The following article is published in the #RGNNCuba Magazine: Vol. IV, Summer 2019, produced during ROOSTERGNN Academy’s Travel Journalism, Photography & Video Internship & Mentoring Program in Havana and Trinidad, Cuba, under the editorial direction of RGNN Expert and Mentor Juanjo Montanary. Follow #RGNNCuba for all of our Cuba coverage.

What stands out the most to a tourist when they arrive in Cuba? Without a doubt, it has to be the classic vehicles that can be found all over the city. These brightly colored, vintage and sometimes mismatched cars are a big part of the Cuban lifestyle.

There are a couple of different uses for these antique treasures. The biggest way they are utilized in Havana is to attract tourists from all over the world.

Many of the cars are painted in bright colors such as pink, yellow and teal. Some even have designs that range from polka dots to floral patterns.

Just in case the tourists can’t see the vehicles, drivers make sure they can hear something C too. Many of the horns play a short, cheerful, high-pitched song instead of just making the classic “beep” noise. Owners do this to call attention to themselves when driving around Havana. 

Mikel, a driver of one of these antique vehicles said, “The paint and horn noises are the Cuban way of life.”

Owners will also cut the tops off of many of their automobiles. Not only does this help keep tourists cool in the hot Havana weather, but it makes riding around more fun and it’s easy for tourists to take photos of all the different parts of Havana.

Families also use the vintage cars as their everyday transportation. They may not be as flashy as the vehicles that are used to attract tourists, but they are still quite similar in different aspects. Many vehicles might not have the top removed, but the colors are still fun and bright. 

These special pieces are passed down through many generations of families, basically until they will not run anymore. They are treasured by the families. Some even treat their car just as they would their own child. 

Vintage cars line the streets of Havana waiting to take tourists around the city. | Courtney Stapleton

Since many of these vehicles are from the 1950s era, repairs and upgrades are very common. In Cuba, it is harder to get the matching parts to a vehicle or any parts at all. Many automobile owners will use whatever they have access to. 

Rodolfo, an antique vehicle driver said, “When we can’t find the part we need anywhere, we will just try to make it ourselves.” This could mean that they use old parts to make a completely new one, or just using whatever they can find to provide the fix. 

When looking at the antique cars in Cuba, tourists may see a Chevy with parts or accessories that came from a Plymouth. Some vehicles also have parts that are more technologically advanced than the original parts. For example, a 1953 Chevy might have been modified to have an electric stereo with Bluetooth compatibility. 

Some owners may want their paint color changed to something more vibrant if they are trying to attract tourists. Most of the time the painting can be done at a mechanic shop, but the owner may also do it themselves. 

By doing the work on their own, it helps save money for future repairs or upgrades. The owner might also have friends or family who know how to work on vehicles. Havana has some mechanics and painters, but they are mostly used for newer vehicles instead of the classic cars.

Because these antique treasures are so known in Havana, there are many things in the city that show how important they are to the culture. There are 3 different classic car clubs that meet and have various events like contests and parties. One example of a contest they have includes members bringing their cars or motorcycles in for judging. People then vote to pick their favorite and the winner gets a prize. In Havana, there is also an entire museum dedicated to these special antiques and their history called Deposito de Autos. 

It is popular for Cubans to get very extravagant and brightly colored vehicles for special events. Young girls will have their quinceañera photos taken in an antique car, and some people use them for wedding photos and as a special type of vehicle to ride in that day. 

Different shops around Havana sell products such as post cards with classic car photos. | Courtney Stapleton

Many stores also have post cards, license plates, calendars and shirts that depict some of the most unique cars from the city. Even handmade items such as canvas paintings and painted fans have themes that surround the vintage treasures. 

These special automobiles are a large part of the Cuban culture. The extraordinary colors and sounds of them bring the city to life, and they make the trip to Havana even more memorable and special for any tourist. Whether it’s touring the city or just buying a souvenir, learning about these classic cars and bringing a piece of them home is a must when visiting Havana.

Edited by Julissa Ramirez.