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Cuban Motor Crisis

In the early hours of 1959, Fidel Castro and Che Guevera overthrew the Cuban government. In 1960, the U.S. imposed an embargo on Cuba, expanding it in 1962. Months later, escalation brought the world within days of nuclear war. And then, for a long time, nothing happened.

Until December 1999, when the Bloomfield Hills Andover High School Barons set foot on Cuban soil for a bilateral soccer tournament to determine, once and for all, the supremacy of communism or capitalism. I was on the tarmac in Havana — projectile vomiting promptly after we deplaned — and, 12 years later, the trip still seems like a dream. Or a Dream Cruise.

What stands out most — more than the old ladies and small children smoking cigars — are the cars. Not even Elian Gonzalez, who was marooned in Miami in an international custody battle at the very same time we were 90 miles offshore in his homeland, could take my eyes off the fins and fenders.

For more than 50 years, it was illegal in Cuba to buy and sell cars built before 1959. I doubt that it was Fidel’s goal to create a living, revving, exhausting autorama that captured a golden age both in Detroit and on the road. But that’s exactly what he got.

“Aha, here’s the new Packard we’ve been hearing so much about,” Mr. Burns says after he and Homer Simpson wash ashore in cartoon Cuba. Against this real-life tropical backdrop, vintage vehicles fill streets alongside bicycles, children and chickens.

Unlike stately stateside Studebakers — the ones that receive as much doting and as little exposure as American newborn babies — Cuban cruisers are beasts of burden. Sun-soaked beauty takes a backseat to sheer endurance, as wily mecanicos cannibalize parts from Soviet-era Ladas and Volgas, work miracles with duct tape and concoct brake fluid from oil, shampoo and soap.

But last September, Raul Castro — Cuba’s Frank Stallone — approved a government decree for the import, purchase and sale of automobiles. As the DeSotos and Nashes fade into the horizon like Field of Dreams players, one has to wonder who loves their cars more — Detroiters or Havanans? General Motors pioneered planned obsolescence. CEO Alfred P. Sloan said in 1941, “Today the appearance of a motorcar is a most important factor in the selling end of the business — perhaps the most important factor — because everyone knows the car will run.” ¡Claro!

In Cuba, you can have your clutch and practically eat it, too, with islanders idling in ironic Imperials, the likes of which would make Sloan blow a gasket and Mel Farr relinquish his superstardom. In Detroit, we worship our old cars, but is there any higher honor than, decades on, getting people where they need to go? Clunkiness is next to godliness.

Another Auto Show has come and gone and, with it, everything from dazzling concepts to Barry Sanders, apparently. We can press on with the peace of mind that the once-precarious Auto Show will be at Cobo at least until 2017. But by 2017, Cuba’s community of classics could go the way of the Edsel.

¿El torneo de fútbol? We got trounced. But our conquering comrades were kind. Maybe now we can return the favor. 

Viva la Ford Fiesta!



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