Skip to main content

Taking a shine to Cuban Chrome – scripts and all


Central casting: Demetrio Montalvo with sons Michel, left, and Hernan and the family's 1953 Oldsmobile taxi. Photos courtesy of Discovery Communications.
   WE ALL understand that "reality show" is an oxymoron. Beyond the obvious effect of observation on the behaviour of the subject, there's the need – fed by the shortness of our attention spans – for every moment of these television programs to be interesting, even if real life doesn't work that way.
   The consequence, then, are shows that range from the selective – edited reality, which we're usually willing to accept – to the staged and scripted, which we're unlikely to believe but still watch if they are unceasingly entertaining.
   Cuban Chrome, the eight-part series that ran on Discovery in the U.S. this summer and now is airing in Canada, falls into the staged-and-scripted category. The premise – three Habaneros rushing to restore their classic vehicles in time for the one day a year a prestigious car club accepts new members – seems unlikely, at least without an ample supply of grease from the production company.
   
Some of the supposedly ordinary types who appear in Cuban Chrome are equally suspect. Demetrio Montalvo, who we're told is a taxi driver working to feed his family, emotes like a Barrymore as he describes the struggle to get his '53 Oldsmobile back on the road – and indeed, we see an actor by Montalvo's name listed in the cast of the 2014 French science fiction film Habana.
   Then there's Roberto Ordaz, an "apprentice mechanic" with remarkably clean fingernails, probably because his chief job, suggests the Washington Post's David Montgomery, is "delivering perfectly timed explanations in English of what’s going on and what’s at stake." The Cuban government could not have trained a better tour guide.


Roberto Ordaz and his putative boss, mechanic Fernando Barral.
   Yet like a dissident reaching Pope Francis, reality sometimes breaks through. Yes, we see the famous struggle of Cuban vehicle owners to adapt and improvise – if presented more vaguely than a car buff would desire – but we also witness the humour and elaborate courtesy that help the people of this crowded city get through their days. We take in the unspoken but evident tension between a divorced couple over ownership of an inherited Austin-Healey 2+2.
   We even hear Roberto tell mother-in-law jokes, a seeming staple of Cuban males and often of the same vintage as their cars (but perhaps just recited to North Americans because they figure we're still big on Henny Youngman).
  
And then there is the moment the producers could never have anticipated. We see the Cubans' jaws drop as they watch Raúl Castro announce his agreement with Barack Obama to resume diplomatic relations. Real events happen, even on reality TV.
   Here's hoping that Discovery renews Cuban Chrome. We can live with the scripted bits when the payoff is more glimpses of Cuban life and Cuban cars – two subjects that will always hold our interest.

Comments

tonyhavana said…
I used to know Roberto a little bit. A friend of mine bought a 750 Suzuki from him about 13 years ago.
Caristas said…
According to Lillian Guerra of the University of Florida, he's the son of the late Dr. Eduardo Ordaz, one of Castro's guerrilla fighters who went on to head the Mazorra psychiatric hospital. So he'd certainly have connections ...
tonyhavana said…
Yup, that's him. His father had a very nice Alfa Romeo Berlina.

Popular posts from this blog

Discovered in Cuba, a rare Mercedes bird

(December 2012 note: See update link, below.)

 GUESS I'LL have to set aside my search for the younger Batista’s 1956 Corvette. An even tastier trophy has emerged – a Mercedes-Benz 300SL, better known as the Gullwing.
   Even on the Island of Surprises, I’d be astounded to come across one of these rare beauties. But in a brief section on Cuba in Automobiles Lost & Found(Haynes Publishing, 2008), I see a photo of a battered 300SL observed by author Michael E. Ware outside a private garage near Havana.
   The Gullwing, unmistakable lift-up doors in place, is dented and rusting and missing its engine, yet still would be prized by collectors the world over . . . if only they could extract it from Cuba. Restored, the Silver Metallic example with Lipstick Red interior might be worth more than $700,000 U.S.
   Reached in England, Mr. Ware tells me he was holidaying in Cuba when an acquaintance brought him to an unnamed community to see the car.
   “I never asked where it was – I was just …

Crosmobile wagon: A little car lasts a long time

A LONG while back, I put up photos of this tiny wagon in Havana. Most students of automotive history would have identified it as a Crosley, from the short-lived Crosley Motors Inc. of the United States.
   As the additional photo above reveals, however, it's actually a rarer yet Crosmobile, which was Crosley's export nameplate. The change was reportedly necessary to avoid conflicts with England's Crossley Motors.


   Crosley made cars from 1939 through 1952, less a four-year interruption for military production in the Second World War. The station wagon was its most popular model, but it also offered  convertibles and sedans, a sports car and even a tiny pickup truck. This wagon is from Crosley's final CD series (1949-1952), and we can further tell from its roll-down windows that it's a 1950 or newer; the '49 had sliding side windows.    The company was a long-held dream for Powel Crosley Jr., the Cincinnati, Ohio, businessman whose Crosley Radio Corp. had become t…

Havana and Detroit: Sisters under a well-worn skin

   VOLUPTUOUS, PRE-1960 American cars are the obvious link between Detroit and Havana. One city built them, the other relies on them.    But the Michigan and Cuban capitals share more than pontoon fenders and Dagmar bumpers.
   There's the architecture –classic, often crumbling, with flashes of contemporary. 
   The permeating music – different in genres, yet descending from the same African roots.
   The vivid art – best represented, in the Motor City, by the product of two Mexico-born painters: Diego Rivera, whose working-man murals would be as at home in a Havana barrio as they are on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Frida Kahlo, whose surreal folk-art images could command prime space in any Cuban gallery.
   And beneath it all, murmuring like a Hemi-powered '55 Chrysler, the energy of a place alive and assured within its own well-worn skin.
   It follows, then, that as Cuba becomes more open to Americans, Detroiters might be better equipped than many of their fell…

The Remarkable Story of Fortune Magazine's Confusion Over Cuba

WE KNOW THAT some American news outlets get Cuba, and for that matter, get cars. Fortune appears lacking on both counts.    Sad evidence of this is supplied in "The Amazing Tale of How Cuba Saw Its First New U.S. Car in 58 Years," a web piece in which staffer Sue Callaway accompanies Infiniti design boss Alfonso Albaisa on his first visit to the island his parents left in 1962.
   Also on the trip: a pre-production 2017 Infiniti Q60 coupe for Albaisa to show off in a country where, in his words, "the romance of the automobile is still completely alive."
   U.S. car?
   Despite the contributions to its styling by Infiniti's San Diego design centre, the Q60 is about as American as sukiyaki.
   Just like its predecessor, the Infiniti G37, the Q60 shares its platform with the Nissan 370Z. And it's built at the same Tochigi factory as the 370Z.
   It's Japanese.
   Perhaps Fortune was confusing it with the similarly named QX60, the sole Infiniti model produced at N…

A man and not his bicycle

THIS MAN is Canadian, and so is the 10-speed he holds, an iconic Supercycle from the Canadian Tire retail chain. But this isn't his bike. It would have arrived in Cuba, perhaps years ago, with one of his countrymen. It's long been a practice for Canadian visitors to bring old bikes, ride them for the duration of their stay and then leave them on the island in the hope that Cubans can put them to good use. And the Cuban who now owns this Supercycle has done just that, renting it to tourists such as this gentleman for 10 CUC a week.
   Good deal all around.


In pursuit of hire powers

   MOTORCYCLES MAY BE the most common type of taxi in Santiago, but they aren't the only choice. For travellers seeking more comfort and security – not to mention room for more than one passenger – here are some alternatives.


1. Gladway three-wheelerAt one time, it was safe to assume that any motorized trike in Cuba – flatbed, van, tuk tuk-style taxi – was an Ape (pronounced ah-pay, hand gestures optional) from well-known Italian manufacturer Piaggio. Even the homegrown coco taxis in Havana and Varadero ride on Ape underpinnings. Now, three-wheelers from China have joined the Chinese buses and cars already common on Cuban roads. The Gladway above is a product of the Shandong Mulan plant in Jinan, south of Beijing. Parent company Gladway Holdings Ltd. specializes in electric vehicles, but also offers gas-powered models.


2. Peugeot 404   In other Cuban cities, late-model Hyundais and ageless Ladas make up the formal taxi fleets, while older cars – generally American – served as fixed-…

Where Cody LeCompte went wrong

It seems that detained tourists in Cuba areput up in beach resorts while the island’s wheels of justice grind along like the gearbox in a Russian tractor.
  Cody LeCompte, a 19-year-old from Simcoe, Ontario, has been forbidden from leaving the island since an April traffic accident in which the rental Hyundai Accent he was driving (hmmm, sounds familiar) collided with a dump truck. LeCompte and his three passengers were injured, and all spent time in hospital.
  Since then, LeCompte has been staying at a resort in Santa Lucia with his uncle. It's not clear who’s paying the bills.
Although the family insists the other driver was at fault, a Cuban court this week apparently decided that LeCompte must stand trial. His mother told reporters she’s heard the trial may not take place for six months to one year.
  Canada’s Foreign Affairs department says traffic accidents “are a frequent cause of arrest and detention of Canadians in Cuba” -- although if that’s the case, such incidents haven’t…

The last cars out of Cuba

(First of a series)

   It's Oct. 31, 1960, and the SS City of Havana, an automobile and passenger ferry that began life as a Second World War landing craft carrier, is easing to its berth at Safe Harbor in Key West, Florida.    Sixteen years earlier, this vessel, then known as HMS Northway, carried amphibious trucks and their Canadian and British crews to Juno Beach in the Normandy Invasion. But on this day, those aboard are fleeing, not approaching, conflict. Of the 287 passengers, 232 are Cuban citizens who hold United States residence permits, key to their own economic and political safe harbour.
   Also aboard are 86 cars, of which most belong to the U.S. embassy in Havana. After imposing an embargo on trade with Cuba in retaliation for the Castro government's seizure of U.S. property and alignment with the Soviet Union, the United States now is cutting diplomatic ties. This photo, taken upon the City of Havana's arrival and provided by Key West History magazine, shows ro…