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Days of Cuba’s classic cars may be numbered


Days of Cuba’s classic cars may be numbered

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HAVANA (AP) – Dairo Tio cruises the streets of Havana in a gleaming black 1954 Buick with polished chrome highlights and the diesel motor from an electric plant bolted beneath the hood.

When the brakes failed in his beautiful Frankenstein of a taxicab, Tio couldn’t work for 15 days as he waited for a machinist to hand carve the necessary screws.

The half-century-old embargo on most United States exports has turned Cubans into some of the most inventive mechanics in the world, technicians capable of engineering feats long lost to the modern world of electronic ignitions and computerised engine calibration.

President Barack Obama’s announcement that he is loosening the embargo through executive action has Cubans dreaming of an end to the era of cannibalising train springs for suspensions and cutting tire patches by hand.

One of the measures announced by Obama last week would allow U.S. exports to Cuba’s small class of private business owners, which includes thousands of mechanics and taxi drivers who shuttle both Cubans in battered sedans for about 50 cents a ride and tourists in shiny, restored vintage vehicles for $25 an hour.

While the details of Obama’s reforms remain uncertain, Cubans are hopeful that their publication in the coming weeks will end a five-decade drought of cars and parts.

“Maybe it will be possible to get parts faster, at better prices,” said a hopeful Raul Arabi, 58, who spoke with The Associated Press while seated behind the wheel of a cherry-red 1952 Chevy convertible that still runs on its original 6-cylinder engine. “If they opened a specific store for this, even better.”

Cuba long restricted car ownership almost entirely to prominent bureaucrats, high achievers in their fields and professionals who completed government service abroad.

That limit was dropped last year but replaced by markups drove prices as high as $262 000 for a Peugeot that lists for the equivalent of about $53 000 outside Cuba. That leaves classic cars as one of the only options for Cubans needing private transportation for themselves or a business, although prices around $20 000 for old cars mean buyers on the island often need help for the purchase from relatives abroad.

With so much invested in their cars, new engines, hoods, fenders and transmissions is a dream for the owners of what were once known as “Humphrey Bogarts” and that remain a fixture of the landscape.

“It’s pretty complicated,” said Tio, 27. “The government won’t sell you glass for these old cars. They won’t sell replacement parts for these old cars. Everything is made by hand.”

A few years ago, the only way Tio could get new tires for his car was to rely on the generosity of a relative who brought some back from Venezuela.