As you may remember, Vy and I went to Cuba for New Year’s. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get a motorcycle for our trip, but that didn’t stop me from taking pictures of all the bikes I could find! Let’s take a little tour together of what Cubans are riding. Let’s not kid ourselves – there’s going to be plenty of photos of classic cars, too!
These are some of my favorite vehicles, but click here if you want to see a more comprehensive gallery of what Vy and I encountered. Because we didn’t ride a motorcycle around I’m not planning on doing the usual travel log – but let me know if you’re interested in learning more about what it takes to travel to Cuba because it’s well worth it and I’d be glad to help you make it happen!
The grand majority of Bike-urious readers are American, and they know the unique history that Cuba has endured since Fidel took over. Because of that, many of the two and three-wheelers are Jawas and MZs.
A common trend in the photos you’re about to see is homemade, handbuilt work to keep vehicles on the road because spare parts can be hard to source. Some of it is elegant….some of it is just practical.
I couldn’t figure out if he was grumpy because he didn’t want his photo taken or because he was stuck with a Ural. Jokes aside, this is basically as good as it gets for the average motorcyclist. Sidecars are very popular here for practical reasons.
Not everything is motorized. This delivery trike is still noble because its purpose is to deliver rum.
Made “FOR” Japan doesn’t have the same ring as Made “IN” Japan.
We spent the first few days of our trip in Havana, and one of my favorites in the city was this MZ Trophy.
Some people affectionately call it the “TV lamp” because of the styling of the headlight bucket.
As you can see on the gas cap, MZ was glad to remind the owner that they had won the ISDT 6 out of 7 years in the 60s, even if the current bike wasn’t suited for such a challenge.
Right in front of the Trophy was another MZ, though this ETZ had an impromptu cover on it.
Who knows Jawas/CZ’s better than I do? This seems like their 250 motor but I’m out of my element with this oddball.
This bike has definitely been “personalized.”
Cargo capacity for days.
I couldn’t tell if this guy was making a delivery or just bringing a bunch of beer home. All I can tell you is that I tried some Cristal beer at a nightclub inside a cave in Trinidad and it wasn’t very good.
AVA is a Chinese manufacturer that produces several electric scooters and motorcycles. They sell fairly well in Cuba, and what I couldn’t help but notice is that they love to use plastic decorations to simulate the existence of a muffler.
The two-stroke Suzuki AX100 has been copied by a tremendous amount of Chinese companies – which is why it’s relatively easy and cheap for Cubans to get spare parts for it.
Jawa built an oddly-named pair of bikes called Black Style and Red Style in 350 and 640 cc displacements. You can probably guess which one this is.
Here’s a “Red Style” with a sidecar.
Who here reads Russian?
I’ve got nothing.
Honda produced the CBF125 between 2008-2015, making this one of the most modern bikes I saw in Cuba. Hello, fuel injection!
This MZ’s sidecover displays a variant of the German flag. This is actually the “Government Flag”, officially known as the “Dienstflagge der Bundesbehörden.” It’s the regular German civil flag with the country’s coat of arms. Technically, it’s only allowed to be used by government authorities. I suspect this guy’s going to get away with it.
A four-stroke Suzuki GN125. I have a soft spot for this bike because it’s what Vy learned on when she took the MSF course.
I enjoyed seeing motorcycles used as family transportation.
Family transport, part 2.
In a country full of old Russian motorcycles, an old Japanese bike was an eye-opener. This CB500 Four has potential, but…
…it was getting towed on the highway!
The most common bikes I saw police officers on were the Yamaha Virago 250…
…and the Suzuki GN250.
Not actually a bike, but I was surprised when I saw it. It’s hard to see but the bike on the shirt is Deus’ Silver SR TT build.
This was the only two-wheel action I got in Cuba, so I figured I should at least get one wheelie shot. Photo by VyVy Nguyen.
A late 50s Dodge Coronet – still cool enough to capture the interest of a pedestrian.
I saw pre-1957 Bel Airs all over the place…
I love this photo because it feels like I could have taken it in the 50s (if you ignore the couple of Ladas hiding in the background).
Or we could go back a few years for this 1937 Chevy.
This is a Russian-made GAZ Chaika 14 limo. If there’s one car I could have brought back from Cuba, it would have been this. I know, I’m weird. If you’re similarly weird, you can get more details on this rare piece of Russian luxury here on Hooniverse.
Most of you normal people would much rather take this Austin-Healey 3000, and I can’t blame you. I saw it from inside a store and had to run outside to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me.
I was amused by all the Chinese knockoffs of popular automobiles. Here’s a BAIC X424, aka an ugly Jeep Wrangler.
A much more interesting SUV was this Russia Lada Niva.
This translates to “Smile if you want sex.”
While we’re talking about stickers…this truck-sized car is a ’59 Buick Invicta, complete with a Ferrari logo sticker that Cubans seem to enjoy slapping on their rides.
The owner told me that he swapped in a Mercedes truck motor in a few years ago.
I asked him to take a photo with his car. He said yes but he kept looking away from the camera!
If you say “taxi” in the US, there’s a fairly standard definition (except for young people who have no idea what you’re talking about because they only use Lyft). But in Cuba, there are multiple levels to what a taxi can be, particularly in the capital city of Havana.
There are definitely options that resemble the taxis that I was used to – modern(ish) cars painted up in yellow and equipped with fare meters. You’ll see them everywhere in the city, but they’re most common in expected spots like the international terminal of José Martí International Airport. Vy and I avoided these because they were boring.
This was one of the most expensive cars we saw in Cuba.
Some taxi owners also use yellow on older cars just to make it obvious for tourists. Vy and I stayed at an AirBnb in Havana but we went to a fancy local hotel to grab some wifi cards. Outside of the lobby was this 1929 Ford Model A body on the chassis of a different vehicle.
There’s also a tremendous amount of private vehicles that just look like someone slapped a TAXI sign on their personal Lada or Peugeot. We took these a few times when there wasn’t a more interesting option. It’s pleasant enough, and I found the easiest thing to do was ask how much someone would charge to take us to a certain destination and negotiate from there.
This guy slapped on a taxi sticker and a Ferrari logo. He might not be fooling anyone, though. It’s also not the worst “Fauxrarri” I’ve shared on this site…
Many private taxis have these “5 Star” stickers in the rear. They’re supposed to clue you in on the creature comforts each car has available.
The fun stuff is the old American iron. It’s the same concept as above but you’ll have to pay a little bit more for the privilege in riding around in something photo-worthy.
This Chevy Biscayne is as a private taxi. The driver wanted $12 to take Vy and I to a castle 2.5 miles away, so we found someone else.
We were eventually able to negotiate a price we liked ($6) with a driver that had a ’55 Chevy Bel Air.
My absolute favorite were the almendrones, which are basically communal taxis. They are privately-owned, but they run preset routes with fixed rates so they’re cheap. Think of them as tiny old buses that only run along the busiest streets. You can just hail them at any time and they’ll pull over if they have room. I asked every single driver about the powertrain of their cars. The answers were different but they had a consistent theme – the motors weren’t original! A popular swap was a 2.0 liter Nissan diesel, which I saw in everything from 30s Chevys to 50s Plymouths.
This mid-50s Chevy Bel Air is now powered by a Mercedes diesel motor and it’s got a Mercedes steering wheel for good measure.
There are also some tourist traps called Cocotaxis. They’re cute but the allure pretty much ends there. They only seem to exist in Havana but they’re not hard to find when you’re in the city. They have fiberglass bodywork and are powered by two-stroke motors that almost invariably emit a cloud of smoke to remind you that they aren’t maintained well.
The name obviously comes from the shape, which resembles half a coconut.
And because this is Bike-urious, we’ll round out the local taxis with this:
In smaller villages we occasionally saw motorized trike taxis like this one.
If you want to get from city to city, your two main options are to take a bus or to hire a car. Our schedule was packed pretty tight so we decided to skip the buses. On one trip, Vy and I hired a 50s Dodge Kingsway. If you’re not familiar with that model, it’s because the Kingsway was only built for export markets. They were actually rebadged stripper-spec Plymouths and they were designed to be sold as cheaply as possible in other countries. To give you an idea of how much Dodge cut costs with this model, the first Kingsway (sold in Canada in 1940) only had one taillight, one windshield wiper, and one sun visor – all of which were on the driver’s side! We arranged our ride through a company that also offered more modern vehicles. I figured going old school was the right way to go.
Our driver drops us off in the village of Vinales.
It had a beautiful wooden Alfa Romeo steering wheel!
Though the old American cars are slower, they are much bigger than the 70s/80s Russian alternatives. This means the back seat is a much more comfortable space to hang out for a couple of hours, especially if you’re got a hitchhiker like Baby Jack with you.
The original motor is long gone, and it’s been replaced by a Hyundai powerplant.
Keeping Vehicles On The Road:
The Hyundai motor in the Dodge above is just one of many examples of the ingenuity required to keep vehicles on the road when spare parts can be difficult to source. Engine swaps are relatively common:
A Nissan motor in a 50s Chevrolet.
It’s not just motors that get swapped. You’ll often see unexpected parts:
One of many examples of how Cubans keep their cars going without the correct spare parts. You don’t even have to look closely to see that this is a VW steering wheel installed on a ’57 Ford Thunderbird.
As for this steering wheel, I’m not sure what to tell you. Batman knockoff?
Someone’s getting their Russian hack back on the road with an improvised jack stand.
Sometimes, the work doesn’t hold up…
By far the craziest modification I saw was this taxi, which has another set of rear seats spliced into the middle!
OK, this is sort of cheating. But it’s the last vehicle we saw when we were in Cuba!
I’ve got plenty more photos in this album if you want to see more of how Cuba gets around.