If you are following
Auto record In the Cuba series, you may remember that my efforts to rent a car in the country were ultimately unsuccessful. Misinformation, poor planning, and a lack of rental car inventory conspired to disrupt the driving adventure I had hoped for.
I discovered in Exploration Week that the great thing about Havana is that there is always another adventure to be found – if you are willing to search. It might have been impossible to get a car that I could drive myself, but there was no trip to remember. After all, even when reviewing a new car, I found that impressions about the car and the road can be reliably formed from the right seat.
From the parking lot at the large Hotel Nacional, finding an interesting rental car is as simple as walking up and down the building. Clusters of classic American iron await just outside the hotel gates, amid a riot of color and tropical climate conditions. Fords from the 1940s are plentiful—sedans more than coupes—and GM’s glory days are represented by enough Pontiacs and Cadillacs to fill Bruce Springsteen’s B-side album. But the Chevy Bel Air is king of the road here, by some margin.
I settled on a burnt orange 1957 Chevy Bel Air, in good condition for tourists.
I was looking for a hardtop at the behest of my crew’s audio/video needs, but settled on a burnt orange 1957 Chevy Bel Air convertible, in tourist-friendly condition. This car might look good as a background prop in your holiday photos – hair blowing in the breeze with the ocean at your back, parked in front of Che’s face in Revolution Square, etc. – but it was far from pristine upon closer inspection. A perfect representative of the Cuban average. At least the price was right: $50 for two hours to get to Hemingway’s home 12 miles and back.
My driver was a kid named Daniel who seemed to be around 20 years old. The Chevy doesn’t belong to him, he co-drived it with the owner, but was able to give me a basic mechanical rundown.
The eight or six-cylinder engine that Chevy shipped with this convertible is long gone. No wonder there, because every American-made car I’ve ridden so far has been powered by some Mercedes diesel. Despite the rattling tone, Daniel said that the block under the cap of the 57 gas drink: four-cylinder is of Russian origin, pulled from a GAZ Volga as best I can understand.
It is impossible for this cough residue of the engine to produce 95 horsepower, which is half that figure.
Engine antique is not entirely clear, but it seems likely that it was a Soviet product of the mid-1970s. That means it will produce about 95 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque at its most upbeat tune. It has been observed at many different times and in different ways that “the pace of things in Cuba is very slow”. After my first few miles in Bel Air, I made sure it was the car for the country, then. In other words: There’s no way the 95-horsepower engine, which is half that number, can still produce cough residue.
Shifting the engine came complete with a transmission in the transmission, too, a four-speed manual that matches its engine with an unhurried, comfortable feel. Daniel’s arms are shorter than mine, and there are times when he stretched his body forward enough in shifting gears that I was afraid the steering wheel would take off his hat. Of course, not many gear changes were required on this flight. I think we could have done the whole track in second and third if Daniel was playing to slow down some intersections. My Spanish wasn’t quite up to the task of suggesting pranks, so I sat with the sun on my face and took in an ocean half astonishing, half tragic.
Cuban cars and Cuban roads are stuck in slow motion and tireless battle. Cars displace microns from the road surface with every foot that moves, joining rain, blown dust, and heels in what appears to be loose erosion. In the central part of town these conditions are mitigated by occasional maintenance, but as I walked west out of town toward our destination, contractions of the paving resulted in higher hills and sharper edges. Entire segments of the road disappear; The kind of drift you’ve seen on gravel and hilly country roads, but it’s carved into the asphalt.
Twisted surfaces and deep pits mean shocks, springs, wheels and tires are difficult to handle.
But the side roads of the land also impose losses on the country’s fleet of old vehicles. Twisted surfaces and deep pits mean shocks, springs, wheels and tires are difficult to handle. In the case of my ’57, the suspension was reflective of the springs in the seats: a cushion when gently moving forward, with metal on metal evident with all significant pressure. The Chevy rolled forward and backward, nautically, through the heat of Havana. It’s a far cry from the modern chassis response that I’d likely find this aspect of a 2CV, but one gets used to the ripples and wave-like progression in no time.
Driver skill plays a huge role here as well. If I had the chance to drive this Bel Air, as cautiously as I would have been, there’s no way I’d expertly dodge every crevice and crevice in the street like Daniel. He was born and raised in an area outside of Havana we’re headed to – a neighborhood called San Francisco, not to be confused with the famous square of the same name in Old Havana.
Anyone who loves old cars – the old stuff – has been in a car like the Bel Air.
I was told that when Hemingway lived here it was the countryside. These days nature seems to half it up by reclaiming it from the suburbs. The grounds around the great writer’s house – which he is said to have abandoned for his favorite bars in Havana whenever possible – are filled with plant life. The barrio that walks a dirty line of broken bricks from San Francisco to downtown is pretty wild with growth that seems abandoned in places. Through it all, Chevrolet opted for a track like the Goat or Wrangler, with more suspension travel and a flex body than it seemed completely safe. Daniel cautiously and unhesitatingly led up and around the roots of huge trees, chickens, and random old pedestrians. Then we came back.
Anyone who loves vintage cars – the old stuff – has been in a car like the Bel Air I sampled, even if you’ve never been out of the country before. There is a unique flavor to the classic Cuban, undoubtedly: it is handcrafted, exotically modified, with a mixture of originality and new parts that you will not see anywhere else in the world. But, if you’ve ever sat behind the wheel of a car that’s been sitting in the sun, behind a garage or behind a barn, and haven’t moved much for a very long time, you know what the smell of this year is. You know, before you even touch it, that the gearshift knob will be engraved to the right by the thousands of hands holding it. You know, without stepping on it, that the brake pedal will be in my turn before you find any exotic drum purchase. In this way, the Chevy that I wasn’t allowed to drive but that I loved so much, mixes exotic and intimacy in equal parts. Very kobe. And it’s very worth testing, even from the wrong (correct) seat.