Monday, July 27, 2015

* Cuba's Jurassic Parking Lot

Vintage cars across the street from El Capitola in Havana, Cuba, on May 5, 2015. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS) Vintage cars across the street from El Capitola in Havana, Cuba, on May 5, 2015. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Cuba, diplomatically unfrozen after 50 years, is more than an economic treasure for investors now that the Cuban flag flies over an embassy in Washington. It is an automobile time capsule. And it should be preserved as such, like the San Francisco cable cars, with vintage cars cruising alongside the modern vehicles that will flow into Cuba.
It’s an automotive Jurassic Park, with dinosaur cars long extinct in the rest of the world still roaming in a time warp created by the embargo that prevented Cubans from importing new American cars for 50 years. Ah, politics! Creator of such a strange beauty, at least beauty to my mind. Cubans had no choice but to make do with the cars they had in 1960, the year the embargo was imposed by the United States. The Ford Edsel, produced only from 1958-1960, squeaked in under the wire
Every time I watch a news snippet showing Cuban streets, I see the cars I grew up with. I can identify by sight instantly every car from 1949-1960 — practically the entire automotive inventory of Cuba’s traffic in 2015.
Cars were my life when I was a kid. Every September I would ride my bike a mile on Whitney Avenue and stand in front of Ekblade Oldsmobile’s showroom in Centerville, Conn., hoping to see the new model for the next year. Sometimes it took days of wasted bike trips before the new car appeared. But once it did, you had a preview of four other GM cars that were variations on the theme: Chevy, Pontiac, Buick, Cadillac. The same went for DeSoto: Once you saw that new model, the rest of the Chrysler models were simply variations: Plymouth, Dodge, Chrysler, Imperial.
I’ve heard that Hollywood studios each year purchase and save samples of every model of car, and have been doing it going back to the 1920s. But film industry automobile preservation doesn’t help average citizens much, even if they could go to a Hollywood museum and look at all those models, which as far as I know, they can’t.
Sixty years ago, my brother and I, constantly chauffeured to one place or another in my parents’ second-hand 1954 Nash (which happily I still see today on Superman reruns) would play the game of “Name the make and year of that car” as traffic drove by: ’49 Chevy stick shift; ’53 Buick, with dynaflow automatic transmission that almost growled (we called it super-slush, it was so slow); ’55 two-tone Ford with the long chrome checkmark dividing the colors (white and turquoise was sweet).
Or a ’56 Oldsmobile, hydramatic transmission (much faster than dynaflow); ’57 Plymouth, with the fantastic swept wings on the back looking like shark fins, and pushbutton automatic transmission; and, most fantastic of all — the ’59 Cadillac with gigantic swept wings and a wrap-around windshield back and front. If you owned that model it meant you were “rich,” driving what was sort of an American royal carriage. It also had two chrome “Mae West” front bumpers that really bumped. Today they would be politically incorrect.
The 1958 Oldsmobile was the most chromed-up car of all time: It seemed it had a musical score sheet minus a G-cleff sign in chrome on its fender and doors.
Does anyone know what I’m talking about? Go to Cuba and you will see.
That’s why I suggest that we baby boomers well into our nostalgia years create a new living, moving, chugging, sputtering, clunking museum called the Cuban Automotive Preservation Society (CAPS). It would be a kind of Car Disneyworld of Cuba, complete with dents and smog. As at Disneyworld, you would have to pay an entry fee, and then, a la Uber, you could order by cellphone a driver with the car of your choice: a ’49 Packard stick shift with a flat 8 engine, a ’56 DeSoto, with pushbutton drive, or a ’59 Cadillac convertible with its machete-like fins. Of course, Ralph Nader’s seatbelts would have to be added for safety.
Take a vacation to Cuba and ride real dinosaurs from my childhood. Walt Disney: Where are you when we need you?

Paul Keane lives in Hartford. He drives a 1984 vintage Z-28 Camaro T-Top.

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