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Is Cuba A Hidden Trove of Classic Cars?

Collectors developing barn fever as US-Cuba relations thaw.

by on Jan.30, 2015

The rusted hulk of a Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing Coupe found in a Cuban yard.

Anywhere you wander in Cuba you might feel like you’re caught in a time warp, if for no other reason than the steady stream of half century-old Chevrolets and Fords that dominate the communist country’s roads.

They’re the automotive equivalent of “zombies,” suggests Ken Gross, one of America’s foremost experts on classic cars. “They’ve gone on far longer than they were designed to,” patched together with baling wire and anything else that cash-strapped Cuban owners can find.

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While most Cuban cars are old American hulks, there have been several recent reports of vehicles far more exclusive and desirable, including a pair of rusted Mercedes 300SL Gullwing coupes – vehicles that, in good condition, can command upwards of $500,000. So, with Cuba and the U.S. talking about finally ending the diplomatic standoff that followed the communist takeover, there’s been a bit of so-called “barn find fever” incubating among classic car collectors.

But whether there’s really a treasure trove to be found hidden away remains to be seen.

“While I wouldn’t hold my breath, there are probably a few really rare cars there,” says Gross, who has written a shelf full of books on classic car collecting, and who serves as a senior judge at the most important event of its kind in the U.S., the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

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Prior to the revolution, Cuba was a wealthy country with plenty of car collectors and a love of motor sports, adds Bill Warner, a well-respected collector and founder of Florida’s Amelia Island Concours. There were a number of international races, including a series of grand prix events through 1960.

Some of the cars that raced there never left the country, including two Jaguar XKS models from 1957. They surfaced in the late 1970s, and desperate for hard currency, the Castro government let them be sold to a foreign collector. The regime even set up an agency, Classico Coaches, to handle such deals.

So, “A lot of people who had classic cars went underground because they didn’t want the government to take them away,” says Warner, who has been to Cuba twice in recent years and is looking to go back again soon.

How many are left remains to be seen. As does the condition those vehicles might be in. In the arcane world of car collecting, however, even the most rusted remains of truly rare vehicles can be worth a lot to a collector who seeks the serial number badges that make them authentic. The rest can be rebuilt.

“I’ve seen pictures of a mid-50′s Mercedes SL 300 gullwing, a Chrysler Ghia and a Porsche (356) that hard core collectors have already identified and are ready to pounce on,” says automotive journalist and broadcaster John McElroy, of AutoLine Detroit. “There could be a few others that turn up.”

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While the odd Ghia, gullwing Mercedes or Hispana Suiza may yet reappear, virtually everything on Cuban roads would officially qualify as a classic – if not necessarily something desirable.

“Most of the classic cars on the road will not be very attractive to collectors because they’re not rare enough to warrant an expensive restoration,” adds McElroy, who has also spent time in Cuba. “Of course, some people will pour a fortune into the car they love even though they’ll never get back what they put into it.”

For now, the reality is that relations between the U.S. and Cuba are only beginning to thaw. The long trade embargo remains in effect, as do restrictions on what vehicle owners can do with their cars. It’s far from clear that the Cuban government will permit hidden automotive gems to be exported anytime soon.

But that hasn’t stopped collectors from wondering and, if they can get into the country, from wandering back roads and asking questions, hoping to find that rare car that someday they just might be able to own.

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