “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 six 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 Malecón, the city’s corniche that Fangio drove in the practice for the 1958 Havana Grand 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 scarce, some cost more than houses. But it’s too rich for me. I pass on the boneshaker and hitch a ride in a Lada back to my hotel.

    I’ve been driving for almost four decades. I’ve got behind the wheel of more cars than I can remember. In fact, most I’ve forgotten. But I’ll never forget the unpredictable, time-warped yet oddly glamorous ride on that summer’s day in Havana. 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.

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