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Showing posts from December, 2008

Batista Jr.'s 1956 Corvette, and other little-known facts

Che’s Chevrolet, Fidel’s Oldsmobile is chock-a-block with detail, so exhaustive, you expect it to trail blue smoke.
Where else could you learn than Cuba imported 22,577 cars and trucks – mostly from the United States – in 1952, that Fulgencio Batista’s son (also Fulgencio) drove a 1956 Corvette, or that Matanzas, unlike most Cuban towns, preferred Fords over Chevrolets?
Yet Richard Schweid’s 2004 work is equally rich with anecdote, from accounts of riding in Havana’s 10-peso taxis to dealing with a black marketer whose hides his stash of government stamps in the air cleaner of a ’57 Chevy. With these stories, Schweid’s examination of the role of the automobile in Cuba’s popular culture thrums along like a time-tested Plymouth.
What’s missing – thankfully – is the over-reaching search for significance that so often figures in outside discussions of the Cuban roadscape. Sure, Schweid acknowledges the obvious incongruity – the emblematic U.S. cars of the 1950s, he writes, are the North Amer…

It's a bumper. It's a grille. It's both!

Two more from the archives, again, I suspect, the Biblioteca Nacional José Martí Havana. They appear to have been taken in the early to mid-1950s; locations unknown. The commercial signs in the top photo – Zenith, Norge, Du Pont, Essolube – would have disappeared after the revolution, but in most other ways these scenes probably differ little from the present. In the lower photo, check out the 1950 Buick on the left with that year’s bold new “bumper grille.” Yikes!
    If you would like to know more about Buicks of that era – and really, who wouldn’t? – here are two good sources:
    www.buicks.net
    auto.howstuffworks.com




Don't blame Dwight

It’s widely held that the flow of American cars to Cuba was halted by the ban on exports enacted by President Dwight Eisenhower on Oct. 13, 1960.
   In fact, as author Richard Schweid reports in Che’s Chevrolet, Fidel’s Oldsmobile (University of North Carolina Press, 2004), the tap began closing more than a year earlier, when Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government froze all credit after taking power in January 1959.
   Credit, at both the business and consumer level, is integral to auto sales. Without it, just 3,264 cars were imported in 1959, with most of them arriving in the early months of that year. Of the 1960 models that began production in late 1959, only a shipment of Oldsmobiles and a scattering of Chevrolets would reach the island (above must be one of them — an Impala four-door sedan, now part of the state fleet of classic taxis). No American cars would be imported in 1960.
   For the car-watcher, this is key. Had the car shipments continued until the embargo dropped like …

When the streets were paved with mob money

I believe this archival photo comes from the Biblioteca Nacional José Martí Havana; please correct me if I’m wrong. The scene is a paving project on La Rampa (The Slope) in Havana’s Vedado district, circa 1955. Although much of Cuba, then, as now, lived in poverty, the flow of cash from sources such as the casinos operated by U.S. crime families paid for smooth streets and the big cars that rode on them.
   Across from the ESSO station is the flagship showroom of Ambar Motors, operator of Cuba’s largest chain of General Motors dealerships. Many of the Cadillacs and Buicks still running in Havana today would have come from this showroom. Here is how the same intersection looked recently: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/5204839

From Autopista Nacional to Zil: A Cuban automotive glossary

Almendrón– Old car with rounded (almond-shaped) styling. See also: Cacharro.

Autopista Nacional – Multi-lane national motorway; extends through much of the island. Started in 1970s and still not complete, although a new 60-kilometre stretch in the central provinces was promised for 2009.

Cacharro – Old heap, jalopy (generally applied to pre-1960 vehicles that remain in daily use).

Camello – Adapted from a tractor-trailer, the “Camel” bus is named for its hump ed roof and holds as many as 300 people. The harsh-riding Camello (no air-ride suspension here) has given way in Havana to more modern buses, but remains in service in other regions.

Carretera Central – Central Highway, a two-lane, 1,119-kilometre route opened in 1930s.

Carro – Car, cart, wheeled means of transport.

Coco taxi – Coconut-shaped, three-wheeled tourist 
conveyance.

Colectivo – See peso taxi.

Cuidador – Guard for parked vehicles (portion of fees charged are paid to the state).

Fotingo – Ford Model T, from “Foot ‘n Go” for the…

Matanzas, Madonna

Another mystery (Matanzas 2008).