Blue-plate specials

1956 Chevrolet awaits fare at Hotel Nacional.
FOR A classic view of Cuba, visitors need only hire one of the bright-painted old convertibles or sedans of the Gran Car taxi service.
    The state agency's fleet consists exclusively of pre-1960 American vehicles, all bearing the blue licence plates that signify government ownership. The service was launched in 1997 at the urging of the Gran Caribe Group, the Cuban hotel operator, which had taken note of the enthusiasm tourists display toward the island's vintage cars.
    Starting with a handful of classics in Havana, Gran Car by 2008 had 66 old Chevrolets, Studebakers and other makes touring the capital and the Varadero resort area, with plans to expand to Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba. Celebrity passengers have reportedly included Naomi Campbell, Jack Nicholson and cigar-fancier Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Two more Chevies: a '51 in white, and a '54 in pink.
    In a 2008 interview with, Gran Car marketing manager Domingo Pérez said many of the cars have been fitted with newer Russian engines because of the difficulty getting parts from the U.S. All, however,  all remain original in outward appearance.
    The cars are selected from "deposits" -- stores of old cars perhaps ceded to the government when their owners died or left the island -- from across Cuba. The agency also operates classic replicas that look like 1930s Ford roadsters and are powered by Volkswagen engines.
   Gran Car's taxis have no meters and can be hired at an hourly rate of 25 CUCs (about $26.30 Canadian), according to the latest figures I could find. Convertibles are extra. There are also daily rates, plus set fees for specified trips.
    All fees include a driver. These aren't rental cars that you drive yourself. According to Pérez, the drivers are required to be skilled mechanics, and their understanding of the decades-old vehicles helps keep the cars on the road. Fears of frequent breakdowns at the introduction of Gran Car were soon allayed.
    "Those drivers must love their job, as they are the heart of the whole operation, Pérez says.
    In Havana, Gran Car taxis are stationed at the Hotel Nacional, near the Riviera and Cohiba hotels and outside the Capitolio building. You can't miss them.

1955 Buick Century makes a fine photo backdrop.


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