Cuba’s Classic Cars: Catch Them While You Can

There are few places in the world where you can find modern Toyotas sharing the streets with Model T’s, and Cuba is one of them. The country’s abundance of classic cars may be the result of historic trade restrictions, but it’s also a key element of Cuba’s romantic, stuck-in-time ambience.

Why does Cuba boast so many classic cars? Until last October, Cuban residents were forbidden from buying and selling vehicles without the government’s permission. Only automobiles purchased before the 1959 Cuban Revolution could be freely traded, forcing car owners to use creativity and craftiness to make their existing vehicles last. By outfitting their old cars with replacement engines, fixtures, lining and paint, many have been able to significantly extend the lives of their vehicles, instead of sending them to the junkyard as we’re so quick to do in the Western world. In fact, most cars you’ll find on the street resemble a mash-up of different parts: a hubcap here, a dashboard there, topped off with a dash of house paint and often a Playboy bunny sticker.

%Gallery-159262%But last October, President Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother, for those unversed in Cuban history) announced that Cuban residents would now be able to buy and sell cars “without any prior authorization from any entity,” for the first time in 50 years. According to Reuters, the new law is one of many reforms intended to put a greater emphasis on private initiative, a notion that has largely taken a backseat under Communist rule.

While the new law is a definite step forward for Cuban society, it does mean that owners of classic cars will be less motivated to maintain their vehicles, now that they have the freedom to trade up for new ones. But during a recent trip, the new law hadn’t seemed to have made much of an impact – yet. The streets of central Havana were filled with propped-up hoods and self-taught mechanics, and on the Bay of Pigs was parked a perfectly preserved 1929 Ford Model T, at our service. “Original engine,” our driver boasted, beaming.

Still, change is in the air, and the chance to ogle beautifully preserved classic cars may not exist for much longer.

Want To Learn How To Drive a Model T Ford? This Museum Will Teach You

The Model T Ford was the most successful car design in history. From 1908 to 1927, more than 15 million were sold at a price so affordable that cars went from being playthings of the wealthy to a common item for any middle class household. For better or worse, today’s car culture is a direct product of the Model T.

Now the Collin County Farm Museum is offering courses in driving the Model T Ford. This isn’t just your standard stick shift. It takes up to fifteen minutes and a fair amount of strength to start, and has all sorts of peddles and cranks unfamiliar to anyone accustomed to driving modern cars. The license will allow you to drive the museum’s very own restored Model T, part of its large collection of vintage vehicles.

The Model T appeared at a time when paved roads were rare, and it was made tough enough to stand driving over fields and up steep slopes. They could take a lot of abuse, which is probably why there are so many left today. There’s a limit to what they can take, though. Don’t drive them like they did in this slapstick comedy or you’ll fail the course and probably get arrested.

A museum of microcars in Germany

Before the automobile industry developed cars capable of going 0-60 mph in 5.9 seconds, there were the microcars. In the 1950s and 1960s, several European countries, in particular West Germany, manufactured cheap, zippy microcars that were one step up on the evolutionary chain from motor scooters. Most of these models are long gone today, save for those hiding in the garages and warehouses of avid car collectors.

One such collector is Stefan Voit, a German car enthusiast who has spent two decades assembling a stash of more than 50 microcars. Voit recently opened the Kleinwagen and Rollersammlung Museum (Microcar and Motor Scooter Museum) in his hometown of St. Ingbert, Germany, and it is filled with small vintage cars from Germany, Italy, France, and other European countries.

On display are a “cemetery of car brands,” including the NSU Fiat Prinz, the Goggomobil, a Bond Minicar, and a Messerschmitt Cabin Scooter. There is a microcar with a plastic chassis (Spatz), a tiny, royal blue BMW Isetta with an equally tiny camper, and the world’s first car built with its engine in the center of the car (Zündapp Janus). Sharing the exhibition space with the candy-colored vintage cars are more than a dozen motor scooters, Vespas and the like, that provide a bit of perspective to the progression of wheeled vehicles in the mid-20th century.

St. Ingbert is located about 12 miles outside of the city of Saarbrücken in southwestern Germany. Admission to the Microcar Museum is available via written request at

Photo © Stefan Voit

Photo of the Day (3.15.09)

I’ve never been to Cuba but this picture by Un rosarino en Vietnam is exactly how I picture it in my mind. Crumbling facades and vintage cars, all colored by a faded palette of soft blues and gentle greens. You just don’t find a scene like this one in many places in anymore – it’s like a time warp to the past.

Have you taken any stellar photos in Cuba? Or maybe just one from your last trip to Cleveland? Why not add them to our Gadling pool on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.