Classic Car Buffs, Beware Cuba’s Time-Capsule Vehicles

Posted on January 26, 2015


When diplomatic relations were restored between Havana and Washington, one of my first thoughts was that Havana would soon be a shopper’s paradise for fans of classic cars. Many of the same cars that were on the roads in 1959, when relations were severed, are still being driven today — an estimated 60,000 classic cars.

BUT as I read more about it, that comes with a lot of big caution flags for any serious car buff. First of all, most of these cars have had extensive repairs, replacements, and modifications over the years to keep them running. Parts and auto glass are not generally available in Cuba, so for decades, owners have been forced to replace original parts with mismatched substitutes, or even to hand-craft repair parts. Ingenious, resourceful, and industrious for sure, and a source of well-earned pride, but that’s not what American collectors are after.

Then there is the question of whether you would even be able to buy one of these cars, for several reasons. Under current rules, the classic cars can’t be exported. Some predict that Cubans won’t want to part with the cars anyway, because they have become an ingrained part of the national identity, an indispensable and much-loved cultural icon. Jalopnik has a more pragmatic observation based on pure economics: Cubans can’t afford to sell their classics for anything less than an outrageous sum, because they can’t get a new replacement car for anything less than an outrageous sum ($70,000 for a Volkswagen, or $250,000 for a Peugeot, for instance — blame Cuban trade restrictions and high tariffs).

So, the cars can’t disappear from Cuba’s streets immediately, but over time – as international trade and the Cuban consumer’s economic prospects improve – we can expect that people will want to buy newer, safer, more efficient cars, and yes – the classic cars will eventually fade away. Many of the most heavily used – like taxis – are really only fit for the scrap heap.

Still, some American automotive fans seem excited at the possibilities opened up by the restoration of diplomatic relations and eventually, trade. Bloomberg Businessweek is predicting a sort of investment bubble based on the Cuban classic cars, but points out that it would be driven mainly by collectors who just want a piece of Cuban history.

Indeed, the main value of the Cuban classic cars may be exactly that: as memorabilia and museum pieces. As one tour guide told the Vancouver Sun, “Havana is a rolling museum,” and it is undeniably a big part of the tourist experience. Car buffs might get more out of a vacation to see this rolling museum while it still exists, than from buying one of these lovingly maintained “Franken-cars.

If you are willing to pay a premium to own your own piece of Cuban automotive history, go for it. Just expect that money to be gone forever, spent on a hobby for your own enjoyment. Memorabilia is usually not a sound investment. Buyer, be aware!