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Beyond and along El Malecon: Tracking them Taxis

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In our study of present-day Cuban cars made possible by the photos brought back by U.S. visitors to the island, we’ve tried to focus on the lesser-known cars, the ones that might not ply the major tourist areas all that often. But that doesn’t present a whole picture of the island’s cars, especially if we exclude the ones that have made Cuba so popular: the brightly painted tourist taxis.

Which is why we appreciate this photoreport submitted to us by Greg Leck of Pen Argyl, Pennsylvania. Greg’s no stranger to cars that still regularly get some exercise, given that he’s driven his old cars to our concours the last couple of years, preferring the regular two-lanes over the highways. Greg spent five days in Cuba recently and, as expected, shot plenty of photos of the cars there. He writes:

The majority are the “stovebolt” chevys, 1949-1954, with the triple fives next in popularity.  I did spot a few Desotos and Studebakers.  A couple of Cadillacs, but not one Packard.

There are three classes of these cars in Cuba:

1. Tourist taxis: best condition, often sporting non-factory colors; some are close to original, others are modified, and some are even resto-mods with air conditioning and automatic transmissions. Most are owned by one of several large taxi companies, and the drivers are simply employees. They are used mostly for tours given to tourists; a three hour cruise around Havana will run US $60 – $90.
2. Taxi particulars, which are taxis that, like buses, run along a particular route, picking up and dropping people off as they go. These are usually in much rougher shape than the tourist taxis, but they are owned by the drivers, who can make a very good (by Cuban standards, where pay is often $20 to $30 a month) wage.
3. Privately owned, pre-1960 American cars: these are in varying condition and are used by a family as transportation. Some look to be in excellent condition, others appear to be held together with baling wire and rust.

I looked under the hood of a few of these; some have the original engines, others have been converted to diesel.

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Since convertibles are popular, many of the convertible tourist taxis were converted from coupes by having the roof cut off. The taxi we took to the Tropicana, a 1953 Buick Special, was originally a convertible, the driver was proud to tell us, and not a car which was converted from a coupe. I only saw one two door coupe the entire time I was there. When I showed photos of my 1962 Olds Dynamic 88, I was told there were actually a handful of early 1960s American cars in Havana, but they were extremely rare. As for pre-war cars, I rode one night in a 1940 Buick Special (the driver was stopped by the police for making a U-turn) and a few Ford model A’s are around, but again, these cars could be counted on one hand.

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Thanks for sharing, Greg!