History of Cars in Cuba

The arrival of the automobile in Cuba took place more than 100 years ago. The first news of this event dates from 1898 when the dusty streets of Havana witnessed the presence of the first noisy automobile which used benzene to move and could only develop 10 Km/hour. It was a “Parisienne” French Automobile which cost to his owner was one thousand pesos. Six months later, the second one arrived; it was a “Rochet-Scheneider” coming from Lyon. This one counted with 8 Horsepower and could develop a speed of 30 Km/hour. It´s price was 4,000 pesos. A third automobile arrived a little bit later and it was used to distribute commodities of a cigarettes factory from the city. It was a small covered truck which was also a Parisienne, but it was superior to the first one and looked like a carriage or a coach, but without horses.

 

a-lo-cubano-classic-car-club

 

On September 3rd, 1898, the first motorcycle arrives to Havana. It was a tricycle of an Italian origin which came from the factory Prinetti and Stucchi. In 1900, the brothers Dámaso and Honoré Laine, buy the representation in Cuba of the Automobiles “White” trademark and they decide to set up a garage which offered complete reparation service of mechanics, reparation of bodywork and painting, as well as the provision of oil for these cars. Later on, due to the need of these services, they decided to extend it to all cars´ trademarks. They are considered the pioneers of this activity.

In 1901, eleven of these cars rode the streets of Havana and in 1902 the first auto arrived to Santiago de Cuba brought from the Unites States; it was a “Locomobile” of steam. In 1903, the owner of the first garage, organizes a car race (the first in Cuba) where some drivers participate having their wives as copilots. The winner was Dámaso Laine, the organizer of the race, driving French “Darracq” with a time of 37 minutes. The run was from La Lisa bridge until Guanajay (outward travel); five automobiles took part in the race.

On February 12, 1905, an International race is performed in Cuba for the first time, in the stretch from Arroyo Arenas to San Cristobal, it was going and turns with a with a distance of 158 Km; some of the most famous runners and potent cars of those times came to Cuba; some of them had even World Records. The winner of this race was the Cuban Ernesto Carricaburu who was taking part in this event for the first time. He was driving a 60 horsepower “Mercedes” and he established a World Record for this distance with an average speed of 85 Km/h.

In 1905, the first Official Tittles of Drivers are issued; Carricaburo was in charge of this task who was the winner of the first International cars race in Cuba. In 1906, the first car accident takes place, where a passer-by dies at the streets Montes and Ángeles. On May 19, 1907, the first “Cadillac”, rides the streets of Guanabacoa; it can also be considered the first automobile that rendered its services as a taxi in Cuba. In 1907, the first line of motorized omnibus begins to give services from Guira de Melena to San Antonio de los Baños.

In 1910, about 4,000 motorized vehicles circulated along the streets of the Capital; in 1922 they amounted 20,000. In 1912 the first automobiles “Chevrolet” arrived to the island; in 1913, the first “Fords” entered into Cuba. In 1914, Carriburi creates a Service of Cars for Rent, and to this aim, he buys 10 “Fords” automobiles. In 1917, María Calvo Nodarse becomes the first woman in the country who receives the Title of Driver. She was popularly known as “La Macorina”. Her automobile was a present from a rich Cuban merchant who run over her with his car harming her leg forever. A son called “La Macorina” was composed at that time and we can listen to it even today.

In 1918, the first Interprovincial Race is held, between the provinces of Pinar del Río and Havana. In 1930, takes place a 24 hours race from Santiago the Cuba up to Havana. The first traffic light begins to work in the country in 1930. On May 20, 1927, the construction of the Central Road had begun already. It would link the whole country with greater quality, totally paved and with a width of six meters. This fact would allow transiting in both directions: its total length was 1,139 Km. It was finished on February 24, 1931 at a total cost of 111 million pesos.

A Line of Passengers Transportation was created as a way of inaugurating the Central Highway in 1931: the “Packard Line” with twelve seats cars that made the trip in 16 hours, reducing in this way the former time of 24 hours. A great number of car races took place in Cuba in paths, roads in different periods of time within cities or closed circuits. We can group them, namely:

1st Stage: 1903-1915. First National and International Races in Roads and the Almendares Racetrack; the best drivers and cars existing at that moment attended them.

2nd Stage: 1916-1928.Big seasons at the Eastern Park Racetrack (in clay court) and other roads. Very good races took place in Pinar del Río and Oriente at this time. Those celebrated at the Eastern Park had the participation of very famous drivers as Louis Chevrolet (the designer of the cars taking his name), Ralph de Palma and George Souders, winner of the Indianapolis Races, among others.

3rd Stage: Very sporadic Competitions took place in this period; there was one in 1930 of 24 hours Santiago-Havana and this same year another one Yara-Manzanillo

4th Stage: 1951-1953. Races at Marianao Racetrack with small “Midgets” cars took place. Some American drivers attended the race as Pete Fold with his car No. 4 and Barton with his black car No. 00, both using Offenhauser Motors.

5th Stage: 1954-1958. Races for interprovincial roads as Pinar del Río-Havana were held, on the days May 20th from 1954 to 1958; Havana-Güines on May 20th, 1955 (it was held once) and Sagua La Grande-Havana the days October 10th from 1954 to 1957. The races took place at closed circuits in Havana, for example, at La Cayuga Airport and at the Havana Sea Wall; in the latest, Big Rewards of First Formula were granted to a distance of 500 Km each in 1957 and 1958. In the first one, 19 drivers from 11 countries took part, among them, the five times World Champion Juan Manuel Fangio; the Eternal English Runner up Stirling Moss; peters Collins was the third one in the ranking of the year, Eugenio Castelloti was the fourth one. Others that participated were the Marquis Alfonso de Portago from Spain, Masten Gregory from USA and Carrol Shelby, among others. The Cuban runner was Alfonso Gómez Mena. This Race was won by Juan Manuel Fangio with a “Maserati”; Carrol Shelvy with a “Ferrari” occupied the second place. Marquis De Portago also with a “Ferrari” leaded the competence most of the time, but his car had a break down and fall to the fifth place. However, after a titanic effort, he finally caught up with the third position.

On February 24th, 1958 (the following year), a summons was made to the II Great Prize in the Havana Sea Wall with the same journey of 500 Km. Thirty two drivers from 12 countries participated. Most of the drivers who attended the first gathering came again. However, the absence of Castelloti and the Portago who died in the racetrack months, before was felt. Other runners as Jean Behra, Francisco Godia and Von Tripps, the most famous ones at the moment, took part in the event.

On February 23, 1958, a day before the celebration of the I Formula II Great Prize, to be held at the Havana Sea Wall, an armed command from the “26 of July” Revolutionary Movement, kidnapped Fangio at the Lincoln Hotel where he was lodged and kept him in captivity until the competitions finished. This action was performed to prove to the world that there was a struggle in Cuba against a bloody tyranny that oppressed the people.

This race could not be finished because in the sixth turn, the Cuban Driver Armando García Cifuentes, he protruded his car against the public; nine people were killed and more than 70 wounded. This caused a great chaos and the race was stopped. Stirling Moss, who was heading the competence 13 minutes after it began, was declared the winner.

6th Stage: 1959-1961. On September, 1959, a Competition called “The 4 hours of Alamar”, took place in a closed circuit of that town from Havana. Seventeen American drivers participated, with their sports cars of different marks as MG, Triumph, Austin and Porsche, among others. This race was won by Roy Sheppard driving a Porsche RSK; the second place was for the Cubans Alfonso Gómez Mena and Ramiro Montalvo who manned a Ferrari. On February, 1960 the Liberty Great Prize was carried out (a week of speed) with cars of Formula I, Indy, Sport, Junior and Stock grouped in different Races to those of Autos Formula I. Jack Brabhan, the World Champion at that moment was present, as well as Stirling Moss, the Rodríguez brothers, etc. Most of the race cars drivers who came in 1957 and 1958 (those still alive and active) and the ones of better ranking with their potent cars attended the competition. The winners were: Stirling Moss with a Maserati, took the first place; Pedro Rodríguez, driving a Ferrari, the second one and Masten Gregory the third one. In this stage, other races in closed circuits were held (among Cubans) at the Ciudad Libertad Airport, at 26th Street, and at the Port Avenue. The last competition took place in 1961 because of the implementation of the Economic and Commercial Blockade by the American Government against Cuba where the entrance of spare parts for the automobiles into the island was forbidden.

Until January 1st, 1959, 180,511 automobiles circulated in Cuba; the 93, 66 % were of American precedence. This supply was cut all at once and the island got isolated; the cars, condemned to disappearing. Some years later, around the 60´s, new cars began to enter our country; the first Mosckwich and Volga 21 made in the former Soviet Union and Skodas from Czechoslovaquia. The Zhyguli arrived at the beginning of the 70´s and later on the Soviet Ladas and Volga 24.

In the 70´s, cars from Argentina were received in Cuba, as for example, the Fiat, the Chevy, the Ford Falcon, the Dodge and the Peugeot, as well as a certain amount of Alfa Romeo and V.W.

More recently, in the 90´s and 2000 cars from other countries have entered the country as the Toyota, Mitsubishi, Hyundai, Nissan, Daewoo, Ticos, etc. Cars from China are coming into Cuba at present.

The National Highway that links the whole country was built after the Triumph of the Revolution trough a six lane road, much more comfortable, safety and straight which saves time, fuel and money to the drivers. It leaves behind the antique National Road; encirclements in the main cities have been built and the roads have been taken to the most remote places of the country. The main islets have been joined to the main island by means of “pedraplenes” which allow a comfortable communication.

Many Museums have been created along these years, treasuring Old Automotive Relics, which have been properties of relevant social, political and/or cultural personalities of the country; the main Museums dealing with this topic are in Santiago de Cuba and Havana City.

With a tremendous effort, the proprietors of those mostly American cars which were tried to be destroyed half a century ago continue to driving them along our streets, roads and avenues of the whole country. They form the first representative groups of a great movement which would become one day, “the Antiques and Classic Car Team”. The first of them met at “Taramar” Restaurant in 1996, later on, these mates carry out the first Historical Cars Rally in Cuba, Havana-Varadero, Varadero-Havana with 40 antique cars. Afterwards, this group constitutes “The Rolling Museum” in a meeting held at the Cultural Center “La Giraldilla”. In 2000 they officially changed their name by “La Macorina” Antiques Cars Team in honor to the first woman who drove a car in Cuba. Other teams were created in the provinces of Santiago de Cuba, Matanzas, Pinar del Río and Havana City (4). Three of them are regularly functioning in Havana City: “La Macorina”, “Havana Club” and “To the Cuban Way”.

On October 4, 2003, a group of 23 mates who loved automobiles, met at the Gardens of “Tropicana” Cabaret, in Havana City, Cuba; 16 of them with their cars got the inscription, seven who did not have an antique car or could not be considered as such, established that day an Antique and Classic Cars Club to which they decided to name “to the Cuban Way” honoring the way in which this country has worked and struggled in these almost 50 years.

 

Orlando A. Morales Pulido.

Fragments of the book "La Historia del Automóvil en Cuba"