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BY VINNIE RICHICHI PHOTOS BY VINNIE RICHICHI
(Havana, Cuba) I went to Cuba looking for classic cars…it had always been a dream of mine to stand among the 1950’s era Chevys, Studebakers, De Sotos, Pontiacs and Plymouths that I have heard about and seen in photos time and time again. Finally my dream was to come true…I booked travel on a People to People tour with a bunch of other car enthusiasts and off I flew to see the living breathing car show that is Cuba.
I did notice one thing though…in none of those pictures or grainy films did I ever see a Corvette. I had heard rumors that there were a couple of ‘Vettes on the island but nothing solid. Looking on Corvette Forum I even saw a photo of a ‘58 Corvette with Cuban license plates. So I was going to take the challenge…I was going to find at least one Corvette in my 7 days in Cuba.
While I looked and asked a lot of people I came in contact with, it was not until day number five…Thursday, that I got the break that would lead to an afternoon I never expected.
Funny how one event leads to another in life….in the morning we toured buildings in Havana Viejo or Old Havana. One of the oldest had a special tree in front of it which legend says that if you walk around the tree three times and leave some money you can make three wishes and they will happen…being the kind of guy I am I took the three circles and left a few bucks wishing in part that I would see one of the ‘Vettes as time was running out!
THE MAGIC TREE IS ON THE LEFT...SOME OF THE MONEY...INCLUDING MINE ON THE RIGHT. SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE IN THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT NORMALLY BELIEVE IN
Back on the bus and off to lunch. After lunch we met up with some members of the NostalgiaCar car club that were going to chauffer us around to the Cristopher Columbus cemetery, Revolution Square and Fusterland…the neighborhood digs of artist Jose Fuster. Our car was a spectacular 55 Chevy 4 door Bel Air owned by Luis that was about as beautiful a Midnight Blue as I had ever seen. It had just a touch of flake in the paint. Luis was also proud of the fact that it had the original 265 V8 engine and Powerglide Transmission. This was not one of those cars converted to a Toyota diesel and held together by spit and bailing wire. This was a show car…one of the Islands finest. I was lovin’ riding shotgun in this guy’s car.
While standing in Revolution Square I whipped out my cell phone…useless in Cuba except as a camera…and showed Luis a photo of my 1962 Corvette. He didn’t speak much English and I don’t speak much Spanish but we both speak the universal language of cars! His eyes lit up as we both started talking about engines, transmissions and Carter vs. Rochester carburetors!
As we were driving back to the hotel I finally asked…does he by any chance…any possibility…know where I might find one of the Corvettes on the island?
A smile came to his face…Luis’ eyes lit up as he said I have a friend…
The adventure was on! Can he take me to it? Would his friend show me the car? Luis said he would try…his friend lived not far from the hotel and let’s go! I grabbed noted auto spy photographer Brenda Priddy and journalist Ken Gross and our tour guide Matt for translation and we were off riding through the late afternoon streets of Havana.
Winding through streets with no stop signs, Fiat Ladas, Kia Mornings, rush hour traffic and busses from a hundred countries now in service moving the folks of Havana we pulled around back of an apartment building just off of the Oceanside Malacon. Luis ran upstairs as we milled in the guarded yard and in a few minutes an athletic looking guy came down…opened up one of the garages and there it was…a cherry red 1958 Corvette.
Rene is a former National Triathlete champion who has owned his ‘Vette for many years. The paint…enamel…is in excellent condition. Many of the original parts are gone with engine, transmission, steering column, seats, linkage, gauges and more being replaced by more modern parts but still…this was a working Corvette that was being enjoyed by its owner on weekends, When talking to Rene you could tell he was in love with his car…he asked if somehow I could get cove mouldings for him…that it was impossible to find them in Cuba. Rene also let on that he would sell his car for the right price and that a guy from Spain had offered him $100,000 dollars for it. Here it would be a restoration project or maybe a $25,000 driver but in Cuba…it was the rarest of rare!
Rene also said that there were five Corvettes on the island that he knew of, one having belonged to former dictator Fulgencio Batista.
After a quick tour of Rene’s seaside apartment my new friend Luis asked if we wanted to see one more Corvette. A 1954.
I gasped again!
Back into the pristine 55 Chevy and through the streets of Havana we went this time a block from Plaza de la Revolucion or Revolutionary Square.
Another guard, another gate and another Corvette…
This time in a makeshift mechanical shop that Luis sometimes worked out of…you could smell the grease and gasoline and see over in a back stall under dust and dirt a pair of headlights behind wire grilles
A 1954 Corvette belonging to a reportedly famous Cuban artist.
THE 1954 CORVETTE WAS A BIT ROUGH BUT WAS MOSTLY ALL THERE
This one was not in running condition. It was fairly complete though.
The car had been sitting for a while with dust, dirt and grease all over it. It looked like it may have been one of the 4 black cars sold that year but it was impossible to tell the original color for sure. The body looked pretty solid and was in much more original condition that the ‘58 we had looked at just a few minutes before. A newer 6 cylinder Chevy engine had been installed but the original Blue Flame lay on its side just a few feet away. While the original seats were tattered the steering wheel and gauges had been changed out, the original speedometer still readable. The shift linkage was homemade but it looked like the original Powerglide may still have been in there. The headlight grilles were in great shape.
No matter what condition these cars were in, no matter how much they had been modified they were still Corvettes…so rare in Cuba.
As we got back into Luis’ 55 Chevy I couldn’t help but be struck by the irony of one of America’s automotive icons…the great Corvette…representing all we could do as a car loving country, when the American car was king of the world, living in seclusion just a block away from where Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro appeared regularly, denouncing America in front of hundreds of thousands of Cuban people. Just feet away from where the seat of government that is so different from what we here in America know, operates in buildings with the faces of Guevara, Fidel and other Cuban heroes etched on front of grey marble. Where Cuba’s tallest structure, the Jose Marti Memorial stands as a tribute to the island's hero.
Riding back to the hotel I was as happy as a kid on Christmas morning. I saw many beautiful things on the island, met many wonderful people, drank, ate, sang, saw a car show in the streets every day and felt the Caribbean breeze but as a guy fell in love with Corvettes ever since Pat Gallo let me sit in his '64 convertible when I was 9 and has owned more than a few this, this was special.
I said I would find a Corvette while I was on the island and thanks to the fraternity that is the classic car enthusiast I got to see two on a sunny Cuban afternoon.
THANKS TO MY NEW CUBAN FRIEND LUIS ONE OF MY HOT RODDER DREAMS CAME TRUE