Larry Penkava Column: Who needs a time machine when we have Cuba?

Published 2:57 pm Tuesday, August 21, 2018

It’s the season for car shows and cruise-ins, which brings up the age-old question: Do car makers purposely produce vehicles that will wear out in order to increase sales?

Larry Penkava

Well, here’s one answer: Whoever said auto manufacturers make cars with built-in obsolescence haven’t been to Havana.

With U.S. car sales banned there in 1959, Cuban shade-tree mechanics have kept the 1950s-era Fords, Chevys and Dodges patched up with bubble gum and baling wire.

An Associated Press article that appeared in December 2014 said, “The half-century-old embargo on most U.S. exports has turned Cubans into some of the most inventive mechanics in the world, technicians capable of engineering feats long lost to the modern world of electronic ignitions and computerized engine calibration.”

Apparently, Havana streets resemble movies set in the 1950s. Or, as the AP puts it, the old cars “make it appear like the country is stuck in a 1950s time warp.”

In other words, something I can identify with. And don’t kid yourself — many of you readers feel the same way. You’re the ones who show up at classic car cruise-ins to revisit your past, to yearn for the days when you cruised the streets and drive-ins of yesteryear.

Most of us from the Baby Boom Generation grew up during the time when a ragtag group of scruffy revolutionaries were hiding in the mountains of Cuba. They’d appear long enough to lay a smacking on President Batista’s forces, then retreat back to their hideaways.

For us in the U.S. at the time, it was an amusement. Fidel was kind of a cross between a folk hero and a gorilla fighter (er, guerilla?).

Many of us were even joyful when his band of soldiers marched triumphantly into Havana in January 1959. The delight turned to dismay when Castro poked Uncle Sam in the eye by nationalizing Esso and Coca-Cola and other companies that took advantage of the island’s natural resources and cheap labor. The U.S. responded with an embargo of American trade that’s lasted nearly 60 years.

And that’s how the permanent antique car show in Cuba came to be. It’s even a law that, with the dearth of private and public transportation, drivers must pick up hitchhikers along certain highways. Another blast from the American past.

But since President Obama announced during his second term that he was resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba, there’s been some talk about the value of the ancient cars rising in response to a foreign market.

Not so fast. The AP story quotes a car lover from Detroit who sees things in a different light.

“I’m not sure there’s a single car on the road in Cuba you could bring here and put in a car show,” said Tom Wilkinson, who recently visited the island as part of a cultural exchange.

“ ‘You have to admire how resourceful the Cubans have been, keeping these cars running and modernizing them as much as they can,’ said Wilkinson. ‘That said, by the standards of the American collector, they’re way too rough.’ ”

What? Those cars should be collectors items simply because of what they are, warts and all.

Tell me, who wouldn’t want to own “a gleaming black 1954 Buick with polished chrome highlights and the diesel motor from an electric plant bolted beneath the hood?”

Those old Chevys and Fords and Dodges are cultural icons, links to the past, living and breathing necessities of Cuban life.

A ‘57 Chevy in the U.S. is something you drive to car shows and put on display for old-timers like me.

In Havana, a similar but “way too rough” Five-Seven is what they use for regular transportation to fulfill the necessities of life — if they can find a way to replace the spark plugs.

Too rough? Heck, that’s their charm.

Larry Penkava, who has written Now and Then since 1994, has never kept a car for more than 20 years.