Cruising around Havana in a classic American Car
Cruising around Havana in a classic American car has become one of the most popular activities among visitors to the Cuban capital. These large, petrol-guzzling road monsters complement beautifully the ageing appeal of Havana. Along with decadent facades, crumbling mansions, washed-out colours, and music filling the streets, they help create the seductive atmosphere that has turned Havana in recent years into a tourism hotspot for European travellers.
For many, classic American cars lined up in front of the Capitol building in Havana, offer a postcard perfect photo opportunity. Other are intrigued by cars themselves, or the human-interest stories behind a nation that has learned how to fix everything from the pre-Revolution in order to keep their lives running. And everyone agrees exploring Havana on board a vintage American car is a gratifying experience that adds a touch of difference and nostalgia to the classic city tour experience.
Taking a tour of Havana on board an old American car is also an excellent way to kick-start your holiday in Havana, build up some confidence by exploring Old Havana and the surrounding areas before deciding to go on and explore the city on your own.
Old American Car typical itineraries
Typically, Classic American Car Tours begin in Old Quarters Havana. There’s lots to see here before heading out other areas of the Cuban capital. Sights include the Capitol Building and the Grand Theatre of Havana. The majestic Bacardi building, with its iconic Art Deco architecture, can also be spotted in the area. Driving from the Capitol towards the sea along Paseo del Prado is a pleasurable experience, and the views towards the Morro Castle and other colonial-era fortifications are impressive.
Most classic American car tours will take you at some point for a drive along the Havana seafront drive, the Malecon. The wall that separates, sometimes unsuccessfully, the city from the sea, has been for a long time an iconic site of Havana, and a place for locals to gather and socialise. Cuban’s of all ages are drawn to this place making it one of the liveliest social scenes in Havana.
Students gather here for anything from philosophical discussions to romantic dates to turning the Malecon into an impromptu bar and club. Musicians come here to rehearse, buskers to make a living singing Guantanamera on an infernal loop to passing by tourists. Photographers, painters, fishermen, the gay community, and school kids all gather here to dream and breath the salty air, and sometimes wonder what on earth is happening 90 miles to the north.
The demonstrations square in front of the US Embassy, Revolution Square, the Havana necropolis, the University of Havana, and La Rampa are but a few of the sites these tours cover.
Our overview of this tour does not aim to be exhaustive. It is only meant to give you a flavour of the Old American Car tour experience. We do recommend it to our clients. Many visitors to Havana book hotels in the Old Quarters and stay confined there for the length of the stay. There’s lots to see and do outside the historical quarters, and the American Car tour in Havana gives visitors the perfect excuse to explore this fascinating city and discover some of the most compelling stories that make Havana such a captivating place.
Did you know? Most vintage American cars in Cuba are privately owned. With the exception of a few government-run companies, most classic American cars in Havana are privately owned. This is yet another reason why we recommend our clients to take this tour. The money spent on tours like this goes directly to support Cuban families.
Riding a vintage car in Cuba is possible outside Havana, but most cars are in Havana
Most vintage American cars available to tourists are located in Havana.
This is perhaps because most car owners before the Revolution were Havaneros. Or maybe because the city, as a tourist destination, recruits more car owners willing to get into the tourism business.
Whatever the reason, we’d recommend Havana for the vintage American car tour. It is also possible to book a tour of this kind outside Havana, for instance in Varadero. But the itineraries are far less interesting.
How did Cuba end up with such a great stock of 1950’s American Cars?
Shortly after the Revolution, the Cuban government started a crusade against private property, class differences, and anything that remotely resembled a middle or upper class lifestyle.
As items of luxury, car ownership inevitably became an issue. The government stopped selling cars for private use. They became a government property to be shared by people in key positions.
Car owners were allowed to retain their property. But with no new parts coming into the country from the US, and no change of purchasing a new car, fixing and maintaining the family car went over the years from a routine to an art.
Cars turned into some sort of a family member, passed down for generations. Perhaps the most precious possession Cuban families could possibly hope to inherit. In smaller towns and villages outside Havana, Old American cars turned into a community asset, with the owner of the car doing anything from hospital runs to weddings at no cost to the community.
“In the small village where I was born, there was only one car owner for miles around. I remember distinctly people coming to the owner’s house in the middle of the night, to take someone to the hospital. Then the next day polishing the washed-out green 1960’s Pontiac getting it ready to play the role of wedding limousine. The old American car, much like the school and the medic’s post or the local market, was at the centre of community life.”
For many years, particularly during the 1990s and the early 2000s when public transportation in Cuba came to a grinding halt, vintage American cars quickly became the main means of public transportation in Cuba. Turned overnight into private taxis, these aging beauties kept the country moving. A thankless job in a country that saw them as a the only solution to palliate a deepening transportation crisis, but also as, perhaps, the first private businesses allowed in Cuba for over half a century, thus signalling the end of an era and dragging the poor old Chevy Impala to the centre of the political debate on whether, and to what extent, the Cuban government was prepared to allow private property and private businesses in Communist Cuba.
To this day, old American cars remain an important means of public transportation in Havana and many other major cities across the island.
What kind of classic American cars will you be able to ride?
One of the main misconceptions about classic American car tours in Havana is that convertibles are common, and desirable.
The sun in Cuba can be quite unforgiving, the rain temperamental, and dampness coming from the sea quite aggressive on metal surfaces. Contrary to what period films would have you believe, convertibles were never the norm.
There’s a chance you might not be able to book a tour in a convertible. If you do, make sure you bring your hat, shades, and lots of sun cream.
That being said, here’s a sample of the most common vintage cars you’ll be able to spot in Havana, and book for a city tour. The list includes a few European gems. I’m not a car expert, so please forgive me if you spot any mistakes, and let me know to correct it.
Old American Cars, road safety, and safety tips
Seatbelts didn’t become a standard safety feature in cars until the 1960’s and a legal requirement in the US only in 1968. Most classic American cars pre-dating those developments lack the seatbelt safety feature. 1970s models might lack seatbelts too, being one of the most perishable items in a car. You must assume all vintage cars in Cuba lack seatbelts.
With so few cars in Cuba, old and classic or otherwise, getting stuck on traffic is non-possibility, which makes the classic American car tour of Havana a pleasurable experience. Potholes are of some concern, but the drivers know the city very well so this shouldn’t be a problem.
Bring with you a bottle of water, even if travelling during the winter season. Stay hydrated at all times. If touring Havana in a convertible, you might like to bring a hat and shades too
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