20 January 2016

The Hidden Cars of Cuba: Piotr Degler’s Odyssey

At the end of 2013, Cuba announced it was to allow unrestricted car imports for the first time in 50 years. Until then, the locals had to make do with the cars they had- mostly 1950s classics, many from the USA. Every tourist brochure and every film about the island featured these cars: brightly-coloured Chevys, Cadillacs and Fords, all a little dented, but all going strong.

In terms of values, the half century-long Cuban government policy created an automotive alternate reality- one where the manufacturer, the provenance and the model became irrelevant; the only value was attached to whether the car actually worked or not. Thus family saloons- practical, easy to fix and capable of generating income as a taxi- remained popular and many sports cars- expensive to maintain and too small to carry anything but a driver and passenger- fell by the wayside.

This led to legendary stories of ultra- rare classics simply being left to rot- and one story lit the public’s imagination like no other: the Mercedes-Benz 300SL.

One man who was entranced by this story was Spanish/Italian automotive photographer Piotr Degler. So last year, he decided to spend a month in Cuba, looking for the elusive derelict Gullwing but also searching through the garages and lock-ups to see what other automotive jewels he could find.

Degler travelled the island from Vinales to Santiago de Cuba, stopping in dozens of towns and cities. He forged friendships with local enthusiasts and mechanics, which opened doors that would usually have been barred to foreign tourists.

The cars he found were extraordinary- not just the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing that he had been searching for (found extremely derelict, rusting under a banana tree and part-sprayed yellow) but also a very dusty 300SL Roadster and Porsches, Jaguars and even an Hispano-Suiza.

But it is Degler’s photographs of the cars still being used that may prove to be one of the most important legacies of his trip. For as new cars being to be imported, the colourful Impalas, Bel Airs and Crown Victorias will soon be gone, replaced by the cheaper, safer, more efficient but eminently more dull cars of today.

In total, Degler took over 25,000 photographs during his month in Cuba. The best 200, all with natural colours and unretouched, have been published into a high-quality book of over 300 pages- Carros de Cuba. Printed in Europe, Degler self- published, using the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to keep prices low. This was a resounding success- Degler raised over 42,000 Euros with each donation receiving a signed copy of the book.

The good news for Hagerty readers is that a second print run is now taking place, and a copy of Carros de Cuba can be bought directly from Degler at his website bit.ly/deglerstore. Prices start at 65 Euros.

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