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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Tiny Polish Car Catches a Wave in Auto-Crazy Cuba

Tiny Polish Car Catches a Wave in Auto-Crazy Cuba
By MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN, ASSOCIATED PRESS
HAVANA — Aug 11, 2016, 1:07 AM ET

Ramses Fernandez's most cherished possession is barely larger than a
refrigerator, with the legroom of an economy airplane seat and a little
more horsepower than a riding lawnmower.

"That's my second baby," said Fernandez, smiling proudly at the
39-year-old automobile purchased about the time his 10-month-old son was
born. "My wife says that car is my child."

A humble two-cylinder Polish-made hatchback, the Fiat 126p was forgotten
by most people after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Decades later, the car
lovingly known as the Polski is basking in a Cuban revival.

Buses and taxis are in short supply as Cuba struggles with cutbacks in
subsidized oil from Venezuela. The average salary is about $25 a month,
but government-controlled car and gasoline prices are among the highest
in the world.

With around just 24 horsepower, depending on exactly how each one has
been altered, the half-ton Polski offers families a shot at independent
mobility for a few thousand dollars, a sum within reach of those able to
save from private jobs or family sending money from overseas.

So the self-taught mechanics who've kept Cuba's famed American sedans
running for decades are turning their talents to this automotive
artifact from the Cold War, equipping Polskis with stronger suspensions,
more powerful motors, even high-end sound systems and upholstery.

"2016 has been the year of the Fiat Polski 126p," said Hendy Coba,
president of Friends of the Car, an officially sanctioned Havana car
owners club.

An estimated 10,000 Polskis are registered in Cuba, according to
aficionados. Although many are out of service, thousands of others buzz
along Cuban roads, literally overshadowed by the 1950s American
behemoths known as almendrones, and even by the rattling Ladas and
Moskovitches imported from the Soviet Union.

Fernandez, an auto mechanic, said he sold his motorcycle around the time
of his son's birth and bought his Polski with the proceeds, about $5,000.

He's equipped it with disc brakes, new tires, an upgraded gearbox and a
water-cooled engine nearly twice as powerful as the one it came with.

The normally air-cooled Polski is so prone to overheating in Cuba that
many owners drive around with the rear hatch open in an attempt to suck
hot air away from the engine. Fernandez's closed hatch, and his car's
relative nimbleness, makes him the object of constant admiring comments
from other drivers at red lights.

"People love my car," he said. "Everybody says, 'What a beautiful vehicle!'"

Raul Seoane's family saved years of remittances from relatives working
in Spain and spent $2,000 for a well-worn red Polski manufactured in 1986.

Seoane, a 32-year-old computer technician, said the family mainly uses
the car to run errands, get to work and take older relatives to doctors'
appointments.

He's been surprised by the number of tourists who ask to pose with the
family vehicle.

"Foreigners take photos as if they've never seen something like this,"
he said. "For being an economical car, the Polski has really caught on."

Source: Tiny Polish Car Catches a Wave in Auto-Crazy Cuba - ABC News -
http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/tiny-polish-car-catches-wave-auto-crazy-cuba-41290188
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