Monday, June 29, 2009

'Rolling museum' could close forever

'Rolling museum' could close forever
Loosening restrictions could mean Cubans may replace their old cars
By Tom Brown, Reuters June 19, 2009

Elvis Presley croons "All Shook Up" from the CD player as Florentino
Marin wipes down his 1955 Buick Century sedan on a central Havana street.

"It's always been said that Buicks and Cadillacs were the Kings of the
Road," Marin says proudly, admiring the paint job on his two-tone,
chrome-plated taxi as it glistened under a few drops of steamy morning rain.

"We have a museum here, but it rolls," said Marin, referring to the
vintage American cars from the 1940s and '50s that are everywhere in the
Cuban capital.

The cars predate communist Cuba's 1959 revolution, having rolled off the
assembly line decades before the U.S. auto industry's current crisis of
steep losses in reputation and market share.

They hark back to a time when Detroit's Big Three automakers were the
envy of the world and a symbol of American economic power.

The years before Fidel Castro swept down from the Sierra Maestra
mountains and began his triumphal march across Cuba also came before
Detroit embraced so-called "planned obsolescence," a term popularized in
the 1950s and early '60s for products designed to break down easily or
go out of style.

The crisis now threatening the auto lifeblood of Detroit is rooted, at
least in part, in the backlash from consumers who learned that U.S.
vehicle manufacturers had stimulated short-term demand by ensuring that
their products would fail after a certain amount of use.

"I don't think they ever meant to build cars that would last as long as
this," said Jose Antonio Garcia, who drives a 1953 four-door Chevrolet
Bel Air.

"This is a tank," Garcia said. "It's not something disposable like the
clunkers that came along later."

The classic American cars of the early post-war years were indeed
durable, as can be seen in the tens of thousands of them still running
in Cuba.

However, there are concerns that Cuba's unique love for old cars might
come to an end. With the loosening of restrictions on what goods Cubans
are allowed to bring into the country, it's likely new GMs and Fords
might be affordable enough. It could mean that many families may not
bother to keep their old cars alive if they can buy a Chevy Nova or Ford
Focus. Locals are already buying once-forbidden items like televisions,
iPODS and other electronics.

Iron-clad chassis, scooped body and once lavishly appointed interior
often seem to be the only original parts of the cars built during the
heyday of General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler, now run by
Fiat of Italy, that are seen lumbering down Cuba's roads today.

A peek under the hood and second-hand paint job on Marin's Buick, for
instance, reveals that he swapped out the original V-8 engine for a more
fuel efficient four-cylinder diesel powerplant from Toyota Motor Corp.

Engine replacements have been made on most of the aging Dodges, Fords
and Chevys that serve as taxis alongside the Russian Ladas and new
Korean cars in Havana, as high fuel prices force drivers to sacrifice
power for savings at the pump.

Drivers say most of the engine changes are performed by themselves, with
the help of some strong-armed friends or neighbours to cut out the cost
of hiring a professional mechanic.

"Unfortunately, to tell you the truth, Cubans are very good at
improvising," said one driver, who asked to remain anonymous.

"It's a question of necessity and because of the shortage of everything
here including money," he said.

The 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo, imposed by President John F. Kennedy
in response to Cuba's alignment with the Soviet Union during the Cold
War, has helped ensure that factory-made or even aftermarket replacement
parts for American-built cars are extremely hard to come by in Cuba.

The embargo, which Cuba calls an "economic blockade," still prohibits
U.S. vehicle exports to the island even as some fuel-sipping
Chinese-made cars have begun grabbing a share of the tightly controlled
market for new cars.

Some owners, including members of at least one collectors' club, pride
themselves on maintaining their original V-6 and V-8 Detroit motors,
however, and the difference can be heard in their distinct rumble rather
than the clatter of diesel replacements.

"I've got a '55 Bel Air with the original engine and everything," said
Robert Enriquez, who added that the only replacement part was the gearbox.

"I'm not rich but I wouldn't sell it for anything," added Enriquez. But
when he's eking out a living as a cab driver, he drives a modern
compact, he said.

Cuba's state media, in reports on the U.S. financial crisis, have
highlighted events like GM's bankruptcy as symptomatic of everything
gone wrong with the United States and the failure of unbridled
U.S.-style capitalism.

But few if any owners of U.S. cars on the streets of old Havana seem to
be gloating about the economic meltdown or the fact that the wheels have
nearly fallen off the U.S. auto industry.

"Do you think a company as big as General Motors can really go broke?"
asked Marin, as he sat behind the wheel of his '53 Bel Air.

"We Cubans, as a people, don't hold anything against Americans. In fact
we share a lot in common," said Marin, as he waited for his passengers
outside Havana's ornate Washington-style Capitol dome.

"The bankruptcy of GM will always be a tough thing," he said.

'Rolling museum' could close forever (29 June 2009)

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