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OEMs, aftermarket exploring Cuba’s unique automotive potential

Wednesday, May 20, 2015 - 07:00
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Alas, Cuba’s famed creampuff vintage cars may not be all they’re cracked up to be. So many of these classic pre-1960 “Yank Tanks” from Detroit have been extensively altered via foreign-built diesel engines and other non-Concours components, with powertrains, interiors and finishes battered, bruised and abused through many years of daily driving – resulting in drastically reduced values as pristine collector’s delights.

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However, assuming that Cuba’s laws banning vehicle exports are eventually relaxed to allow some them off the island, a selection of Cuban cars could be deployed as museum exhibits and traveling car show and county fair displays of Cold War ingenuity, offering a snapshot in time to portray the amazing engineering ability of Cuba’s shade-tree mechanics to keep these beasts running.

“You’d take a ’51 Ford and put it next to a dinosaur. It’s a cultural relic,” says Rick Shnitzler, lead organizer of the Philadelphia-based TailLight Diplomacy advisory working group, which has long advocated car-culture exchanges between the two nations.

Diplomatic inroads initiated by President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro are again heightening awareness of Cuba’s unique car population, accelerated by omnipresent b-roll television footage of vintage vehicles to illustrate the coverage.

“All of the mainstream TV networks and print media are using clips of Detroit’s cars on the streets as a picture of Cuba,” Shnitzler points out. “You have this firestorm developing,” and the excitement is even illuminating the silver screen: In April the Havana Motor Club movie, which tells the story of underground hot-rodders trying to conduct an officially sanctioned drag race shortly after the 1959 revolution, drew rave reviews with its world premiere at New York City’s prestigious Tribeca Film Festival. A Cuban delegation associated with the flick took a side-trip tour of Philly to view auto collections and take in the city’s historic sites.

“It’s an interim period. A lot of it just waiting to see what will happen,” says Shnitzler, who foresees opportunity ahead for American automakers and aftermarket businesses. Restrictions related to visitations and the embargo will have to be resolved before commerce can commence.

To speed things along in the meantime, TailLight Diplomacy is urging Ford, General Motors and Chrysler – along with aftermarket vendors – to start publicizing their new product lines and restoration parts through exchange programs designed to connect Cubans and Americans. The proposal has already been pitched to Cuba’s official representative in the U.S., who works out of Switzerland’s embassy pending full diplomatic recognition.

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