Why Cuba is a Goldmine for Car Importing Enthusiasts
Posted on June 21, 2015
At the tail-end of last year, the motoring world went nuts after the re-discovery of a rusting Mercedes 300 SL Gull-Wing in a small village in Cuba.
It may have been broken in two and covered in rubbish but since versions of these ultra-rare and super-stylish 1950s cars are considered one of the 20th century’s defining designs and frequently reach multi-million dollar sums at auction, the Gull-Wing’s discovery focused attention on the small island nation.
And, sure enough, once the story was out, car enthusiasts the world over started to chip in with their stories about rare finds in Cuba, which included another Mercedes 300 SL – this time a Roadster – a rare-as-hens’-teeth Chrysler Chia, a Hispano-Suiza race car and an Abarth Zagato, in the same dilapidated corner of a rural junkyard.
It turns out that the original story was only half-right though – according to Miguel Llorente from website This European Life, who also tracked them down in a small town called El Cano:
The first person who reported the discovery of one of the 300SLs was journalist Jeremy Clarkson, who filmed the 300SL roadster in 1996 while shooting his Motorworld series in Cuba. As for the Gullwing, we are not sure. Journalist Michael E. Ware wrote about it in 2008 and provided photos in December, 2009, to the web's undisputed authority on Cuban Cars, Caristas. While talking to the Gullwing's custodian, I was shown Alex Finigan's business card, yet it's not clear whether he found it before Ware or Clarkson. Still, he's kept awfully quiet about it! Then, in November 2012, we thought it would be a great idea to hunt for some rust.
So a couple of battered-beyond-recognition classics turn up in a field in Cuba – what’s the big deal? Well, Cuba is quite simply a potential goldmine for lovers of classy old motors.
In 1959, Fidel Castro came to power and made it illegal for anyone to import cars without his say-so – this effectively froze the auto industry in time right at the point when those beautifully huge, curvy Buicks, Chevys and Studebakers were cruising the roads.
Which means that more than half a century later, those same models are still the main cars found on the island – that’s 60,000 vintage vehicles.
And why the sudden interest? Well this all comes down to politics and Barack Obama’s push to end the US trade embargo on a nation which America has lumped in with terrorists and “evil-doers” over the past 50 years.
Cuba has already eased some trade restrictions (for example new cars can now be bought and sold there) and an expected capitalist free-for-all looks likely to open the floodgates when it comes to collectors wanting to get their hands on one of these motorised museum-pieces.
Of course, almost all of these cars have been kept moving by homespun mechanics using whatever parts they can get their hands on (Castro also prevented auto parts from being shipped in), which means that they’re not what you’d call pristine vintage vehicles – but search around in the undergrowth and you might just find something with real class and true rarity.
Equally, many collectors might actually want one of these cut-and-paste classics because they’ve been kept going thanks to parts cannibalised from other cars. They are, after all, historical documents of a period of US and Cuban history unlikely to ever be repeated.
So once trade starts to flow in and out of Cuba again, what’s the chance that you’ll be able to get your hands on one of the vehicles and are they going to be a good investment?
A recent Bloomberg Business article pointed out that, money-wise, you might be paying over the odds for Cuban classics.
“Most people would want them as a sort of art piece,” says McKeel Hagerty, chief executive officer of car insurer Hagerty. Even immaculately restored examples of 1950s-era American cars aren't terribly valuable, Hagerty says, but interested buyers should expect to pay two or three times as much for the jerry-rigged Cuban examples. His company estimates that a top-of-the-line 1954 Chevrolet 210 Delray club coupe would fetch $20,000, while the Cuban version might command $40,000 to $60,000. Similarly, one could pay more than $60,000 for a 1955 Buick Century sedan re-imported from Cuba that would ordinarily be valued at $20,600.
While some Cuban car owners will undoubtedly jump at the chance to make quick cash by offloading their American behemoths, Hagerty doesn’t expect a flood of cars to leave the island. “These cars are part of their culture,” he says. “They are integral to the image of who they are, so it would be hard to imagine [the cars] all going away.”
But that’s not to say that there won’t be plenty of collectors in New Zealand willing to pay the price-tag and ship their Cuban classic into the country – after all, next to a big, fat cigar, they are the most quintessentially Cuban artefact you can own.
And if you’re willing to do a little bit of exploring of your own, you might just find a rusting rarity which can be restored to become the crowning glory of your collection.