President Obama’s historic announcement to begin restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba after 53 years of Cold War hostility not only ushers in a new era of what’s sure to be interesting political diplomacy, but it also opens the doors for car collectors. Cigars aside, Cuba is also famous for classic cars from the 1950’s because after Fidel Castro gained power in 1959, he imposed an embargo on importing foreign automobiles. He essentially turned Cuba into a car museum specializing in 50’s and pre-50’s car models. Now, whether any of these vehicles, lovingly called Yank Tanks or Máquinas, ranks as a collector car is another matter.
Banning new car imports in Cuba also meant banning car parts, so for the last fifty years, Cubans have engaged in a home garage industry, repairing their 50’s era cars with fabricated parts from household products and Soviet automobiles. A car may look like a beautiful classic ’57 Chevy on the outside but underneath the hood, there can be a Frankenstein-like collection of parts. This fact is what diminishes the value of a car since car collecting is all about original parts. Vintage car appraiser Steve Linden says, “The problem is that, in general, the collectors know these cars have not really been maintained. They’ve been actually driven and used as daily cars.”
It’s estimated there are about 60,000 Yank tanks on the roads in Cuba today, many of them operating as taxis. Although Cubans take pride in their automobiles, the island’s poor economic state has forced citizens to make auto maintenance a lower priority than basic food and shelter. If a car was beyond repair or the owner couldn’t afford the repairs, parts would be sold off in order to raise extra income or the car would be parked until the owner could afford for it to be fixed. If they wanted to buy another car, Cubans can only buy U.S. cars for private use if those cars were acquired before the revolution and previously registered for private use. And if the owner doesn’t have the correct paperwork, a car cannot be sold legally.
Some experts like Jonathan Klinger, from collector car insurance company Hagerty, feel that the value of Cuba’s classic cars might be overrated, “I think some people have this vision of a treasure trove of lost cars but some of the greatest cars from the days of the Cuban Grand Prix have already left through other countries.” Economically, it doesn’t make sense for Americans to buy a classic from Cuba since restoration costs depending on the car, could run between $40,000 and $80,000 but buying the same reconditioned model in the U.S. could cost anywhere between $15,000 and $70,000.
However, this doesn’t mean that classic cars from Cuba have no value whatsoever. The very fact that a certain vehicle is from Cuba means that it has a historic backstory, which can be almost as valuable and important as original parts. And, since the steps toward restoring trade relations between Cuba and the U.S. are just beginning, it may be a while before American car connoisseurs can truly get a look at what Cuba has to offer. Meanwhile, as travel sanctions to the island ease, it may be worth a car enthusiast’s time to take a step back into history and see Cuba’s classic cars firsthand, frozen in time.