Havana’s Antiques on Wheels
By: Ciro Bianchi Ross, Photos: José Tito Meriño
“In 1958 Cuba had the world’s sixth largest ratio of automobiles to inhabitants, preceded only by the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Venezuela and West Germany in that order.”
It was back in December 1898 when the dusty streets of Havana first saw a noisy automobile running on gasoline that could only go 10 kilometers per hour. It was a Parisian car that had cost its owner 1,000 pesos. Six months later, a second automobile was brought to Cuba from Lyon: an eight-horsepower Rochet- Schneider worth 4,000 pesos. A third car arrived later on and was used to transport goods from a cigarette factory in Havana.
At the turn of the century, Cuba also witnessed the introduction of cinema, aviation, the electrical streetcar and the telephone. Everything changed overnight: the country changed from Spanish to U.S. territory; from animal traction to internal combustion and from the reins to the breaks and the steering wheel.
By 1901 there were eleven cars circulating in Havana. Four years later, the first fingerprinted driver’s license was issued. The first car accident recorded in Havana took place in 1906, when a citizen died after being run over by President Estrada Palma’s car. The first driver’s license given to a woman was issued in 1917 and traffic lights were first employed in the country in 1930.
By the second half of the 1910s, the automobile had replaced animal traction vehicles. In 1913 there were more than a thousand automobiles circulating in Havana. By 1916, there were more than three thousand. Over 180 thousand cars were circulating in Cuba in 1959, most of them made in the United States. Cubans preferred the Chevrolet, followed by Ford, Buick and Plymouth.
Cuba had soon become a paradise for the US automobile industry, turning out to be Latin America’s largest car importing country in 1919 and had one of the world’s largest ratios of cars to inhabitants.
Magazines, clubs and associations linked to the automobile industry existed in Cuba at the time. Car races started very early on too. The first one took place in 1903 along the Puente de La Lisa-Guanajay intersection. This race had a peculiarity: the drivers’ wives were their copilots. The winner turned out to be the only competitor who left his wife at home.
Two years later, on February 12, 1905, Cuba hosted the first international race: a two-way ride covering 158 kilometers between the towns of Arroyo Arenas and San Cristóbal. Some of the world’s most famous racing drivers, including some who had set world records, and the most powerful cars of the time came for the occasion.
The winner was the Cuban Ernesto Carricaburu, who had never taken part in a competition of that kind before. He set a world speed record in a seven-horsepower Mercedes.
Tourists who visit Cuba are all amazed by the large numbers of cars made in the United States pre-1959, that are still running on the island today thanks to the creativity that distinguishes Cubans. It pretty much resembles a museum on wheels.
Historic cars are on display at what is known here as the Automobile Depot, including the oldest car preserved in Cuba, a 1905 Cadillac, and the 1960 Chevrolet used by Che Guevara.