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Showing posts from January, 2014

Ralph Nader's Cuban cousin

By the time Ralph Nader's Unsafe At Any Speed came out in 1965, the suspension of the Chevrolet Corvair had been redesigned. But this first-year '60 Corvair has presumably been riding for five-plus decades on the infamous rear swing-axles that made the early Corvair's handling so unpredictable and earned Chevy's economy car a full chapter in Nader's book.    Fortunately for its driver – who looks a bit like the young firebrand Ralph, dontcha think? – this Havana Corvair appears quite safe at rest.

Good Corvair article here:

The sorcerer's apprentice

After leaving the shop where Alonso's Chevrolet is being worked on, we stop by another garage a little farther along the country road. Here, a young man is busy renewing the floor of a Peugeot 404 that would have come to Cuba from Argentina, as the badge on its decklid attests.
   This fellow, Alonso tells me, is a student of the man restoring his `56 Bel Air. From the high-quality work we see on the Peugeot, it`s clear that the master`s magic is brushing off.
   When I was a teenager, a friend`s family owned a pair of Peugeots like this. The 404 was the French automaker's largest model upon its 1960 introduction, but by North American standards it was a compact, and those two little round-fendered 404s were an odd contrast to the blocky Detroit products occupying most driveways at the time.
   I've since, however, come to quite admire the 404's balanced proportions and pure lines.
   Wikipedia, we know, can be hit or miss, but its entry on the 404 is exemplary. Here …

After the before, before the after

There is no mystery to the longevity of the Cuban car.
   Not when Alonso's 1956 Chevrolet is laid bare for you to witness the toll of nearly six decades of motion and sun heat and most of all corrosion. The Cuban car will never be immersed in the ice and brine of a northern winter, but still it must live amidst the salty ocean winds and sweating humidity that ensure the inevitability of rust.
 Stripped to its metal skeleton, the Bel Air sedan shows this corrosion even in the curl of roof above the doors and in the channel that holds the glass of the windshield. The mechanic/bodyman charged with reviving Alonso's car has already patched and primed the trunk and cabin floors and now is grinding away the upper rust and brazing in new metal to replace what has been lost.    The decay runs far deeper than you suspected from casual observation of Alonso's white-and-black Chevy before it reached this backyard garage. Yet it is matched, you realize, by the intensity of the effor…

Revealed! The Secret Chevy Workshop

My chum Ralphee of CUBANCLASSICS once speculated that a clandestine Chevy workshop must exist near Matanzas, given the number of fine 1950s Chevrolets we've noticed in and around the port city east of Havana.
   It made me imagine some enormous garage, perhaps burrowed underground to elude the spy satellites, where Cuba's most skilled craftsmen shape good-as-new parts for Bel Airs and 210s and Nomads from metals scavenged from decommissioned MiG-21s.
   Too wonderful to be true, I thought.
   Yet today I can report there is a secret Chevy workshop. I have seen it. I took photos.
   I was brought to this place by a man we'll call Alonso, owner of a black-over-white 1956 Bel Air sedan that was purchased new by his grandfather, a farmer near, yes, Matanzas.
   Alonso's Bel Air looked good from a distance, less good up close. But now, he told me, his Chevy was being rebuilt, and he offered to take me to see it. You can imagine how quickly I accepted.
  We headed into the countr…

A car of many countries

Juan Carlos lists his priorities.
   "My family is first," he declares. "And then, my car. I love it."
   He knows his blue sedan as an "Argentine Dodge." North Americans may remember it as the Plymouth Cricket.
    Brits will lay claim to it as the Hillman Avenger, and indeed, that is the name under which the rear-drive compact debuted in England in 1970.
   Chrysler, then owner of the Rootes Group that included the Hillman brand, sold the Avenger under various designations around the world. In Scandinavia, it was badged as a Sunbeam 1250/1300/1500/1600.
   In Argentina, the source of this Avenger, it was initially offered as the Dodge 1500. After Chrysler sold its Argentine operations to VW in 1980, the badging was changed to "Dodge 1500, Made by Volkswagen Argentina," and later simply to Volkswagen 1500. VW kept making the 1500 until 1990.
   Throughout, it was well regarded for its handling.
   Juan Carlos has put his own stamp on his multi-nation…

Krazy Kuba Kar deals!

Manuel here, or as they call me at the lot, Manny the Moneymaker, because NOBODY sells cars in Havana like me.
   You may have heard that we're offering some unbelievable prices on our new and late-model stock, and I'm here to tell you, amigo, that it's true! Even the BBC is talking about it!
   I can put you into, for instance, a 2008 Suzuki Jimney – and hey, that's the way they spell it – lightly driven by elderly tourists on Cuba Safari excursions – for 69,150 CUC. That's the equivalent of $73,545 Cdn., in case you've been saving all those loonie and toonie tips.
   Not for you? How about a 2008 Citroën C3 compact hatchback – so international, so sophisticated – for 46,000 CUC? On a budget? I've got a 2010 Hyundai tucked away – and hombre, that's almost new – for 29,250 CUC. Just don't tell the hermanos jefe!
  Told you. Unbelievable.
  Of course, I know some of you, OK all of you, expected even better prices when the government decided to let every…