Nostalgic Cars: Sour Automotive Fruit Of Cuban Embargo Gets New Life

By Robert Siegel NPR

In Havana, Cuba, the old cars that crowd the streets used to symbolize a stagnant nation. Now enterprising Cubans have begun renting cars out to tourists who are hungry for the cars of their youth.

During my reporting trip to Havana, I spoke with Julio Alvarez, the owner of Nostalgicar in Havana.

He joked that one thing Cubans should thank Fidel Castro for is all the old, majestic American cars that are now making him money.

You can listen to the story using the player above.

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Transcript :


When I was in Havana earlier this month, I was reminded of what people used to say when they returned from the Cuban capital back in the 1970s. They’d say, Cubans drive cars that are 20 years old. Well, now people go to Havana and they say, wow, Cubans drive cars that are 60 years old. Some enterprising Cuban car lovers have turned this sour automotive fruit of the U.S. embargo – all those cars from before the 1960s, for lack of new ones – and turned that deficit into a plus through lots of repair work and lots of enterprise.

JULIO ALVAREZ: OK. My name is Julio Alvarez.

SIEGEL: Julio Alvarez owns a car-rental service called NostalgiCar.

And Mr. Alvarez, are you working on that Chevrolet right over…

ALVAREZ: Chevrolet, 1955. It’s my car. Yes, yes. My passion.

SIEGEL: It’s a Bel Air.

ALVAREZ: Bel Air, yes.

SIEGEL: He loves that blue-and-white ’55 Bel Air and he rents it out to tourists. With my colleague Eyder Peralta, I asked Julio Alvarez how much of the car is actually from 1955. He said practically all of it.

ALVAREZ: (Foreign language spoken).

SIEGEL: Except the engine, everything but the engine.

ALVAREZ: Yes. (Foreign language spoken). Four kilometer one liter.

SIEGEL: One liter V8 engine?

ALVAREZ: V8 engine – original.

SIEGEL: Original, yeah.

ALVAREZ: Four kilometer, one liter, the gas.

SIEGEL: It got four kilometers to a liter of gas.

ALVAREZ: In this moment is Toyota 12 kilometer, one liter.

SIEGEL: So now you have a Toyota motor in there that gets 12 kilometers to the liter. I’ll leave that to our listeners in America – get out your calculators and figure out that. But it’s a lot more efficient.

ALVAREZ: (Foreign language spoken).

SIEGEL: But he says the garage keeps the original engines. The Toyota engine under the hood is a diesel engine. In fact, the early ’50s models that run regular taxi cab routes in the city, the Ford Fairlanes, the Pontiac Bonneville convertibles, the Oldsmobile ’88s and even the DeSotos that you can see in Havana typically have much younger diesel engines inside. And that includes the pink-and-white Chevy that Mr. Alvarez’s wife, Nidialicia Costa (ph), drove into the garage.

ALVAREZ: Fifty-six Bel Air, the name is Lola.

SIEGEL: The car’s name is Lola? Well, she’s pink, she’s pink.

ALVAREZ: The blue car, the name is Nadine.

SIEGEL: Nadine?

ALVAREZ: Nadine is the name. The car is Lola.

SIEGEL: Lola. Lola’s beautiful. Lola not only has whitewall tires, but pink wheel rims. Daily traffic in Havana resembles a vintage car rally, even if it does share the city’s streets these days with lots of Hyundais and Peugeots and some rattletrap Russian Ladas. Mr. Alvarez told me that his father was a GM mechanic in Cuba before the revolution. He grew up loving cars from the ’50s and he still does.

ALVAREZ: (Through interpreter) For many years, he and I fixed these types of cars. Now with the new policies in Cuba, I’m able to own my own workshop and fix his own cars. Now all that I’m missing is my dad.

SIEGEL: There is so much love to this labor of Julio Alvarez that he does things that sound like reverse auto snobbery. The current love of his life is a Chevy Impala from 1959, the year when Chevy fins and tail lights became so distended, you could almost mistake the rear of the car for the front. And he has transplanted a Mercedes diesel engine into it as he restores it back to life. Importing parts for these old cars has been complicated by the embargo. There is a factory in California that makes parts for vintage Chevrolets.

ALVAREZ: (Through interpreter) We have some friends who live in Miami. They will buy the parts for us and they charge us an interest rate, which is not cheap at all – 15 to 20 percent – to buy those parts for us. I thought I had friends in Miami, but that percentage is pretty high. (Laughter).

SIEGEL: You have associates in Miami, not friends.

ALVAREZ: Yes, associates, not amigos. Yes, yes.

SIEGEL: So, can I look at the ’55 Bel Air? Can we sit down in the Bel Air for a second?

ALVAREZ: (Foreign language spoken).

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: He says you can drive it, too.

SIEGEL: (Laughter). The chance to drive Nadine, spelled Nadine, was a tempting invitation to time-travel.


SIEGEL: Ah, it’s the sound of a – well, it’s the sound of a Toyota engine, frankly, inside the Chevy Bel Air, but everything else is original. And we’re going to take a ride around the block.

ALVAREZ: OK. Come on.

SIEGEL: The upholstery is the original plastic. No windshield washers, mechanical mirrors or seatbelts. The steering wheel is 18 inches in diameter, bigger than most large pizzas.

Well, it doesn’t exactly purr. Oh, real pick-up there. Yeah. And, you know, I’m not used to having this much car in front of me.

Having made a business out of repairing and renting-out cars from the 1950s, Alvarez jokes that it’s a paradox. New cars are phenomenally expensive in Cuba. Gas used to be so costly that some owners put their old cars up on blocks for 10 years or more. For these old cars he says, we have to thank Fidel.

ALVAREZ: (Foreign language spoken).

PERALTA: It’s something that he worries might be in danger with the opening that, you know, as cars get cheaper these cars may go away.

ALVAREZ: (Through interpreter) That’s why our shop is here, to try to conserve these cars.

SIEGEL: Julio Alvarez, lover of vintage Chevrolets and owner of the car-rental service NostalgiCar, a man who was clever enough to make lemonade from cars that were not lemons, in Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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