Sunday, December 21, 2008
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 a palm-frond curtain across the Straits of Florida, the streets of Cuba would look very different. We would see 1960 models -- and even some early ’61s -- reflecting the cleaner Detroit design aesthetic of the new decade. Fins receded and then disappeared; bodies became lower and wider.
And there would be the new “compacts” – the Ford Falcon, Dodge Valiant and Chevrolet Corvair – that were the response of U.S. manufacturers to an economic downtown at home and increased small car competition from abroad.
Instead we see, well, you know: the big, picturesque American cars of the 1950s, all chrome and curves.
The styling revolution never arrived.