The Miami Herald / June 21, 2004
By Larry Luxner
HAVANA — Barely a travel article about Cuba gets published these days without a prominent mention of the vintage 1950s Chevrolets, Fords, Plymouths and Buicks that add so much color and tourist appeal to the island.
But few people have thought of the old gas-guzzlers as a business opportunity. Rick Shnitzler, founder of a nonprofit group called TailLight Diplomacy (TLD), says Cuban owners of antique autos represent a captive market for spare parts — both originals and reproductions — once U.S. companies are free to do business with Cuba.
For now, though, all Shnitzler can do is dream, and occasionally help out his like-minded counterparts in Havana.
“Recently, we were able to deliver copies of original factory-issued sales brochures which will enable Cuba to restore its oldest car, a 1905 Cadillac Model F Touring, to factory specifications,” he said, noting that he’s in constant touch with Eduardo Mesejo, director of Old Havana’s Depósito del Automóvil and the island’s official vintage car expert.
Since its formation in 2000, TLD has pushed hard for the lifting of the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba.
“Relying on antique autos and their owners, TLD seeks to create the conditions for Americans to meet their Cuban peers face-to-face,” says a fact sheet about the organization. “TLD advocates that Cubans conserve and maintain their existing fleet of pre-1960s American cars, trucks and motorcycles, and that Americans join with Cubans to restore this embargo patrimony as an economic asset and Cuba’s contribution to worldwide 20th century culture.”
Except for a handful of newer automobiles belonging to diplomats, no American cars have been shipped to Cuba since 1960, when the Eisenhower administration imposed a ban on all U.S. exports to the Caribbean island following Fidel Castro's rise to power.
Shnitzler, a 60-year-old urban planner from Philadelphia who visited Cuba twice before the revolution and once in 2000, said that “because we conform to U.S. and Cuban law, no TLD delegate has traveled north or south, though efforts have continued at the policy level to inform the key policymakers about old cars’ diplomatic values.”
In 2003, said Shnitzler, his organization sent letters to at least 70 members of Congress in the hope of making it easier for U.S. antique-auto enthusiasts to visit the island of their fantasies.
He said that in 2003, some 192,000 passenger cars were registered on the island, according to Cuba’s Ministry of Interior. That includes 31,760 pre-1959 American cars, down sharply from the 37,680 vintage cars registered in 2001.
About half the old American vehicles on Cuba’s streets and highways are from the 1950s, with Chevrolets more numerous than any other make; another 25% are from the 1940s, with the remainder from the 1930s.
Shnitzler figures about 75% of the American antiques are worth restoring, and figures there's also a significant number of antique trucks and motorcycles.
Using 2004 retail prices, Shnitzler calculates Cuba's market for U.S. restoration parts worth $47 million to $81 million or more.
“That’s a substantial opportunity as far as restoration is concerned,” says Jim Spoonhower, vice-president of market research at the California-based Specialty Equipment Market Association, whose members include anufacturers, wholesalers and installers of auto parts. “But a lot will depend on the level of restoration the owner wants to do. If the cars have been pampered, but in maintaining them they’ve had to custom-fabricate or take parts from other vehicles, then replacing those with real reproductions or original equipment could involve substantial expense.”
Spoonhower adds: “Some of the original molds have been bought by restoration companies and they’ll make the equivalent of a restoration part. You can also get original parts from salvage yards, but probably the larger percentage would come from current-day reproductions.”
Doug Drake, president emeritus of the 63,000-member Antique Automobile Club of America, says TLD’s goals are admirable.
“In the U.S., literally hundreds of thousands of people collect old cars, and tens of thousands of companies have sprung up to provide parts and services to the restorers of these antique autos,” Drake said. "For instance, any original tire size can be remanufactured to like appearances, styles and sizes. There’s no question that same network exists inside Cuba, with internal Cuban suppliers. They’ve done a great job of improvising and making their own parts, but they need spare parts.” Eduardo Mesejo, director of the government-run Automobile Warehouse in Old Havana and the isalnd's official vintage car expert, said the prevalence of old American cars in Cuba was natural. "Our economic conditions favored trade with the United States. It was cheaper to import cars from the U.S. than from Europe," Mesejo said. Mesejo also criticized a Cuban government program in the 1990s that encouraged Cuban citizens to trade in their antique cars in exchange for a new Soviet-built Lada. The program, known as Coches Clasicos, was administered by state agency Cubalse, which sold some of the antiques abroad. “That program was a mistake because it bled our national patrimony,” Mesejo said. “Many important cars left Cuba and were taken to many countries including the United States and Puerto Rico.” Since 1996, Mesejo — a mechanical engineer by profession — has been in charge of the Automobile Deposit, an Old Havana museum where some 40,000 tourists a year pay $1 each to see 34 gems of Cuba's antique fleet. They include a 1930 Cadillac V-16, a 1956 Mercedes-Benz, a 1924 Packard sedan, a 1926 Willys Overland Whippet Model 96 touring car, a 1980 Daimler limousine donated by the British Embassy and a 1926 Rolls-Royce.