Heroes of the Revolution: Cuban Ingenuity Keeps American Classics Running

SOUTH OF HAVANA, CUBA –The white ’57 Dodge convertible has perfect banana yellow underpanels with tall matching fins, even though its passenger compartment is all but gutted, save for the steering wheel.

The driver sits on a small wooden crate as he steers past fields of trees fruiting mangos as well as avocados.

He pulls into a cluttered yard with a tin-roofed shed and two small cinder block houses.

Ducks, chickens, and goats all make a racket, as children, followed by adults, come out to see who has arrived. All one can see of Alfredo, the breadwinner for both households, is his slate blue overall legs and sneakers. His back presses not against a dolly but against dirt as he works under the red body and fins of a four-door ’56 Dodge, which was built three years before Fidel Castro came to power.

Alfredo, 33, has been working on cars since he was eleven. His first job, of course, was in a state-owned shop, as by then all private enterprise on the island had long ended.

But things had begun to change by the time Alfredo turned twenty-three, when he began working for himself abajo del agua, or illegally under the water. Although he remains submerged, Alfredo has clients among some of the most discerning classic-car owners in Cuba. Some people like to go fishing. “I like fixing cars,” he explains, “and I like it when my customers are satisfied.”

Cars spanning the decades from the Great Depression to the Cuban Revolution await his care. In the yard is a black ’36 Chevy with skinny whitewall tires, broad running boards, and huge, round, free-standing headlights.

Beneath the barn’s falling roof is a ’49 Dodge convertible, its bench seats restored with creamy buttermilk leather smuggled to the island from Mexico. Next to the Dodge is a ’52 Chevy adorned with a shiny chrome swan. Both later models are painted only with sky blue primer.

Since Castro’s takeover in 1959, Cubans have managed to keep such vehicles running against all odds. Entirely cut off from trade with the United States and living on a communist-run island that prohibited, until recently, nearly all private economic transactions, Cubans have not enjoyed easy access to any consumer goods, let alone American automotive parts. The mechanics who have found ways past that handicap are among the most ingenious people anywhere. Take Alfredo. He compared American and Soviet engine blocks when looking for parts for the former Moscow planners were apparently so impressed by the innovations coming out of Detroit at the dawn of the industry’s golden age that they began copying the designs, and Alfredo discovered that many old Soviet trucks had engine blocks similar to those on many old American cars.

The pistons of a Soviet GAZ-51 truck, for one, are interchangeable with those of many early-fifties Chryslers.

“I learned this myself,” says Alfredo. “I took out each part and studied it, -he adds, holding up two matching pistons, one Russian and one American.”

Alfredo runs his operation like a prohibition-era moonshine still, and his example is now spreading like dandelions across the island. The soil has only been moistened by recent economic reforms. Although the Cuban Communist Party remains firmly in control of the country’s political affairs, Castro finally began loosening the reins over economic transactions in 1989, and then relaxed them more in 1993 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1990s, dollars have slowly inundated the island, and anyone who can manage to attain them no easy task can now buy everything from disposable diapers to spark plugs.

The economic reforms have been accompanied, too, by a dramatic increase in state corruption, as Cubans pilfer government stockpiles like never before. Diesel fuel, which costs thirty-five U.S. cents per gallon in a legal, government-regulated transaction, can cost as little as five cents a gallon on the black market. While the profiteers risk possible incarceration, their cost for the stolen fuel is nearly zero. In this way, one can now buy anything from sheet metal to GAZ-51 parts dirt cheap. Of course, while widening informal economic transactions only make it easier to restore vintage automobiles, the pace of change overall raises many questions about the future of an island that has lived with a command economy for nearly four decades.

But to try and voice an answer would be dangerous, a risk most Cubans would still rather avoid. “You can swim safely if you keep your mouth closed,” explained another mechanic, Delfín Matos Ortíz. “But if you open your mouth, you may only drink in some water and drown.”

Unlike Alfredo, Ortíz operates legally and pays taxes. He has no choice because he is far better known. As early as 1962 it was apparent to Ortíz, a former shipbuilder, that Cubans would have to fabricate their own engine parts to keep their American cars running. He spent six months painstakingly testing the metal composition of piston rings and taught himself how to make them. Today Ortíz, a great-grandfather, is still doing what he has done for decades, skillfully crafting piston rings for old American engines.

“Every problem has a solution,” he says. “I feel best when I am doing challenging work.” As his wife joyfully serves tea, Ortíz displays some rusted iron tubes and, next to them, several shiny new rings that are tagged for different clients. How does he get from old iron pipes to those? “Well,” he says, “it took me some work to figure it out.”

Back in 1962, just months before the United States and the Soviet Union nearly went to war over the Cuban missile crisis, it became clear that the island and its northern neighbor were no longer going to trade goods. Could Cubans make their own piston rings? Ortíz decided to try. He brought some original rings to a few nearby university friends, who tested their chemical composition while he made ring molds, first out of wood and then out of metal. Relying on the same grapevine that is essential to everyone on the island, Ortíz made deals for equipment and materials. “There was a nickel and chrome factory,” says Ortíz. “They needed seals. I needed nickel.”

It took him about six months before he finally started producing rings that held up under pressure. Word of his craft spread fast. By 1964, Ortíz was producing engine rings for many people, although some were having trouble installing them. So he printed up a single-spaced, two-sided instruction sheet. Ortíz doesn’t just make piston rings for cars. He has made them for all sorts of gasoline-powered engines, and his reputation is so impeccable that his services were once requested by Castro himself. Regardless of what one might think of his strategic vision, the now gray-haired Communist leader has always been an incurable micro-manager, often intervening personally to make even the most mundane decisions. Back in early 1991 at a Politburo meeting, Castro learned that an old gasoline-powered generator in a Havana hospital had long been idle because its rings were shot. “What can we do?” he demanded. A Politburo member from Ortíz’s hometown of Santiago de Cuba told him about the mechanic and his skills.

The Communist Party flew him to Havana. “I spent three months on it,” he says. Though not paid for his time, Ortíz ate and slept at the hospital. It was a job, he adds with a self-effacing grin. “I did it.” Since then, Ortíz has been back in Santiago, quietly going about his business while living with his wife near their five grandchildren and two great- grandchildren. He is not sure what their future will be or what kind of political and economic system they will live under. But he doesn’t expect his own life to change. “As long as there are old cars here, I’ll continue making parts for them,” he says.

A generation younger, Edis de la Torre is among the few people willing to talk openly about politics, and that may be because he remains loyal to the Communist Party and its revolutionary ideals. “In the United States,” he notes, “the [vintage] cars would belong to rich people.” De la Torre has restored many vehicles for his family’s personal use, and he belongs to a community that transcends politics. What binds them is the enthusiasm they share for their automobiles and the common hurdles they have each needed to clear. “We are in solidarity with each other,” De la Torre says. But how do you keep the old cars running without easy access to anything? “No single place to buy parts exists,” he says while slowly shaking his head. There has not been one in Cuba since the early Sixties. “Instead I have had to find them through the grapevine.”

Fellow car owners, mechanics, government workers, party officials, and others have all helped De la Torre obtain parts for every vehicle he has maintained since La Revolución. Choosing models that he thought might last, De la Torre has owned five American classics, one Renault, and Russian motorcycle. When I met him, he was working on his latest, a ’52 Ford. But instead of selling this one after restoring it, as he has the rest, De la Torre is planning to drive a taxi.

This will be a new undertaking, since he has resigned from his abysmally low-paying government job. The Ford was owned by only one other man, De la Torre adds proudly, an architect who bought it back in ’52 directly from the dealer.

De la Torre has just finished the sky blue body, and it looks smooth. The six-cylinder engine, too, sounds clean. The block is original, as is the green vinyl rear bench seat, and the -FoMoCo- markings are still imprinted on the master cylinder. The wiper motors are also factory issue, working off suction generated by the carburetor. But appearances are deceiving. De la Torre points out that the carburetor was made by Ford in Argentina, the twelve-volt battery in Mexico, and the generator in the former Soviet Union.

While he is a self-taught mechanic, Julio, a 65-year-old grandfather, is a trained professional who got is start even before the Cuban revolution.

Just one month after D-Day in World War II, Julio, then only twelve, got his first job working in a car repair shop. He later became an electric motor specialist in his brother’s shop, which remained open for a time even after Castro took power. But by 1967, Castro launched a revolutionary offensive that nationalized nearly all remaining private property: It forced his brother’s shop to close. After that, Julio went to work for the state as an electrician.

Today, he knocks on doors as an unlicensed freelance mechanic, doing far more than just wiring for a growing number of car owners here and there in Havana. And he is revered by many for the patience he brings to each job. When we talk, Julio has just finished rebuilding the transmission of a ’48 Buick. It has a relatively small, straight-eight engine that Julio has also tuned.

Julio hopes to one day open his own repair shop. But only dollars are taken for taxes and rent. “Sure, I would like to open a shop,” he says. “But I don’t have the means to do it.” Julio, like De la Torre, is a taciturn man. Each is the kind of guy who avoids trouble. That’s the only way most people survive in cities like Havana, where the Communist Party, though giving them more room to roam, still tries to rein people in as if they were horses.

But elsewhere in Cuba, even right outside Havana, people like the Fernández brothers are already running loose. Oh, and they love speed. Alberto, the second-oldest and clearly the “alpha dog” of his siblings, peels out in the middle of a two-lane highway and then does fishtails in a teal ’58 Ford Thunderbird convertible, just to show off. It has a dual exhaust and a loud, bubbling V-8. It’s scary to watch him weave around opposing lanes of traffic especially since he’s just downed a few beers.

Finally, he gets off the road and turns off the ignition. He takes another can of beer, shakes it up, and sprays it. The Fernández brothers don’t bother about appearances. Take their Ford, a mean-looking T-bird with its convertible top long gone, revealing a rusted metal frame. Nor does it have any frills. No taillights, no headlights, not even a grille. No wipers. And inside? Nope, no dash.

There is little above the sheet metal floor but a makeshift seat. In fact, the T-bird’s only aesthetic distinction is its original chrome spoked wheels. Another original part that is long since gone is the double-barrel American carburetor. Alberto says that he and his brothers have installed a more efficient Soviet carburetor in the Thunderbird to save on gasoline. But they keep the American one safely oiled and stored and sometimes still install it for special occasions.

For racing, Alberto says, grinning. Sometimes we challenge them, sometimes they challenge us.

He adds without irony: “Yeah, for money.”

Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist who has also served as an investigative consultant for Human Rights Watch as well as Amnesty International, is a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff.