Yank Tanks: Cuban Car Culture

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For car lovers around the world, and especially for Americans who have been forbidden from traveling there, Cuba has long been a kind of El Dorado, a magical destination where classics from the golden age of U.S. car culture still travel the streets. With the Cuban/American relationship thawing and Americans once again able to visit the island nation, hospitality developers in Miami may soon begin to see car aficionados who wish to travel back in time basing longed-for vacations out of the city known as “Little Cuba” and “The Gateway to Latin America.”

In the first part of the 20th century, Cuba was the wealthiest nation in the Caribbean. Cuba had imported its first car in 1898, and in the ’40s and ’50s, when American car manufacturers were ramping up production, Cubans imported hundreds of thousands of cars from the U.S. But by the end of the 1953-’59 revolution, Cuban-American trade – and the average Cuban’s ability to afford consumer goods – had come to a halt. Suddenly Cuba became a poor country embargoed from trade with its nearest and richest potential market. The shift effectively froze the island’s material culture for the next half century.

Ironically, however, Cuba’s decline preserved some of the artifacts of America’s rise. The cars built to serve an emerging world of exuberant, optimistic consumer capitalism lived on in Cuba even as Americans moved on to newer models and manufacturers. Unable to replace their aging cars, Cubans kept them running, instead; as a result, the country now has the  highest concentration of antique American cars in the world.

As every car owner knows, aging vehicles require considerable maintenance. Cubans became involuntary preservationists, conserving and patching up an aging fleet of some of the most beautiful and collectible cars ever built. In Cuba, one can still find Cadillacs from 1948, the year fins were introduced; GM cars from 1954, when the company first featured wraparound windshields in some of their models; late-1950s Chevys; and cars from makers that no longer exist such as Packard, DeSoto, and Studebaker. In many cases, owners use their cars as taxis, primarily catering to foreign tourists and putting at least some of the dollars they earn back into keeping their cars running.

Obtaining American-made car parts, of course, has represented an enormous challenge for Cuban car owners for decades. The embargo made it illegal for American manufacturers to supply parts to Cubans, and most Cubans were largely unable to afford them, anyway. As time wore on, many parts ceased to be produced and became unavailable, even in the U.S. While in some cases, parts or materials could be supplied by relatives traveling through Miami, in most, Cubans built parts by hand or came up with innovative replacements. As a result, “Yank Tanks,” as U.S.-built automobiles are sometimes called in Cuba, became uniquely Cuban. Repainted in bright colors, repaired with parts adapted from other models, even kept working with the likes of brake fluid made of mineral oil and tree sap, the Yank Tanks of Cuba eventually became as much works of art as preserved historic vehicles.

Car collectors and companies that insure classic automobiles have speculated for years that the opening of Cuba might bring a new supply of old cars to market. It’s not yet clear if that will be the case; Cuba considers these vehicles national treasures, and both Cuban and American laws currently forbid such sales. If such sales do begin to happen, perhaps luxury real estate developers in Miami will begin providing storage for vintage cars among their buildings’ amenities.

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