What was your first car? If you were born before 1960, or your first car was an old one, you might find one like it in Cuba today.
Of all the things Cuba is famous for — Communism, cigars, music, beaches, night life — none seems to equal the emotional response that vintage cars evoke. A friend sent me this excellent photo essay by a professional photographer who traveled the whole island for a month after waiting and planning ten years for the opportunity to visit Cuba. He’s now writing a book.
Having devoted a whole chapter to cars, “Mennonite in a Little Black Convertible,” in my memoir, I was secretly hoping to find a black Studebaker convertible. No such luck. But I did find all of these. How many can you identify? Each photo has a Roman numeral. You can make a list.
I loved cars so much I looked for artists who painted them. I found Jorgé in Santiago de Cuba, and now we look at his painting every day in our kitchen “gallery.”
The question this post raises — why do we love old cars so much — has many answers.
One that I recognized for myself was that they remind me of Daddy, who died in 1980 and who could express love for cars almost better than love for his family. One night, lying on a single bed in an almost-air conditioned room, I listened to Garrison Keillor singing a song he wrote called “My Old Dad.” The lyrics pierced me as I recognized a relevant truth:
“The living leave. They move away. But the dead are with us every day.”
I had brought Daddy with me to Cuba in my heart and in my eyes! That’s why I peered out the window for every old car I could see. That’s why I could hear him and Uncle Ken in my mind discussing the merits of hood ornaments and chrome and lamenting the lack of whitewall tires, recalling their own dream cars.
That’s why I wanted to bring back paintings of cars I could hang on the wall. I wanted to remember Cuba. But all along, I was remembering Daddy.
Do you love old cars? Have a memory to share? Want to try to identify the ten models above? I’ll be asking Don Warnick to chime in on the comments section at some point. He helped me take pictures and can identify most of the cars.
Leave a comment below and be entered into a drawing for a free copy of Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World where you can read more about that Studebaker and the Daddy who bought it for me. No need to get 100 percent on car identification!
If you want to read more about my trip to Cuba October 21-November 4, 2015, check out the last three posts in the right-hand column. This is the last in a series of four.
Shirley — The tropical landscape in the background of the first photo is so green and lush. I can practically feel the slow, sultry breeze.
And while I don’t know anything about cars, I DO know that I could see myself behind the wheel of the car in photo number VI. I don’t know why I’m drawn to it, but I am!
The first car that was mine-all-mine (that I was responsible for paying for) was a 1973 Dodge Colt. Red exterior with a white interior, I named her Peppermint Patty. She was five years old when I bought her and ran like a dream.
The scene with the lush vegetation is right outside the main entrance to our hotel. Sultry breezes wafted by nearly every day.
The car you are attracted to, says my cousin Mary Ann’s husband Don Warnick, is probably a 1940 Willys sedan. I never heard of it either, but it was very classy. Parked in front of the cathedral in Santiago de Cuba.
Peppermint Patty! I can just see her. Moreover, I can see YOU driving her.
Your post was so lovely. I got teary-eyed reading about you listening to Garrison Keillor and realizing that you were remembering your dad as you looked at cars.
I’m not a car person, and I can’t tell you what any of these cars are. I usually don’t remember the cars my friends drive either. I do appreciate the photos though! 🙂
Merril, we now drive very dependable but not very exciting Hondas; the older one is about to turn twelve years old. Another kind of vintage, I guess.
Thank you for feeling the poignancy of that song heard at night in a foreign land. Listen to the embedded link if your father has died. The concrete details may differ but all fathers have left their traces on our senses through what they loved.
I did listen. My dad was not a man who worked with his hands, but, as you said, our fathers have left their traces on our senses–and in our hearts–even if the details differ. Keillor definitely captures that. Thanks for sharing.
My dad never owned a car or drove one. But my Great Uncle John had one and he drove us when we needed to go somewhere. He was a kind and gentle soul, but boy was he ever picky about his car. We knew not to mess up and we stood in awe of his beautiful, shiny vehicle. I don’t know what kind it was (back in the fifties) but I can smell it still!
Elfrieda, I love this line: “He was a kind and gentle soul, but boy was he ever picky about his car.” Yes. That was the way my father was, although as he took on a mortgage, he had to drive older and less beautiful models.
And the smell. Thanks for mentioning this detail. The cars in Cuba lost their new-car smell long ago, but they still smell like oil, and gas, rubber, leather, wood–whatever materials they are made of.
My grandfather drove the one that looked a lot like V, until he was 90, if my memory serves correctly. He would push his glasses up on his forehead (cuz he was supposed to wear them)and he said he’d slide them down if he got pulled over. He’d drive to the barber shop on U.S. 20 over near Middlebury and get his haircut and maybe buy a pack of chewing tobacco and Archway oatmeal cookies to dunk in his morning coffee, and then come back home. Thanks for the memory, and the share of Garrison Keillor’s song–lovely. So, are you saying Cuba has lots of these oldies?? Very interesting, and I did not know!
First, Happy birthday, Melodie. Thanks for spending a little of your day here. Love the image of your grandpa with his sly glasses perched and ready. Love that he thought tobacco and oatmeal cookies made a meal. My Grandpa Hess was a bird of the same feather. Drove a creamy white 1940’s Cadillac until he was in his 90’s. Lived alone. Survived on cereal and Campbell’s soup and restaurants and invitations to family meals. At the household auction at his farmette, his son bought his car — for more than he paid for it, I’m sure.
As for having lots of oldies — I should have explained more above. Trade with America was cut off after 1959. So people learned to fix old cars and keep them running. Many of these old cars have Russian engines inside. Or Mercedes Benz engines. And almost all drivers are mechanics. No where else in the world exactly like this. Fascinating.
My husband filled me in when I was telling him about “cars and Cuba.” He mentioned the Mercedes Benz engines as well. 🙂 I had forgotten about how the trade embargo would have affected things. Yes, fascinating!
Cars that talk – a wonderful idea!
I remember many cars like these lined up around the Bossler Mennonite Church parking lot, but none were yellow, orange, or (gasp!) red.
As I am reading your post, on the desk beside me lies a Google image of a 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook which looks a lot like II car. I have been using it to describe my pastor’s car in a memoir scene. Of course it was BLACK, but shiny. Let’s face it – another example of synchronicity, Shirley.
Cliff had an Olds that looks very much like III, although the one you picture may be a Pontiac. I guess your friend Don will supply an answer key.
I have enjoyed this series of armchair anthropology – thank you!
Marian, I used Google too when I needed to describe a special car in my memoir. You and I have traveled many roads separately but together.
Yes, armchair anthropology. My heavy travel schedule this year makes me want to read really good travel literature, a genre I haven’t studied. I feel more than I can find words for in these places — especially Cuba. I’ll probably say the same about New Zealand and Iona and Lindisfarne. Coming up next year. Thanks for coming along on the ride.
My late husband probably could have named them all. I’m not a car person either. I usually identified people’s cars by the color. Now I don’t even know what color my friends drive.
And when it comes to being picky, my husband didn’t permit eating in his car.
I have guessed at the make of most cars in your photos, but the only ones I think I know for “pretty sure” are: #II – a Chevy I think –possibly a 1951 model. My brother had one. And #V is undoubtedly a Buick. My college boyfriend who became my husband was mighty proud of his dark blue second-hand Buick. We honeymooned in it in 1954. Do you suppose the one pictured is the same one that toured us around the Finger Lakes region of NY? If so, it sported white walled tires back then.
Ruth, you may remember Marlin Gerber. He sent me a message after he saw your comment here. He gave me permission to relay it to you with love:
“When I was in high school selling fire extinguishers for the Fire Fyter Co out of Dayton, OH, I ran across a 1929 Chevy blocked up in a barn which I obtained by swaping equipment for it. It had Disc wheels, a cloth top, and mohair seats with an old wooden steering wheel. It worked perfectly for many years for me. The rear windows had blinds that pulled down. Would have been perfect for your honey moon! Ha ha ha
Take care, Marlin in Kazoo.”
You are right about that Buick. I’m about to put up the first list — from a man, not surprisingly, guessing at all of them. Stay tuned.
I didn’t see any whitewall tires, a great loss. Maybe when our two countries normalize their relations completely, car restorers will be able to put on some new whitewalls on some of these beauties. I heard there is a law that they can’t sell these cars to people who take them out of the country.
I smiled to think of you and your husband touring around in a Buick during your honeymoon in the Finger Lakes. You suggest another reason that cars create nostalgia. So many of us were madly in love when we formed our first memories of cars.
Here’s the first entry into a complete list of the ten cars, from Sam Lapp to my email:
1. 1958 Dodge or Plymouth (see note above)
2. 1952 Plymouth
3. 1958 Pontiac
4. 1957 Chevy
5. ip54 Buick
6. 1946 pontiac
7. 1940 Chrysler
8. 1953 or ’54 Chevy
9. 1960 modified Chevy
10 1954 Buick
What do you think?? I’m about to put this up on Facebook to see if other car buffs will confirm or deny this list.
Sam explains the seeming convergence of GM and Chrysler on some of these cars as a product of exporting in the fifties and sixties.
“Some GM and Chrysler cars for export switched names and logos. Plymouths had Dodge names and vice versa, same for some GM cars, i.e. Chevy’s and Pontiacs.”
If you love travel literature, here’s a relevant link to some great insights about why we travel and what we can learn from it.
I could only say “old” about any of them. My husband, though, could ID most of them, and made a good guess at the year. He says the first picture in your post – the one you say is a 1956 Ford is a 1957 or later. A fun trip down memory lane.
Ha ha. Old is good. I think your husband may be right, now that I look at examples on line. See the correction in the caption.
Thank your husband for me. Looks like husbands are the players at this game.
Shirley, will you be surprised to learn I called my resident car afficionado to go through the images with me? Driving down the road he’s always identifying every old car that passes. Maybe I should call him my “armchair anthropologist.” Here’s our attempt at ID’ing the cars:
1. ’56 DeSoto
2. ’52 Dodge
3. ’58 Olds
4. ’57 Belair
5. ’52 Buick
6. ’40 Willys
7. ’41 Dodge
8. ’53 Chevrolet
9. ’56 Chevrolet (Belair or 210)
10. ’48 Buick
And I do remember my first car. My dad and uncle helped me find it–a ’63 Oldsmobile F85. I thought I was living the dream–air conditioned, 8-track tape deck, and mine! A really good car to drive. Fond memories of drives through the parks of Nashville and out to the lake area.
Thanks for the trip down memory lane!
These are looking great, Sherrey. You do have an in-house expert. I think it’s about time for me to post Don Warnick’s list to compare them with the others. I have no way to reconcile any of the differences that may remain except to tell them to duke it out online. 🙂
Thanks for playing.
Here are Don Warnick’s identifications. I’ll ask him to come back to defend, explain, or change any of them if you have better proof.
I. 1958 DeSoto front end on a 1957 Plymouth
II. 1952 Dodge
III. 1958 Pontiac
IV. 1957 Chevy Bel Air S/W
V. 1952 Buick
VI. 1940 Willys Sedan
VII. Late 40’s Chrysler
VIII. 1953 Chevy
IX. 1956 Chevy
X. probably a 1953 Buick
This was fascinating Shirley! So poignant that you listened to Garrison’s show which aired at the time we were in Cuba. You certainly struck a nerve with this entry and I can see why since most of people had fathers who they loved and those fathers loved their cars. My father was a salesman who drove a company car most the time which was no doubt not one of his particular choice, often a bulky station wagon, so cars were not a big item in my family until my older brother came into ownership of a sports car. If we did have a newer car we parked at the back of the church parking lot!
Good to see my traveling companion show up here. 🙂 And I loved your story about parking in the back of a Mennonite church lot if your car was new. So much irony. The young boys showing off their hot cars in the front of the lot, the older families taking care not to flaunt their affluence in the back. Cars have such symbolic resonance and can mean different things to different people in the same apparently cohesive group. They also take on new meanings over time and across cultures.
So glad we could experience them together. And I didn’t even include that Russian Lada we drove to Pilon in!
I enjoyed looking at the photos but couldn’t identify one. Truth is I can’t identify recent car makes and models. I’m lucky if I get the color right. I might be able to pick out my dad’s white 1957 Chrysler, but it wasn’t there. I’ve never been interested in cars other than wanting a sturdy reliable one to get around and navigate country roads. I had to stir up a little passion to buy a new one recently. Now that she has snow tires and we’re ready for winter, I don’t think about her much.
My dad LOVED a new car and we had one every two years. Usually white with big fins. I remember taking nighttime summer drives in Missouri and sticking my face out the open window to cool off. No air conditioning even when it was 100.
As I recall, your new car is RED? Love it.
And thank you so much of that image of you in a new white car, drinking in the cool air outside the window as it rushes by.
Before air conditioning, we were miserably hot. But we also had liminal spaces between the indoors and outdoors that have all but disappeared, except in memory.
A new car every two years. I remember reading that advice. But we weren’t able to do it. My father reordered his priorities after he took on a mortgage on the farm. But he would have noticed YOUR car if it would have happened to drive past us. 🙂
I don’t get into the names of the cars, but they certainly give me a feeling connected to family and the kinds of cars from my childhood.
You quote lingers, about the dead being with us always.
I read this yesterday, and last night had a dream of being in the specific car that I now co-own, my youngest brother was driving, and my father was in the second seat, leaning forward with interest. In the dream, we were passing farms, and the barns were all red and large. I could see the weathered wood grain, under the coat of paint.
In real life, we only got a new car once ever ten years.
Regarding tractors, my brothers on the farm,are still using some tractors my father purchased in the ’60s and ’70s.
I love the way you take words into your inner life, Dolores. Your dream reflects your own deep knowledge of your father’s love of the land, a love you share. Your family sounds like they understood sustainability before the word became popular.
The dead we have with us always. Yes. And one of our comforts in losing them is in connecting with the things they loved.