Friday, December 2, 2016



"For Business or Pleasure, Volkswagen Station Wagons are First-Class Transportation."

Known as "Station Wagon" in the U.S., the VW Transporter, at front, is the precursor of the modern minivan. The Hyundai Grace from 2002 or 2003, in the background, is half a century younger than the Transporter. Yet, it merely is a refined version of the basic concept laid out by its forerunner.

Dutch Volkswagen importer Ben Pon found open ears in Wolfsburg when he envisioned a commercial derivate of the VW Beetle upon visiting the Volkswagen factory in early 1947. The development, based on the backbone of the Beetle, began one year later, but technical difficulties demanded so many modifications that eventually the only commonality between both models was their identical wheelbase.

VW began producing the Transporter, called "Type 2", in 1950, as soon as the Wolfsburg factory's growing production capacity allowed for a second model, alongside of the Beetle "Type 1". From the beginning, the export accounted for 20 percent of the Transporter's annual production volume. According to a VW dealer handbook from 1954, no "Type 2" buses were exported to Cuba in the first two years of production, while 244 VW buses arrived at the island between 1952 and 1954. Our pictured bus is not from that batch: most likely it comes from South America, where VW subsequently began producing the Transporter in its new overseas factories.

The Brazilian Volkswagen factory, for instance, kept on producing the first generation, also known as T1, until 1975. It's hard to tell the exact age of our pictured model, but there are some hints: the extended roofline above the windshield betrays a model that's been produced after August 1955. And in 1968, the Brazilian T1 buses received the front end of the newer VW T2, which narrows down the birthday of our pictured T1 to the years in between.

Sunday, November 20, 2016



"The excitement it stirs in your heart when you see the Continental Mark II lies in the way it has dared to depart from the conventional, the obvious. And that's as we intended it. For in designing and building this distinguished motor car, we were thinking, especially, of those who admire the beauty of honest, simple lines . . . and of those who most appreciate a car which has been so conscientiously crafted. The man who owns a Continental Mark II will possess a motor car that is truly distinctive and will keep its distinction for years to come."

It seems that Cuba's pilots do have a predilection for the most luxurious American cars of their era. Case in point: Juan Manuel Rodríguez and his magnificent 1954 Chrysler Custom Imperial. Julio Palmero Pedrianes, another Cuban pilot, drives the pictured Continental Mark II. We've covered the same car some years ago, when it was still painted in black, its original factory color. Meanwhile, Julio Palmero has repainted his pride, and opted for an elegant red hue. He suggests that his car once belonged to dictator Batista's wife, Marta.

Continental Mark II were exclusive cars, and comprehensive documentation is still available. The details are a bit sketchy, though. The well-informed Caristas blog wrote about our pictured Continental, serial number 2784, as being shipped to "El Relámpago", Ford's branch in Havana, in February of 1956. Listed as customer in the delivery paperwork was Carlos Alonso, who owned the dealership. Alonso's name was also mentioned in an earlier version of the database of the renown Mark II forum. This has changed since, and Marta Batista became listed as the first owner, perhaps due to the circulation of Julio Palmero's narration. According to Palmero, the Mark II was given to Marta Batista's maid when Cuba's First Lady fled from the revolutionary troops in early 1959.

There's another side to the story, though, also told by the Continental's owner. According to that version, the car made its first appearance in Cuba's official vehicle registry in 1958 (the year before the Batistas fled the country), being assigned to Antonio la Roca, an Italian, who'd be the Continental's proprietor until the 1990s. In 2004, after some years under a second owner, the car got in possession of Julio Palmero. At this point, urban legend kicks in: Antonio la Roca apparently was employed at the Finca Cuquines, and the Mark II was bestowed to him because Mrs. Batista felt the elegant car was too low and contrasting with her own corpulent stature.

Back to facts: Finca Cuquines, now known as Villa Libertad, indeed was a former countryside residence of the Batista family in the outskirts of Havana. And it's documented that Mrs. Batista herself ordered another Continental Mark II with serial number 3359 in 1956, which shows that the Batistas certainly didn't bother to cover their pricey acquisitions by registering them under a false name.

But would Mrs. Batista buy an expensive Continental Mark II from the local Ford dealer around the same time she already expected delivery of "her own" car in September 1956? And, apparently being so embarrassed by her „first“ Continental that she gave it away to one of her employees, would she order yet another one? Would a 10,000 Dollar car be given away to an employee at all? Common sense renders this an implausible presumption.

But who knows? It is, of course, thinkable that someone within the Batista family was once in possession of the pictured Continental. Today, almost six decades later, it seems impossible to separate myths from facts, anyway. And regardless of a previous celebrity owner, any Continental Mark II is an awesome car in its own right.

Monday, October 31, 2016



"Paris-styled . . . family-sized . . . and a dream to drive . . . the sensational Renault Dauphine has taken America by storm! Thousands of new owners acclaim it the finest low-cost way to beat today's high cost of driving."

This Dauphine from Havana sure has seen better days, but it still keeps marching on. Which is remarkable, as outside Cuba the Dauphine generally isn't a car which is remembered with fondness.

Meant as a successor to the Renault 4CV, the "heiress apparent" — that's the English meaning of Dauphine — followed the rear-engine, rear-wheel drive formula of its predecessor, but a roomier cabin and modern styling made it a proper automobile that well suited the higher expectations of car buyers in the mid-1950s. The combination of extravagant construction and fashionable design made it a "no-brainer" — at least on paper — for anyone that looked for a progressive car. And in the 1950s, everyone seemed to appreciate progress. Thus, the Dauphine became very successful. Two million cars rolled off the French assembly lines between 1956 and 1968, while factories in Brazil (75,000 units) and Argentina (97,000 cars) made the little Renault omnipresent in Latin American countries.

Initially, the export to the U.S. was promising for the nationalized Régie Renault, accounting for roughly ten percent of the production volume and providing the French government with well appreciated foreign currency. Selling a staggering 91,073 copies, the Dauphine even became America's best-selling import car of 1959. But then, reality should kick in and bring the American infatuation with the cute French automobile to a sudden end: a chaotic spare parts distribution caused trouble and made Renault dealers even strip down their new cars for spare parts. Meanwhile, more and more customers discovered that the nonchalant French build quality and poor performance were underwhelming even by the lowest American standards. Already by 1960, many Dauphines could only be sold with massive discounts, and because the imported cars were often stored for months close to the seaside, early corrosion became a massive problem that further undermined the trust in the French product. Other French brands should severely suffer from that mistrust, too.

In Cuba, there are still quite a few Renault Dauphine around. Not that the people particularly like them here. But in spite of all their obvious flaws, the precarious economic conditions make keeping these cars alive, at all costs, quite inevitable.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016



Pictured here: a conundrum, even for expert car buffs. Meet the Gurgel X-12 TR. The "hardtop" — that's what TR, "teto rígido", means in Portuguese — remains an odd looking box, even if alloy wheels, racy stickers and an useless rear spoiler try hard to add a hint of sportiness.

João Gurgel, a name that probably only rings a bell when you're from Brazil, was an instrumental player in the development of the country's local car industry. The entrepreneur had created his own car company back in 1964, and sold cars under the Gurgel nameplate since 1969. Out of twelve models that the company introduced during its existence, the X-12 was the one that enjoyed some international success. It was an all-terrain vehicle, built on a fiberglass monocoque with an embedded steel frame, a method that Gurgel had patented as "Plasteel". Gurgel X-12 were exported to the Middle East, served as taxis in Bolivia or carried tourists in the Caribbean. Cuba imported a bunch of X-12 in the 1980s, and because they are made from reinforced plastics, most of them are still driving around. Maintenance is easy: many parts, including the rear mounted engine, are taken from the ubiquitous VW "Beetle". And even in Cuba there is no shortage of VW spare parts.

But despite being from a 100% national brand, Gurgel cars never became popular in their homeland, not least for their peculiar design. "Odd looking" became kind of a trademark for the creations of the company that only could survive as long as it was heavily subsidized by the Brazilian government. After around 40,000 vehicles, produced within three decades, the company finally went bankrupt in 1995.

Monday, October 17, 2016



"Motorists with a feeling for style and an instinct for value are satisfying both sides of their nature with the stunning new Chrysler Windsor Deluxe. Here's why, in the simplest terms: It's a BIG car . . . with big-car comfort, prestige and resale value. It's a brilliant full scale example of Chrysler's new '100-Million-Dollar Look,' a shining sweep of tailored steel, longer and lower than other big cars. Yet it can be yours for lots less than you'd expect!"

The 1955 Chrysler was a genuinely elegant automobile: alluring curves and stunning proportions, highlighted by the extreme ratio of glass to body, made the Chrysler stand out among its peers. Seemingly out of nowhere, Chrysler offered desirable cars again, and only few noticed that this was due to a paramount change in the company’s internal organization.

American car makers had good times in the latter 1940s, when their customers snatched up literally everything that had wheels. With the postwar car market becoming saturated, however, car styling again became an important sales factor. Which put particularly Chrysler in a dilemma: Mopar cars were powerful and well engineered, yet they didn't raise many pulses, as they simply didn't look the part. Adding insult to injury, the company was slow to adapt to the obvious change of customer expectations and stuck to practical and stolid cars — the dull "Keller boxes". In this light, the stunning Chryslers for 1955 became all the more surprising.

Chrysler's chairman K.T. Keller had at least realized the harmful effect of his conservative approach to car design on the sales numbers. In 1952, he offered Virgil Exner — by then head of Chrysler's advanced design studio — the opportunity to design the entire range of 1955 Chrysler cars. Timing was critical, and to achieve the task, Exner demanded a significant change in Chrysler's design organization. Until then, the clay modelers were subordinate to the engineering department. The designer's role was merely to provide the drawings that the engineers and clay modelers then would translate into styling models. Hence, critical design decisions ended mostly in favor of engineering. Exner now requested the clay model studio to be under control of the stylists, and K.T. Keller, hesitantly, approved. It was the right decision, visible in the immense improvement of the 1955 Mopars over their predecessors, and crucial for the tremendous rise to styling leadership with the next generation of Exner-styled Chryslers.

Completely redesigned, and dubbed "Forward Look Chryslers" by the copywriters, the new models were handsome and elegant. The customers did resonate well with the new styling direction, and Chrysler could boost its sales to more than 152,000 cars, 45% more than in the previous year.

Thursday, September 8, 2016



"You expect something pretty special in the way of driving pleasure the very first time you take charge of a new Chevrolet. Those clean, graceful contours hold a promise of quicksilver responsiveness. And there's something about the low, action-poised profile that tells you Chevy's a honey to handle.

It doesn't take long to find out that this car lives up to all its 'advanced notice' — and then some! Horsepower ranging up to 245* translates your toe-touch into cream-smooth motion. You find that turning a corner is almost as easy as making a wish. And you see how Chevrolet's solid sureness of control makes for safer, happier driving on city streets, superhighways and everything in between."


The right set of wheels and a proper suspension setup make even an ordinary bread-and-butter Chevrolet look pretty special.

The Two-Ten was the sensible choice if you were in the game for a new Chevrolet: it offered most of the bells and whistles of the range-topping Bel Air, save for the dashing rear fender panels, made out of anodized aluminum, and some glossy trim details. Yet, the 1950s were expressive times, and most buyers would rather spend an extra $100 to show their neighbors that they could afford the flashiest of the new Chevrolets.

Or they went to buy the all-new 1957 Ford, instead. While its classic styling makes the 1957 Chevrolet a prized 1950s icon today, at the time most buyers considered the Ford looking more modern and attractive and ergo Chevrolet was outsold by its perennial competitor for the first time since 1935.

Sunday, August 28, 2016



"With the style of a thoroughbred and the strength of a shire horse the Niva 4WD is one of the toughest and most versatile vehicles available."

The English brochure from 1987 cuts right to the chase. The Lada Niva, introduced in 1977 and still built today, is a veritable off-road diehard, and one of the few internationally successful Russian passenger cars. Because Cuba was nursed by Russia, many Nivas found the way to the island. The majority of them are the regular three door version, but occasionally you'll come across a long-wheelbase 5-door Niva, too.

Originally developed as an undemanding workhorse for rural use (hence the name Niva — meaning "cornfield“ in Russian), the car quickly became known for its ruggedness and gathered a loyal fan base in many western countries. For years, the Niva had practically no rivals. It was built unlike any other 4x4 car of its time, but that only added up to the Niva's appeal. The modern unibody structure and mechanicals taken from the Fiat-based Lada sedans made the Niva a versatile alternative to any regular econobox and thus a precursor to the now popular compact SUV's that emerged on the market much later.

Perhaps best of all, the Niva didn't look like your average car from Eastern Europe. Its fortunate proportions and the somewhat timeless design made it an interesting choice even for motorists beyond the Iron Curtain. The Niva was marketed under many different names, such as Cossac in England and Canada, Taiga in Germany or Bushman in Australia. It was a crude ride, though: the missing power steering and the four wheel-drive gearbox with its three separate shifter sticks in the center tunnel (commanding gears, differential lock and transfer case, respectively) meant a lot of muscling around when driving a Niva.

Over its almost four decades long production run, the Niva didn't change much, which speaks for it's reassuring technical qualities. The pictured 5-door version VAZ 2131 was added to the lineup in 1993, featuring a 500mm (19.7-inch) longer wheelbase and a modified trunk lid with vertical taillights which the regular 3-door Nivas also received two years later with a facelift in 1995.

Saturday, August 20, 2016



"The New Style in Postwar Driving! Oldsmobile's smart new style is more than a matter of smooth, flowing lines, ultra-modern trim, and tasteful interiors. It's a new style of driving, too . . . the Hydra-Matic way . . . the easiest way of driving ever devised. No gear shifting to think about. No clutch pedal to bother with. Hydra-Matic Drive is the nearest thing yet to completely automatic driving. Just step on the gas and away you go . . . in style . . . in the brilliant new Oldsmobile with General Motors' new Hydra-Matic Drive."

This Oldsmobile from Havana shows off really dramatic proportions: the massive bonnet and front fenders create a stark contrast to the taut fastback cabin and make the car look a bit like a Bulldog on wheels.

Just like most American car manufacturers, Oldsmobile offered warmed-up prewar designs through 1948. Thus, the 1946 models were merely 1942 cars with updated trim. The little changes, however, did the Oldsmobile well, as the designers somehow had got lost in a very ornate front grille design in the early 1940s. For 1946, simple horizontal bars were introduced, which suited to the overall rather clean Oldsmobile design in a much better way.

More than styling, the noteworthy feature at Oldsmobile anyway was Hydra-Matic. This automatic transmission, developed in a joint effort between Cadillac and Oldsmobile, became exclusively available in the 1940 Oldsmobiles, while Cadillac jumped on the bandwagon one year later: apparently, GM didn't want to risk ruining the reputation of Cadillac in case the new technology was flawed.

But the Hydra-Matic was reliable and should become very popular: by February 1942, more than 210,000 cars were equipped with the new transmission. The trend gained momentum in postwar times. In 1948, when Pontiac introduced Hydra-Matic, 73% of buyers opted for the new transmission. In the same year, more than 90% of Cadillacs and nearly all Oldsmobiles were equipped with the auto tranny.

GM even sold the transmission to its competitors, and by the early 1950s, Lincoln, Nash, Hudson and Kaiser-Frazer equipped their cars with Hydra-Matic, too.

Saturday, August 13, 2016



"Cadillac's many and varied contributions to the cause of automotive progress have, over the years, represented one of the most important and inspiring traditions in all motordom. And in styling, in design and in engineering, the latest 'car of cars' has added dramatic emphasis to this fact of Cadillac leadership. If you have not yet inspected its marvelous new Fleetwood coachcrafting — or experienced its brilliant new performance — you should do so soon."

Noble understatement was never a trait of Cadillac's advertisement. Especially throughout the 1950s, GM's luxury division cultivated the image of being "Standard of the World", suggesting that everyone was following. Yet, the company's proclaimed "various contributions to the cause of automotive progress" definitely didn't include a station wagon. It took Cuban craftsmen to complete the unfinished task.

The linear window graphics of this rather clumsy rework actually create fairly extreme proportions which somehow suit the Cadillac design. Harley Earl certainly would be pleased to see his mantra of "longer and lower" looking cars in full effect here, even if an original Cadillac station wagon would probably look more baroque and opulent than our pictured model.

"Baroque" seemed to be the underlying theme for all GM designs in 1958. That year, the models turned into garish chrome monsters. Among them, the Cadillac still looked surprisingly decent. Novel quad headlights and a wider front grille should make the 1958 Cadillacs look different but certainly not better than their predecessors, and probably many customers thought the same. Cadillac's sales didn't nosedive as sharp as most other "Full-size" cars in 1958, yet they took a serious hit. Even if the luxury segment wasn't really affected from the buyer's sudden turn to economic "compact" cars, the Cadillacs sold badly that year. Thus, 1958 Cadillacs aren't common in Cuba today, either. This genuine example over at Caristas nicely illustrates how the 1958 Cadillac looked before its station wagon conversion.

Monday, June 20, 2016



"THERE COMES A DAY of decision in everyone's life . . . whether to stay with the old, or step out and up with the bold and the new! You'll never know more thrilling excitement than when you slide behind the wheel of a 1951 Dodge, whether it be stunning convertible, practical sedan or proud station wagon. Dodge for '51 brings you more of everything you want . . . more vision, more roominess, more comfort, more safety. It is literally true you can pay up to a thousand dollars more for a car and still not get all the extra-value features that are built into those great Dodge cars. We say, 'Drive the new 1951 Dodge for five minutes and you'll drive it for years.' "

If aired in Cuba today, Dodge's advertisement would probably sound like a threat rather than a promise to the owner of this Dodge Coronet from Ciego de Avila. Here, you'll need to drive the car for years, and even decades, as there's yet no real alternative to vintage Detroit iron if you want to own a private car. Dodge's top-of-the-line car for 1951 at least offers plenty of space and a comfortable ride.

Among Detroit's "Big Three", the Chrysler Mopars definitely underwent the most dramatic transformation in the early 1950s. The streamlined Chrysler Airflow of 1934 had been decidedly advanced in styling and technology, but turned out to be a commercial disaster. In response to this experience, Chrysler became extremely conservative in the following years, putting practicality and a sound engineering before everything else. The first generation of the all-new postwar Mopars was still developed in this mindset. Nicknamed after Chrysler president K.T. Keller, these "Keller boxes" excelled with quality, but certainly not with style.

Chrysler designers under styling chief Henry King worked miracles to modernize the look of the "Keller boxes" with the 1951 facelift. Yet, there wasn't much they could do: Chrysler's stylists were still subordinate to engineering, and thus had to obey all conservative engineering decisions. Because the structural body was carried over unchanged, the cars kept on looking pretty stodgy and angular. But the new front end with its much softer sculpted bonnet and the low, horizontal front grille made the car blend much better with the contemporary trends. While the design wasn't yet a match for the fashionable competition, the gap was closing.

Chrysler president K.T. Keller was responsible for the stodgy and conservative "Keller boxes", but to his credit he also hired talented designer Virgil Exner from Studebaker in 1949 to lead the Chrysler Advanced Styling Group. After creating some stunning show cars, Exner should become head of Chrysler styling in 1953, and the "Forward Look" Mopars — the first generation of Exner-styled cars — should instantly catapult Chrysler to the top of the automotive fashion game.

Monday, June 6, 2016



"Mercedes-Benz automobiles have changed over time; the Mercedes-Benz automobile philosophy has not. Today as for the past century, function rules. The engineers see the automobile not as a status symbol or fashion item, but as a machine meant to efficiently convey people."

Here's an interesting hybrid from Matanzas: the front end of a 1959 or 1960 Studebaker is crafted on to a posh Mercedes T-Model. In the 1950s, Mercedes cars were distributed through Cuba's Studebaker dealers, which makes this mash-up in some way "historically correct".

Even without this "facelift", the Mercedes qualifies as a rarity in Cuba. There are a few modern Mercedes around, but most of them are either state-owned or in embassy service, which limits the general Cuban Mercedes-Benz ownership to pre-revolutionary models.

The mid-size Mercedes sedan, also known by its internal designation "Baureihe W124", was a very advanced automobile when presented in 1984. With its aerodynamic shape and a cladded underbody, the W124 achieved a drag coefficient of cd=0.28, one of the lowest at the time. Mercedes' extensive research and experience in safety matters came into full effect in this model, too. A safety cell with defined crash-zones, ABS brake system, seatbelt tensioners and a novel SRS airbag in the steering wheel made it one of the safest vehicles at the time, perhaps only beaten by the Mercedes S-Class. Besides, the W124 was a supremely well-engineered automobile that is still today highly regarded as an ultra-solid used car in many parts of the world.

In October 1985, Mercedes-Benz added the station wagon to the lineup. With its functional and elegant design, this model is a paragon of classic Mercedes values and one of the truly timeless designs that were developed under the lead of Bruno Sacco, who was Mercedes' longstanding head of styling between 1978 and 1999. Its name, T-model (T as in "Touristik und Transport"), nicely echoes the corporate mindset which genuinely focused on engineering, rather than marketing finesse.

Mercedes nicely outlined the dry, no-nonsense corporate approach in the American brochure of 1986: "A MACHINE MEANT TO efficiently convey people from one place to another; this refreshingly simple definition of the primary function of the automobile allows Mercedes-Benz engineers a refreshing degree of freedom.

They can shrug off such ephemeralities as annual styling changes. They need waste no time contriving artificial novelty. What will perform best in the status arena never eclipses what will perform best on the road. Today as for the past century, the engineers of Mercedes-Benz are free to concentrate on designing and building the most efficient possible automobile."

Friday, May 27, 2016



"Your car is the most beautiful of all cars — fleet, clean-sweeping, alive with excitement. You enjoy the years-ahead performance of the greatest engineering the industry ever achieved — with all its deep-breathing power, its sure and satiny handling, it's unlimited comfort and luxury. Your own Imperial is waiting for you now."

Waiting for a rebuild in the streets of Havana, this Imperial from 1958 shows off its imposing proportions. With an overall length of 225.7 inches (5,73 m), these cars weren't exactly compact: a modern Mercedes S-Class in its most luxurious long-wheelbase version measures 206 inches (5,25m) — half a meter shorter than the Imperial.

With the second generation of Virgil Exner's "Forward Look" styling, Chrysler presented a spectacular lineup for 1957. Virgil Exner took particular care in designing the Imperial, almost living in the Imperial studio, as one colleague remembered. While the 1955-1956 models were very elegant cars, the new Imperial became quite a show-off, embodying what the copywriters proudly called "The Finest Expression of the Forward Look." A low stance and high tailfins were a general order of the day, but their compact torsion bar front suspension made the "Forward Look" Chryslers clearly stand out of Detroit's flock. The fancy of having the lowest appearance even compelled the copywriters to declare only a "loaded" overall height of 56,7 inch (1,44 m) in the 1958 Imperial catalog.

The striking Imperial design remained virtually untouched between 1957 and 1960, save for the addition of quad headlights as a standard feature for 1958, and cosmetic changes at grille, bumpers and trim. This was quite unusual in a time when the general consensus demanded wild and extensive model changes each year. Yet, change wasn't really necessary, as the Imperial anyway stood out with its serene proportions and volumes. Only the "simulated deck tire mount" and "Imperial gunsight taillamps" added some contemporary extravaganza.

Achieving this design, however, required a massive investment in the latest technology. The huge compound-curved "Super-scenic Windshield" and curved side glass — both an industry first — tell that Chrysler didn't spare any expenses to accomplish that modern look. It didn't help at the dealers', tough. Not even the designers, always in touch with future trends, could anticipate that an economic recession would force the buyers to sit taut on their wallets in 1958: Imperial sales nosedived to 16,133 cars from a staggering 35,796 in the year before.

Friday, May 20, 2016



"If they called last year's Alfa 'nearly perfect', wait till they handle our new 2000."

You rarely see them on the road, but quite surprisingly Alfa Romeo cars are deeply rooted in Cuba's collective memory. Many senior citizens still remember them, because since the early 1970s, Alfa Berlinas were the typical police cars before they eventually got replaced by Russian Ladas. "They easily could outrun everything else. And the sound, maravilloso!", remembers a witness of that period.

The first batch of Alfa 1750 was delivered to Cuba in 1968. Our pictured Alfa 2000 is an updated version, introduced in 1971. It sported a bigger engine and a revised front grille with four headlights of equal size instead of the bigger outer lights of the Alfa 1750. Besides being used as police cars, these Alfas were for many years exclusively the ride of high-ranking government officials. As usual in socialist times, the demand by far exceeded the supply, and thus the Alfa quickly became THE status symbol of the functionaries at the top of the food chain.

The man responsible for the appearance of these stylish Italian cars on the island was Leo Cittone, sales director of the biggest Italian trade company, Cogis S.p.A.. Cogis was the first European enterprise who helped breaking the U.S. trade embargo by facilitating the export of Cuban sugar through elaborate deals via the port of Genua in 1962. Over these deals, Cittone and Fidel Castro became close friends, and subsequently the Italian became a privileged business partner, establishing his own Italo-Cuban trade company, Comei S.p.A., in the late 1970s. Incidentally, this friendship had far reaching effects to the society: the fact that Pizza and Spaghetti today are a common Cuban meal, dates back to a wave of "italianitis" in the mid-1960s, when hundreds of restaurants suddenly were converted into pizzerias by government decree. Coincidence? Unlikely. Olivetti typewriters became commonplace and today the Cuban police still rides Moto Guzzi bikes, thanks to the Italian connection.

But back to the Alfa Romeo. The Bertone design might look quite unspectacular, but underneath the bonnet sat a veritable cuore sportivo: the 1,962cc twin cam inline four-cylinder engine was good for 150hp and accelerated the Alfa from zero to 100km/h (60mph) in 9.5 seconds, up to a top speed of 190km/h (118mph). Back then this was sports car stuff and certainly more than enough zest for Cuban roads. Even more striking: the sensitive way the Alfa handled. The combination of remarkable performance and well-tuned suspension made the Alfa Berlina one of the most compelling drives of its time. Accordingly, the copywriters of this 1972 ad boldly emphasized on Alfa's strengths:

"Experts keep saying nice things about Alfas. Autoweek, the nation's racing bible, summed up our 1750 Veloce as 'nearly perfect'. How will they describe the new 2000 series? We've added more horses and boosted the torque for extra zip in the middle range (where you need it most).

There's no extra charge for handling — the famous road-holding and cornering that set an Alfa apart. And now you can even have an advanced limited-slip differential.

If you drive to a different drum, you want your car to be an exciting, spirited extension of yourself. And that's exactly why so many pro's praise Alfas. If the new 2000 isn't the perfect car, we're certainly getting closer."

Saturday, May 14, 2016



"If it's the most value you want, it's the New Plymouth you want. Here's an easier car to drive — a safer, more comfortable car to ride in — a sturdier more powerful car for long-time, dependable performance — the greatest of all great Plymouths!"

They might not be the most stylish sizzlers, but Chrysler's "Keller boxes" are remarkably well engineered automobiles. Their quality shows today, on Cuban roads, in the oftentimes surprisingly good condition of these cars.

Our pictured Plymouth from 1949 and its owner, Argelio, regularly participate in rallies and other activities of Havana's renown Escuderia de Autos Clásicos — A lo Cubano. Hence the various stickers. The car was even awarded first place for its "original condition" in one of these competitions. Jurors of classic car clubs in other countries would probably disagree with this assessment. Yet, the preconditions for "original" certainly differ in Cuba. Consider this: rather than in an air conditioned garage, the Plymouth has spent its entire life on the road. After more than six decades in regular use, it still runs with the first engine, transmission and drivetrain, says Argelio, despite the lamentable lack of factory service and spare parts. That's quite an achievement. Details like the delaminating windshield give the Plymouth a nice patina — much more fascinating than any fully restored and pampered "trailer queen".

Thursday, May 5, 2016



"Everything says Luxury Car — Except the Price!"

In automotive styling, it is rare that a Plain Jane is more attractive than the top model, but in case of the Ford 17M we do prefer the base model over the "De Luxe" version, as its four-holed front grille adds a good dose of sportiness.

According to its owner, this car was registered in summer of 1958, which makes it one of Ford's earlier exports to North America. The company massively increased the shipments from its German and British subsidiaries in mid-1958 to provide American Ford dealers with the "compact" cars the buying public so suddenly demanded. Because Detroit's Big Three had completely missed out on that trend, these imports were their only chance to keep on selling competitive automobiles before their own compact cars were ready to hit the road.

Between 1958 and 1959, Ford shipped 8,197 Taunus to the U.S., and sold them mostly through Mercury — Edsel — Lincoln dealers, who probably needed these "compact" cars badly, as their own fullsize cars were collecting dust in the showrooms. But already in late 1960, one year after the introduction of the domestic Ford Falcon, the import from Germany was stopped.

Thursday, April 28, 2016



"Long the favorite of the world's most discerning families, the Cadillac Series 62 Sedan again features generously proportioned interiors, now more beautifully and luxuriously appointed than ever before. Like all 1955 Cadillacs, it offers superb riding comfort and markedly easy handling. Its look of length and lowness is evidence of its remarkable stability and handling sureness. The Series 62 Sedan is truly one of the finest family cars on the road today."

The fact that plenty of 1955 Cadillacs are still driving on Cuban roads speaks volumes about the quality of these magnificent automobiles. And about their popularity among the wealthy Cubans that enthusiastically bought them back in the day. In those prosperous years, Cuba's urban society was on the upswing, and there was obviously plenty of the necessary dinero available to afford this American extravaganza.

Since the late 1940s, Cadillac had been the rising star among America's established luxury car makers. Careful product planning and an evolutionary design strategy led to a popularity that was previously unseen in that segment: Cadillac sold 140,477 cars in 1955, 44,097 more than in the year before.

That sales surge seems a bit odd, as 1955 was merely a year of little cosmetic refinements at Cadillac. Yet, changing a successful formula was all but necessary, as you can witness on our pictured photo model: its well balanced proportions and its —for the time's taste— restrained flamboyance give the Cadillac a timeless dignity that perfectly suited the image of America's most desirable luxury brand.

Friday, April 22, 2016



"The accent's on action . . . in Oldsmobile's thrilling Super 88 Series! And this Convertible invites you to steer a course to magic moments of wide-open adventure. The top lowers neatly — out of sight — to reveal rich leather interiors in your choice of four stunning color combinations. And poised beneath the hood there's all the surging might of the new Rocket T-400 Engine! Road-hugging lines and new Wide-Stance Chassis tell you this Olds is solidly grounded for skimming the highway safely and securely."

A genuine 1957 Oldsmobile convertible is a car that you rarely see on Cuban roads. Quite unsurprisingly so, as Oldsmobile produced merely 7,128 "Super 88" convertibles in its "Golden Anniversary" year. Unlike the sister models from Buick or Pontiac, Oldsmobiles were considered looking pretty tame. And by 1950s standards, an understated look wasn't exactly what convertible buyers longed for.

But make no mistake: the company which had kicked off the race for ever more horsepower with the introduction of the "Rocket" V-8 engine in 1949, still knew how to build one the most potent cars on American roads. For 1957, the 371 cubic-inch (6 l) "Rocket T-400" standard engine had 277hp, while a 83 Dollar surcharge bought you the 300hp "J2" performance option with triple 2-barrel Rochester carburetors. Quick it was. Only the styling didn't betray the beast under the bonnet.

The GM designers choose quite a subtle way of distinguishing the different trim levels in the Oldsmobile lineup: if the colored strip within the chrome trim followed the sweep from the windshield frame down to the rear fender, it was a "Super 88". If that strip went down in a straight line, starting just behind the door handle, it was the base model "Golden Rocket 88". Less attentive observers would always notice a "Super 88" script at the front fenders, but our featured car has lost its badge a long time ago.

Notwithstanding its understated styling, the Olds convertible did look pretty handsome on the road. Until a "Forward Look" Mopar car pulled alongside, that was: side by side, the Olds suddenly appeared fairly fatty and dated while the Chrysler product captured the zeitgeist in a much more convincing way. Ironically, Harley Earl had incessantly called for building the longest and lowest looking cars in the industry over the past decades, but now the GM designers found themselves beaten on their "home turf".

Oh, in case you were wondering: those bucket seats didn't come standard.

Saturday, April 16, 2016



"The New Popular Car For Family Motoring"

When we came across this curious vehicle, we assumed that it once must have been a VW Beetle: engine in the rear – check. Flat windshield – check. Rear side glass shape – kind of, check.

We were at least half right, as engine and rear axle are in fact from a "VW mexicano". But when the owner repeatedly referred to his "Goggo", he definitely had caught our attention. Turns out that the base of this automotive Frankenstein is a German Goggomobil from 1958. It fragmentarily shows in bonnet and windshield, and in the lateral engine air intake. Front axle and doors are taken from a Russian Lada 2101, while the rest is freestylin' and filler. It ain't pretty but it does the job.

The original Goggomobil did look a bit more handsome but was equally basic. Former tractor- and scooter manufacturer Glas from Bavaria began development of a "four-wheeled scooter with roof" in 1952, when it became apparent that the Germans would buy more and more automobiles in the future. In 1954, the Goggomobil bowed to the public, and soon became very popular, because it offered more comfort than the most common microcars of the time, such as the BMW Isetta (thanks, Caristas) or the Messerschmitt Kabinenroller. These spartan vehicles were the base of the German postwar motorization, when only a few Germans could afford an Opel or Mercedes. Originally propelled by an air-cooled 250cc two-stroke engine with 13hp, the Goggomobil was exported to the U.S. since 1957 with a more powerful 400cc, 20hp engine. The export models had sealed beam headlights and an automatic gasoline-oil mixer, as the Americans certainly weren't used to add the necessary two-stroke engine oil each time they filled up.

On American shores, the Goggomobil remained a rarity. Even the smallest domestic compact cars were huge and comfortable, compared to the austere German shoebox. Cuban choferes were apparently quite open to the idea of low-priced mobility, hence the amount of tiny vehicles on the island. On the narrow streets of many Cuban cities, these petite automobiles were perhaps the smarter choice, anyway.

Sunday, April 10, 2016



"To see 'the new face and form of motor car fashion for 1939' at its very best — see the new Chevrolet! Its new Aero-Stream Styling, its new Body by Fisher, its new Custom-Tailored Interior, all have won the unqualified endorsement of men and women who appreciate good looks and good taste. First in fashion . . . first in quality and value . . . 'Chevrolet's the Choice!'"

Notwithstanding its "experimental" colors, this Chevrolet from Havana shows a stunning elegance and road presence that seems atypical for a mere "budget" car. Mind you, this was the cheapest model in the whole GM lineup!

The upscale impression of the Chevy was created by a pretty simple trick: since establishing the world's first corporate car design studio in 1927, Harley Earl occasionally applied styling elements of GM's more glamorous brands on to the cheaper models to add status to their appearance. In 1939, for example, Chevrolet's styling showed apparent Cadillac overtones. Two years later, the Chevy resembled an expensive Buick. These illusions helped to distinguish GM's budget models from their competition. Furthermore, Earl's relentless quest to create "longer, lower and wider" looking cars resulted in proportions that made these models simply look "better" on the road, and the customers honored that with a massively increasing demand.

The industrial car styling process that Harley Earl installed at GM also demanded a change in GM's traditional development hierarchy, in particular by cutting back the influence of Fisher Body, GM's coachbuilding division, that in the early 1930s still had a final word in all technical and styling matters. Establishing the styling department as a deciding authority that increasingly could dominate even GM's own engineering departments was perhaps Earl's biggest internal achievement. Within a few years, car styling became the most important sales factor, and was one reason for the massive growth of GM's market share in these years.

And in fact, the GM cars soon showed a much more flamboyant and expressive character: a comparison of the first Chevrolet whose styling was entirely controlled by Harley Earl's "Art and Color section", with the model you could buy only three years later in 1939, nicely illustrates the progress that American car styling made in these years.

Saturday, April 2, 2016



„The Crestline Victoria . . . you’ll say it’s merely terrific!“

Here’s a genuine Cuban Classic: a chopped up Ford Crestline Victoria from 1953 that wears the front grille of a 1954 and the trim of a 1955 model, and somehow anticipates a Ford Ranchero. You couldn't buy that factory pickup sedan from Ford before 1957. However, Cuban metal crafters managed to create a convincingly looking pickup conversion here.

Over time, many vintage cars on the island changed their appearance out of necessity, usually to cover the constant lack of proper transportation: sedans were converted into station wagons, or became pickups, trucks changed into buses and former diesel railcars into passenger coaches.

Sunday, March 27, 2016



"THE FOUR WHEEL DRIVE WORKHORSE"

Quite a few vehicles on Cuban roads are way too mousy to turn heads, and yet you can't really miss them either, as they are virtually all over the place. Most of them are of Russian provenance, and here's one of them.

A true Methuselah of Russia's automotive production, the UAZ-452 is still being produced today, which makes it a bit difficult to determine the exact age of our pictured car. Most likely, it arrived on the island before 1989 when the dissolution of the Soviet Union triggered the periodo especial, the economic crisis that strangles Cuba still today. Anyhow, the simple side mirrors hint at a pre-2001 model, while the orange indicator lights and rectangular rear lights (not shown, but we know) hint at a car that was built after 1979. They were the highlights of the first substantial "facelift", a quarter century after the very first UAZ-450 series van was assembled by Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod back in 1955.

The pictured 4x4 version UAZ-452 was added in 1965. It was based on the GAZ-69 Jeep (driving in the background), and initially powered by the engine of the GAZ M21 Volga, which made driving the heavy 4x4 quite an anemic affair. Nonetheless, the UAZ-452 became soon popular among the Russian comrades because its simple construction, while not offering much comfort, made it so utterly reliable. In the so-called "bread loaf" you traveled slowly, but at least you arrived. Over the years, the UAZ-452 spawned a myriad of versions, suitable for most transport needs and climates of the vast territory of the Soviet Union.

This virtual indestructibility didn't pass unnoticed, and subsequently the export became a steady source of income for UAZ. Eventually these cars were exported to nearly 100 countries worldwide, with the vast majority being, of course, shipped to socialist countries, including Cuba.

Sunday, March 20, 2016



"A bright new freshness forward, aft and all-around. It's here in distinctive new Wide-Screen Grille and chrome-capped headlamp — there in dramatic new sweptback tail light — inside with modern décor and new tri-spoked steering wheel — everywhere in low-lined, lithe, new fashion. Here in Buick for 1955 is the style leadership of today and tomorrow — and the thrilling beauty buy for you."

Against the blue windows of the shopping mall "Galerías de Paseo", right at Havana's Malecon, this 1955 Buick drop top becomes a striking photo subject. It comes in handy that "Grancar", the state-owned company that operates this Buick, readily offers sightseeing rides through Havana. Admiring tourists often can't resist the temptation to ride around in an authentic 1950s convertible, which is the reason why the Buick never stays long at this place.

Only car buffs would notice that this car wasn't always a convertible. There is a remaining strip of metal roof on top of the windshield frame, indicating that this was once a Buick Special Riviera hardtop. "Grancar" is quite infamous for these "chop jobs", remodeled cars that complete their fleet of genuine convertibles. Open cars seem to generate more income from happy customers, which makes these modifications a worthwhile effort.

Saturday, March 12, 2016



"In 1913 . . . PEUGEOT introduced the modern small, fast engine to American racing in this Indianapolis Speedway winner! Now in 1958 . . . PEUGEOT comes over from France again with this excitingly sensible Sportsedan! Peugeot — one of the world's great names in auto making — now brings to America a 5—6 passenger family sedan that has all the spirit and glow of a sports car."

French cars are a longstanding part of Cuba's automotive landscape. In fact, the very first automobiles registered in Cuba were French models: in 1898, señor José Muñoz brought a La Parisienne to the island. Shortly after, in 1899, a Rochet & Schneider, built in Lyon, was imported by pharmacist Ernesto Sarrá from Havana. These two cars mark the beginning of Cuba's automobile history, and the beginning of an increasingly intense love affair between the Cubans and their cars.

Compared to the often eccentric French designs, the Peugeot 403 was a very conventional car. Peugeot had earned the reputation of being a "French Mercedes" in postwar Europe, and the timeless design of the 403 nicely underlines this conservative image. Presented in April 1955, it was the very first Peugeot which was styled across the Alps by carozzeria Pininfarina of Torino. This partnership should flourish for the following 50 years and spawn many more successful Peugeot designs. Battista "Pinin" Farina's proposal for the 403 eschewed the typical 1950s gimmickry, and instead stood out with well-judged proportions and very clean shapes. They gave the car an elegant and understated look that still appeared modern when Peugeot entered the American market three years later.

The men at the helm of Peugeot had long been hesitating to conquer the export markets across the Atlantic. Maurice Jordan, Peugeot's operating chief between 1933 and 1973, felt that exports would be "unprofitable" to the company, and saw them merely as "a means to keep production lines working and bring a greater economy of scale." The impetus to enter the U.S. Market finally came through pressure from the French government that hoped for hard Yankee currency in return of the country's industrial products. To keep things tidy, the government insisted that Peugeot should distribute its cars through the existing dealer network of the nationalized Régie Renault.

Thus, Peugeot began to export the 403 in 1958, halfhearted and skeptical about their expansion to the New World. But then a surprising thing happened: soon, there was a long waiting list from customers that yearned for one of the cute French cars, and the company shipped ten percent of its production to the U.S. It was truly fortunate timing, as Peugeot could capitalize on the "compact" car boom that had caught Detroit's established players completely by surprise.

Peugeot was on a roll, but not for long. Three years later, Detroit's Big Three had launched their own compacts, and the obvious "laissez-faire" quality of other French makes had eroded the American trust into anything French. 1961 became a disastrous year for Peugeot. The company even had to repatriate 1,740 exported cars back to France. Other markets, at least, weren't that sensitive. Even today, the 403 is a common sight in many Latin American and African countries, where the Peugeot's outstanding reliability is widely appreciated.

Saturday, March 5, 2016



"You might not have that new-car urge, but the FIREBALL will smoke you out. Ever notice when you lift the hood of this sprightly 1941 Buick how much engine looms up under your gaze? That long thrusting bonnet is needed — it's brim-full of velvet-smooth micropoise-balanced power-plant. And it houses, in the new FIREBALL Dynaflash engine, the sweetest and suddenest and most serviceable mobilization of horsepower you ever gave the gun! Try it soon — roll out a new Buick SPECIAL and treat yourself to controls that almost seem to shake hands with you. It's a big car, yes — a longer, roomier, broader beauty than ever before — yet so nimble and nifty in action you'll think it has wings on its wheels."

A third-party front axle, small wheels and the missing chrome trim make this Buick from Havana look a bit desolate, but make no mistake: this was one of the best looking automobiles of its time. Since GM styling czar Harley Earl and Buick president Harlow Curtice went along very well, Earl took particular care in Buick styling, and often favored the division with the best proposals. Thus, Buicks were repeatedly the most flamboyant looking cars in the GM portfolio throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

Compared to its predecessor, the 1941 Buick sported subtle but effective modifications. The ornate "harp" grille, introduced in 1940, was ever so slightly altered for 1941. Headlights moved outwards to the fender corners and revised lateral engine ventilation "ports" made the otherwise similar car look much more stylish and coherent. All in all, it was an evolutionary design, but it went down well with the customers: Buick's model year production soared from 283,404 to 377,428 cars in 1941. In Cuba, 1941 Buicks are quite rare. Perhaps the 1941 Chevrolets were a more sensible buy for many, as they offered similar looks for a much smaller budget.

Surprisingly, Buicks advertisement campaign for 1941 clearly focused on women. Addressing principally the gentler sex was a bold and innovative move at the time. Presumably the company wasn't striving for female buyers alone, but rather for their influential role in the decision making process for a new car. Care for an example?

"It's time to put your foot down . . . firmly! This woman-is-a-fragile-vessel stuff is all right — within limits. It's comforting on rainy nights when you like the shelter of his big umbrella — and it's cozy in soft firelight when the feel of masculine tweed against your cheek suits your mood. But this idea that a woman's car has to be a little car just because your muscles don't bulge — well, that is an idea to be stepped on! My goodness — can't a man see that a girl likes a little zip and ginger in her getting-about-town? Doesn't he suppose you get as much kick as he does out of bossing around a big, strapping, 165-horsepower FIREBALL straight-eight engine?"

Sunday, February 28, 2016



"It's Smart . . . It's Thrifty . . . It's French!"

Here's a car that perfectly matches the needs of rural life in Cuba. Plenty of space, a rugged and simple construction, and easy maintenance — meet the Break Juvaquatre, Renault's versatile station wagon.

Upon its presentation at the 1937 Paris Motor Show, the new mid-size Renault looked pretty familiar, because it took a heavy dose of inspiration from the German Opel Kadett/Olympia, which was built since 1935. The Juvaquatre „Break“ was added to the lineup in 1950, when the production of the sedan was already about to end because Renault needed more production capacity for the popular 4CV. The "Break" was simply a "fourgonnette" commercial van with windows in it. Our pictured car is from that year, and according to its owner, it's still going strong. Only the engine was replaced by a Lada motor at some point in time.

The all-steel station wagon was a modern concept in these days. Even the Americans had just discovered the advantages of all-steel station wagons themselves. The new station wagon gave the Juvaquatre a second life, as the steady demand compelled Renault to produce it — meanwhile renamed into Renault Dauphinoise — until 1960.