Cubans are free to purchase cars, but the costs keep them in their classics

Cuban drivers are now free to purchase cars after the government passed a law reducing restrictions last December, although steep prices mean fewer than 100 cars have been sold since January.

This move is just the latest of several moves by the government to introduce more free market ideas and allowances into the communist country.

The average price of a new car in Cuba sits around $23,000 dollars, but when monthly salaries average $20, even for professions like doctors, few can afford the price of a new vehicle.

A Kia Rio hatchback, which starts at $13,900 in the US, costs $42,000 in Cuba. Of course owning a car means eventually having to fix the car, and modern vehicles are far more advanced and complicated than the yank tanks – pre-revolution cars – that Cuba is famous for.

Many of these yank tanks are fitted with Soviet-era technology that citizens have made work since parts for these cars became unavailable after the start of the US embargo. In the years following the Cuban revolution, the government seized any vehicle that was not purchased and registered before 1959. It is estimated that around 60,000 of these pre-revolution cars, mostly American made, are still on the roads today.

Because buying a car is so expensive, Cubans will go to great lengths to keep their cars in running order. No replacement parts have been widely available since the embargo, although there is a market for parts smuggled into the country. Old cars are left to sit, waiting for the day they are either repaired or parted out in an effort to save other cars.

The government still controls all new car sales, owning all 11 can and motorcycle dealerships in the country. They say that 75 percent of the income from these car sales is going to fund public transportation in cities like Havana. The public transit in the country is in need of a heavy refresh, with many busses and taxis dating back decades.

Used cars are also subject to high prices. Many of these cars are former taxi and rental vehicles that come can have well over 100,000 miles on the odometer and still cost tens of thousands. A result of the new laws was an increase in the price of used cars. One of the most important points of the new law is the allowance of used car sales between private citizens. Previously, permission from the government was required even for transactions between private citizens. Permits were handed out and traded as a commodity on their own.

In the years following the revolution, most of the new cars imported to Cuba came from the Soviet Union. These cars were mainly used for government, taxi and rental services with very few reaching public hands.

Cuba’s unique situation, being caught with a vast number of cars but no convenient way to maintain them, has led to a unique car culture. Cuban streets are filled with a mixture of Soviet Era Ladas and Chevrolet, Ford and Packards from the 1950s. Fidel Castro famously road in an Oldsmobile to the Bay of Pigs.

There are many car clubs and organizations in Cuba, each with their own flavor of enthusiast. Alex Cruz Rangel is a member of Amigos de Fangio or Friends of Fangio, one such group. Rangel said, “The fact is that we are not a club, but rather a group of car enthusiasts that once, seven years ago, met inspired by the figure of Fangio.”

Juan Manuel Fangio, an Argentinian racing driver and considered by many to be the greatest Formula 1 driver who ever lived, was set to take part in the Cuban Grand Prix in 1958. He was kidnapped by revolutionaries and was unable to take part in the event. After his release, Fangio remained friends with his captors.

“So, in memory of these events was that we began to meet,” Rangel said. “But with over time it resulted in, as I said before, a group of classic and vintage cars enthusiasts.”

The idea of Havana filled with classic cars has become sort of iconic in the eyes of many non-Cubans. There are websites dedicated to profiling some of these cars, filled with photos, history and even the vehicles registration number.

Filmmaker Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt is currently finishing up work on “Havana Motor Club.” The film focuses on the efforts of several drivers to put together the first official race since the Cuban Revolution. The drivers, like most in Cuba, drive classic American cars.

Cubans remain hopeful that the prices of these cars will eventually drop. Inexpensive cars from China are some of the cheapest available to buy. Korean manufacturer Kia is also making a pretty big presence in the country. With more and more voices speaking up in support of lifting the US embargo, there is also the faint hope that not only can new American cars be sold in Cuba, but also that collectors and enthusiasts can share their parts as well as knowledge freely.

2014 Kia Soul

I spent five days with a rented a 2014 Kia Soul. Roxy was having some cooling problems and I decided to let Volkswagen take care of it. At Enterprise I was given the option of two cars in my price range: a Kia Soul or a Nissan Versa Note. When I interviewed Ezra Dyer a few months ago, he called out the Versa Note as one of the worst cars on the market today. While I thought about choosing it anyway, I’ve always kind of liked the Soul, so I figured I would give the new one a try.

My base Soul came in Kale Green with black interior. I was rather smitten with the exterior color. I’m usually not a fan of green cars, but that’s because I always picture a ’90s Buick LeSabre.  Jeep, Volkswagen and Kia have recently been offering a range of flat colors that I find to be really appealing. This was no exception.

The exterior of the second generation Soul is more of an overall update than a clean-sheet design. It keeps the look fresh while maintaining the not-quite CUV proportions. The ride hight is higher than most cars, but it also doesn’t feel truck like.

I was worried the black interior on the Soul was going to bake me in the August hear, but the dark tint on the rear windows managed to keep the interior relatively cool. This was aided by a wonderful A/C system that far surpasses the system in my GTI, though that’s not saying much.

I liked the layout of the interior, though the dash was filled with OK but cheap feeling plastics.  I’ve heard it was an upgrade over the previous model, but my eight-year old GTI has a better interior.  The Soul does get it right on all of the major touch points, so I can’t complain too much.  Fit and finish was great, while ample sound deadening kept the car quiet unless the engine decided it needed to drop down a gear or two.

The base sound system was OK and I liked having the auxiliary input right in the bottom of the dash with space to hold a device or two.  The Kia also featured two 12V ports on either side of the auxiliary inputs, a 120W and a 180W.

The manual seats had a lot of room for adjustment and combined with the tilt and telescope wheel, I easily found a comfortable driving position.  I prefer to sit low in a car, with a slightly upright seat and the steering wheel close.  I wasn’t a fan of the fabric used for the seats.  They felt cheap to the touch and I would worry about wear after a few years.  They also didn’t feature much in the way of bolstering, though I never felt like I was sliding around in them either.

The hatch of the Soul was relatively roomy, with 24.2 cubic feet of room with the seats up and 61.3 cubic feet with the rear seats folded.  My biggest complaint was the high load floor.  It’s fine for light items, but I would worry about lifting heavier items and not scratching the bumper.

The biggest surprise of all was how much I enjoyed driving the Soul.  The ride was smooth without being bouncy and I could take a corner at speed without the fear of rolling over.  It’s no hot hatch, but neither is it a wallowing SUV.  The car I drove rode on 16″ alloys with 205/60R16 tires,  an upgrade from the full-face hub caps standard on the base car.  Higher trim levels have optional 17″ and 18″ wheels, though I wonder how much the ride would be compromised with a smaller, stiffer sidewall.

The steering featured three setting for effort.  Comfort was far to soft, and while normal was fine, I kept it in sport mode most of the time.  The steering wheel itself was just the right size and featured all the typical controls you would expect on a modern car.

Power was an adequate 130 hp, plenty enough to move around a surprisingly light vehicle.  Kia lists the curb weight at 2784 lb., and the engine only ever seemed strained while passing at highway speeds.  I hate a touchy accelerator, and I found the tip-in on the Soul to be just right.  I’ve driven cars that make up for their lack of power with an accelerator that throws you back as soon as you even think about pushing it.  The six-speed transmission shifted smoothly, and I never felt like it was hunting for the proper gear.

Over my five days I achieved 26 mpg combined.  I typically do a lot of highway driving, so I was a little disappointed, but I admit that I fall in the aggressive side of the camp when it comes to driving style.

Overall, I quite enjoyed my time with the Soul.  It competes in a weird, not-quite CUV segment that was previously filled by the Honda Element and Nissan Cube.  This segment banks just as much on style as it does substance, and I feel like the Soul has both.  It’s a surprisingly refined vehicle with surprisingly good driving dynamics, and I have no doubt that Kia will equal the great success of the original Soul.

Memories

I shot this after deciding I didn’t like what I had put together before.  My first video had no story.  No soul.

I know John Raiford – the subject of this video – through his son, also named John Raiford, though he’s not a junior.  I met John working at Starbucks, and he introduced me to his father some time after that.

One of the first times I was at his house, Mr. Raiford took me to his garage to show me those two wonderful machines he has stored there.

One is a 1964 Chevrolet Impala, the other star of this video.  He also owns a 1952 Chevrolet 3100.  I might have enough footage of the ’52 to put together a second video.  You’ll know why I chose the Impala if you watched the video.

It is a fantastic story.  Talking to people, like Mr. Raiford or John Skinner from my earlier project, is the reason I really love what I’ve been doing.  I get to meet people and chat with them about the cool things they do and own.  In my experience, people are more than willing to talk and share if you can show them you care as much as they do.  And I do care.

Unfortunately, whenever I went to shoot video, the vehicles wouldn’t start.  Mr. Raiford said the batteries were probably dead.  I was just disappointed that I couldn’t hear the rumble of a Chevy small-block.

This whole semester has been wonderful.  I finally get to work on what I want to work on.  I get to write stories about cars and meet people that I share a deep interest and connection with.

One of the hardest parts of shooting this video was keeping my damn mouth shut.  I kept wanting to ask more and more questions, but it meant I would have to add another cut.

I had a really good time making this video.  I actually went out and bought a camera this week, so there will be more to come soon enough.

I chose the song “Avalon Blues” by Mississippi John Hurt to bookend this video.  The song is about Hurt’s move to New York City.  As great as the new can be, Hurt still longs for the past home, Avalon, Miss.  Mr. Raiford expressed a similar sentiment:

“I enjoy old cars.  I enjoy just being around them.  I’d rather drive a ’64 or a ’52 – if it’s in good shape – probably more than I would a new Corvette.”

So, I’ll admit this isn’t the best shot video.  Moving around in Mr. Raiford’s garage was cumbersome, so most of the time I had the tripod in hand, balancing it when I could.  That means there is a lot of camera shake, and for that I’m sorry.

Next time – and there will be a next time – the quality will improve.  So will the one after that, so on and so forth.  I promise I’ll master the use of a tripod at some point, or at least figure out a more stable camera setup.  Maybe a helmet mount.

One day I hope to put together something as good as what Petrolicious puts together.  These are two of my favorites.  Both of these feature sons driving cars that once belonged to their father.  I know how much it means to me when Dad lends me the keys to his car.

Senna

This is a reblog of a wonderful article written by the great Will Buxton.  I just wanted to make a little comment of my own.

So, as you know I am a huge F1 fan. Unlike Will here, I didn’t discover F1 until far latter in my life. I can only go back and watch footage, read race reports and listen to interviews about what Ayrton Senna was like, or even Schumacher for that matter.

I really encourage you all to read this, F1 fan or not. Imola in 1994 was a tragic weekend, but it was a weekend that brought about the huge safety measures that we have in F1 today. Senna was F1’s last death. I hope it will always remain so.

A few years ago, to celebrate what would have been Senna’s 50th birthday, Top Gear put together a really amazing tribute.

While Lewis Hamilton may not be my favorite F1 driver, I can’t discount his talent.  This is a video of him driving Senna’s McLaren Mp4/4 and talking about what Senna meant to him.

The Buxton Blog

I never met Ayrton Senna. I never even saw him drive in the flesh. And so I’m afraid that this article will give you no amazing new insight into him as a person or as a racing driver on the 20th anniversary of his passing. But May 1st 1994 changed my life forever, and would come to influence every day of my life that followed.

In 1994 I was a 13 year old chorister at Worcester Cathedral. As such, Sundays were always busy; Eucharist in the morning, home for Sunday lunch, then back to the Cathedral for Evensong. I sung so many times and for so many years in that magnificent place of worship that, over 20 years later, it has all pretty much merged into one. Except for that one Mayday.

I remember leaving the house to go and sing Evensong, wondering whether my hero was alive or dead…

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Audio slideshows: enjoying the fruits of the students’ labors

I want to say thanks to everyone in the class.

Michael Fuhlhage, Ph.D.

The students in Multimedia Journalism voted on one another’s audio slideshows after we did a screening and critique in class last week. Winners got their choice of two versions of Auburn University College of Liberal Arts T-shirts as a reward. Around here, that means either orange on blue or blue on orange. Either’s a great option.

Hands down, the students’ favorite was Reese Counts’ piece on a Triumph Motorcycles shop not far from campus on Opelika Road, a place called Skinner’s. As you’ll see, Counts had free range of the place, and access means a world of possibilities when shooting still photos.

Kate Seckinger’s piece on Chick-Fil-A took second prize. You can see the rest of the audio slideshows by clicking the links below. Please enjoy!

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A Tribute to a Classic

At the end of 2013, Volkswagen ceased production of the Type 2, known around the world by several names: Transporter, Kombi, or Microbus, Bus or Camper.  The Type 2 has been in continuous production since 1950, a remarkable 63 years.

This vehicle is an icon.  It followed the Beetle, officially known as the Type 1, as Volkswagen’s second automobile.  While sales in the United States ended years ago, production continued elsewhere.  The last Kombi rolled off the line in Brazil on December 20.

Volkswagen put together a great little video dedicated to the Type 2’s life, legacy and importance.  If you’ve ever felt any connection to or have even seen a Type 2 on the road, I encourage you watch this.  It is one of the greatest tribute videos I’ve ever seen.

 

New England’s Own

Playing out in the woods is typical for an 11-year-old boy.  Learning how to drive isn’t normally part of those endeavors, but Ezra Dyer was left alone deep inside the Maine wilderness with his 10-year-old brother and a 1982 Subaru wagon.

“The car was either un-drivable or not street legal,” Dyer said.

Today, Dyer is an automotive journalist who writes news and reviews for Automobile Magazine, The New York Times, Delta Sky Magazine and Men’s Journal.  He also produces videos for Yahoo! Autos and has a regular humor column in The Improper Bostonian, along with the occasional freelance article here and there.

The Subaru in the woods belonged to Dyer’s parents who couldn’t sell the rusted-out old wagon for even $500.  They decided to let the boys drive it around their property.  “Their speed limiter was to not teach us how to shift into second,” Dyer said.  “I eventually figured out that if you push the pedal and push the lever to go into first, you could push the pedal and pull the lever to go into second.”

Years later, with the help of Subaru of America, his brother and a Bobcat track loader, Dyer would turn that property into a mini rally circuit, reliving his childhood in a new Subaru wagon.

Dyer grew up in Jefferson, Maine, a town of just a few thousand and no cable television.  At the age of 15, Dyer purchased his first car, a 1985 IROC-Z Camaro, from a local priest.  “In Maine at the time, you could get a full driver’s license at 15,” Dyer said.  “The IROC had far too much power for a 15 year old.”

After graduating high school, Dyer studied English at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.  There, he wrote for The Colby Echo, the weekly college newspaper.

“That paper had very little oversight,” Dyer said. “I could pretty much write about whatever.”  Dyer eventually started a weekly column about cars.

Dyer didn’t intend to become an automotive journalist.  “I think as a kid growing up I would have loved to do that,” he said.  “The only thing I’m halfway decent at is writing.  That’s why I studied English”

After graduating and moving to Boston, Dyer began writing for The Improper Bostonian, where he still has a column.  One week, he turned his humor column into a car column because he wanted to write about something different.

At age 23 and living in Boston, Dyer heard about the demise of the manufacturing of the Camaro at the end of 2002.  He wrote to Automobile Magazine and suggested they have him write about it.

Executive editor Mark Gilles called Dyer to turn him down.  Dyer’s response was to send the article in anyway, a story about his personal ’85 IROC.  That article, titled “For Those About to ‘Roc, I Salute You,” appeared in the December 2001 issue of Automobile.

Automobile Magazine editor-in-chief Jean Jennings said there was one sentence that got the article published:”Justified or not, the general public associates IROC ownership with a vast panoply of unsavory behavioral traits, from storing leftover Spaghetti-Os in empty Cool Whip containers to passing out with a lip full of Skoal and waking up with tobacco juice in your mullet.”

In a 2005 issue of Automobile Magazine, Jennings praised Dyer.

“Ezra Dyer was heaven-sent.” Jennings said.  “Actually, Ezra Dyer came from Boston, which, if you’ve ever driven there, is more like hell.”

Dyer’s first press car was a 2002 Chevrolet Corvette Z06, a 405 horsepower, bright-blue sports car from Kentucky.

Years later, he challenged Dale Earnhardt Jr. to a race in the infield at Charlotte Motor Speedway for a story in Esquire.  Earnhardt Jr. was to drive a Chevrolet Cobalt SS while Dyer drove at newer model Corvette Z06, only one of three built at the time.  The point of the race was to prove that the Z06 was a “great equalizer,” negating the talents of a professional driver.  Dyer won, albeit with a 300-horsepower advantage.

Dyer’s daily ride changes from week to week as press cars come and go from his home in North Carolina.  Last week, he was testing both a Lincoln MKZ and a Jaguar XJR, though he said it is unusual to have two cars at once.

His wife Heather transports their two children around in a Lincoln MKT.  Dyer does own a Ford Bronco that, unusually, has a Power Stroke diesel under the hood.  The installation of that engine was featured in Automobile Magazine.

Dyer doesn’t know what the best car he has ever driven might be, but he can name a type of car.  “The genre of car I think is the coolest is the mid-engine V8 cars like the Ferrari 458 or the McLaren 12C,” Dyer said.  “Those mid-engine 2-seat cars are just loud, fast and crazy looking.”

On the other hand, Dyer enjoys a bad car every once in a while.  “I’m always pleased when I find something bad,” he said.  “It’s easier to be funny.”

The worst vehicle Dyer ever drove was a rented Ford RV he used for a friend’s bachelor party.  He described it as “evil driving,” saying expansion joints on the highway would cause it to “start corkscrewing.”

“At least you could fit a few guys inside,” Dyer said.

Dyer isn’t afraid to be critical in his articles, calling out bad cars when he drives them.  “The thing you wrestle with is remembering the humans,” he said.  “A lot of people worked on this.  At the end of the day you have to write what you write.

“I’m not worried about what the Nissan people think me,” he said, referring to his critical review of the Nissan Versa Note in The New York Times.  “I love the Nissan GTR.”

Dyer wrote a critical review of the Lotus Evora in The New York Times, despite his friendship with a Lotus PR manager.

“I received a response that was longer than my article,” he said.  “There was no dead pedal!  You design this whole car from scratch, put in some useless back seats that push everything forward and leave no place for your left foot and still wonder why people prefer the Porsche!”

“I don’t think I’m afraid to be negative,” Dyer said.  “My editors might.”

He did say that he hasn’t driven a BMW since he hinted that the BMW M6 he drove might have been a “cheater.”   “I took it to a dyno and it measured 577 horsepower,” Dyer said.  The M6 is only rated at a maximum of 575 horsepower, and a percentage of that is lost through the drivetrain.  A typical loss would be around 15 percent.

While he never accused anyone of being purposely misleading, saying that a car’s horsepower can vary under certain conditions, Dyer said he does believe the cars journalists get are “top notch.”

Dyer said his assignments vary by publication.  “Sometimes, I come up with my own,” he said.  “It’s important to think about logistics.”  So Dyer wrote an article about finding the perfect po’ boy sandwich.  “If you think of a fun story it translates to something interesting.”

The article was featured in Automobile’s “Ultimate Fantasies” issue.  “Everyone else’s idea seemed crazy,” he said.  “Mine was just a road trip to New Orleans in an Aston Martin.”  Other articles were about driving a Ferrari in Italy and your personal vehicle on the Autobahn in Germany.

Dyer’s favorite road trip was taking an ICON FJ40 Land Cruiser through Colorado over the course of a week with his wife.

“ICON said go have fun and have an outdoors adventure,” Dyer said.  “We were staying at these cool places, fly fishing, camping and hiking.  We even saw Ice Cube in concert.”  The article, titled “Straight Outta Aspen,” was featured in Popular Mechanics.

Skinner’s Motorcycles Photos

This is just a dump of the photos I took at Skinner’s.  There were far too many for the slideshow, so I figured I would just make another post with the photos.  Click to enlarge.  I uploaded them at a fairly large resolution so that you could really see the detail in everything.

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Triumph

Skinner’s Motorcycles – Click the link to the left.

I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve driven by the sign that hangs over Opelika Road reading Skinner’s with “Triumph” in big letters.  I’ve recently been in the market for a motorcycle, so I decided to stop by.

I talked to John Skinner, the current owner for a bit, and then he gave me free roam of the shop to shoot as many photos as I liked.  There are a couple hundred in a file on my desktop.  I plan to upload a few more, sans slideshow format.

This is one of the coolest shops I’ve ever been into.  John told me people come to his shop because “they want a place with a little grease on the floor.”

I couldn’t agree more.