We Might Learn From the Cubans

At 28, 5 years after moving back to LA from my college days in New York City, I’ve bought my first car. He’s all steel, with a curb weight of about 3800 pounds and an engine, I keep hearing, that just won’t quit. “Bulletproof” is a descriptor I’ve heard and read about the inline 6 countless times now. People get into accidents with them and are able to drive away in their totaled cars, unharmed.

If my car was a person, though, he’d be old enough to drink. Born in 1996 with three previous owners and 193,000 miles under his belt, the relationship I plan on having with this car is going to be one that not many Americans will be able to relate to. Jeepers will, obviously: It’s a Jeep thing. But the people I hope to take inspiration from in the years ahead will be the Cubans and their “yank tanks”.

Zero wasters and other low-impact folk really need to look at how Cuba has survived the 60 years since President Kennedy signed the order that choked off all resources to the small, harmless, communist nation in an attempt at attrition. The islanders didn’t succumb to US bullying, though: things were very hard, but they made do with what they had to work with. They are agriculturally self-sufficient, they’ve perfected the art of preventative medicine, and they’ve succeeded in keeping the nation’s fleet of 1950’s-era cars running in spite of sanctions and the complete collapse of a replacement parts market.  Motor Trend magazine sent a writer there to experience the Cuban car culture and this is the sight he was greeted with:

…strolling the busy streets of Havana today is like teleporting back into a 1950s Hollywood movie. You half expect Jimmy Stewart to drive past tailing Kim Novak in his DeSoto. We came here knowing we’d see a few classic American rides, but, in fact, amid a sprinkling of Russian Ladas and the occasional Korean compact, the grand old iron is everywhere. At a nearby curb sits a ’52 Ford Crestliner. There on the Malecón, the broad artery that sweeps along Havana’s waterfront, glides a ’57 Buick Century, followed quickly by a ’58 Chevy Impala and a ’57 Plymouth Fury. Few and far between are the cream puffs, true, but most of the passing museum pieces look amazingly good considering they’re well past retirement age and have never stopped working fulltime.

Most of these vehicles, as the author calls them though, are “zombies” and “mutants”. Many of them don’t even have the original motors anymore, and some of them don’t even have car motors. But is that so bad?

Dimitrio lifts the massive hood [of his 1953 Oldsmobile]. “This engine? Soviet. But not normal car engine. They use this to power welding machine.” Indeed, much of Dimitrio’s Oldsmobile runs on similarly ingenious life support. He points to the driver’s door. “That car is 60 years old. Where you can find a door for that piece of shit? If someone smashes your car, they have to make a new one.” Dimitrio moves to the back of the work yard, picks up a finished rectangle of “new” floorpan. “These guys, they make the pieces by hand — with a hammer.” He runs his fingers over the symmetrical square indentations in the metal, each one hand-beaten into shape. “This isn’t work,” says Dimitrio. “This…is art.”

A sustainable automobile culture and industry could never have looked like anything but this. They would have to be treated as heirlooms, driven by careful owners and maintained by guilds of car-wrights. But instead we’ve built the entire apparatus of automobile construction and maintenance around the rapidly fading mirage of cheap energy. Instead, we live in a culture where people upgrade cars faster than they upgrade mattresses. And like everything else in our failing world of consumer goods, even our cars are increasingly designed to be disposable.

I mean, let’s face the facts here: my 1996 Jeep Cherokee that gets 20 MPG under the best of conditions is, in a number of ways, more sustainable than a brand new Tesla or Prius. The most obvious reason is due to the reality of embodied energy – the carbon footprint of simply manufacturing a new vehicle and getting it to the show floor. If you take a look at the numbers for a Tesla vehicle – or even the new Tesla battery pack “Gigafactory”, the plant that’s due to be responsible for manufacturing the very backbone of its vehicles – it just doesn’t work out. However, it’s more than that: it’s the hidden maintenance costs of flimsy vehicles riddled with computer chips, cameras, and other “smart” technology. Who can fix a Tesla when it breaks down? Not you, that’s for sure – the learning curve for performing maintenance on a Tesla vehicle is so steep that you have currently have no choice but to take it to a dealership for repairs. You can’t just be a mechanic anymore; you apparently have to be a computer engineer as well.

There are other questions too: how easy is it to total? What is the carbon footprint of every individual component under the hood? How many miles will each component last? How easy are the parts to make and what is the embodied energy of the tools required to make them? How long can the workhorse keep running with a simple preventative maintenance routine, or does it need kid glove treatment and witches brews of exotic fluids?

I highly doubt that a Tesla battery can even theoretically last as long as a well-maintained straight 6: I’ve heard from guys who’ve put over 500,000 miles on their Jeeps, and their engines are still going strong. Moreover, when the engine does finally die (and it’s not just a cracked head or broken rod), the block is iron. It can be retooled, rebuilt, and hopefully, reused for another 500k miles. Of course, rebuilding even a basic engine like this costs a few grand and several dozens of hours of work, and most people – most people in the States – would rather just get another car. But I don’t want to be most people if I can avoid it.

Voluntary simplicity doesn’t just apply to wardrobes and kitchen cabinets. In Cuba’s case, the simplicity was quite involuntary, but the things they’ve created due to the strict limitations put on their day-to-day lives forced some amazing things to happen. That’s not to say that the average Cuban wouldn’t trade their 1950’s jalopy with a 4-cylinder Kia motor for something newer; they’re simply a people forced into mind-blowing creative solutions in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances. But that sort of convenience that we’ve come to expect from things like “progress” and “growth” hasn’t gotten us anywhere good lately.

I like to joke that the only “power” feature I’ve got in my car is steering. Aside from the 10-year-old aftermarket stereo, the only buttons I’ve got in the Jeep are for the headlights, defroster, and climate control. He’s about as bare-bones as a 90’s car is going to get (aside, of course, from the coveted 4×4 transfer case), which means that performing my own maintenance is going to be about as easy it gets. The DIY ethic among Jeepers, I should note, is generally about as strong as their love for the brand, and community support is phenomenal.

Every make has its group of aficionados, but aside from hot rodders and vintage muscle car guys, the level of dedication just doesn’t compare in the wider car-loving culture. We just don’t need to give a damn about our cars so long as they get us where we need to go. How many folks read their owner’s manuals cover to cover? (did. And I’ll probably be doing it again for a refresher soon enough.)

I won’t lie: the simplest thing to do would be to not have a car at all. In fact, since buying the Jeep, my life has gotten about twice as complex as it was before. If I’m to learn to fix the Jeep, then I need to know the Jeep: I’ve already spent dozens of hours researching parts, model year quirks, potential upgrades, problems, noises, wiring diagrams, octane ratings, maintenance schedules, best practices, and even etiquette. I know how to begin diagnosing problems that I had no idea existed before, or check the integrity of parts that I ever knew needed checking. The Jeep is not a low-maintenance vehicle; he requires a level of vigilance that most other car owners could never be bothered with. I glance at my gauges as often as I glance at the rearview mirror while driving. I keep a notebook in the glove compartment with a list of every single little thing I’ve done to him, who did it, and how many miles was on the odometer when it was done. I keep a towel in the back for when I need to pop the hood and get my hands dirty.

But I need a car now, and I refused to get one that I didn’t love enough to be in it for the long haul. Just as I don’t want my life riddled with disposable clothes, disposable plates, or disposable bags. And the old wartime adage of “make do and mend” extends to so much more than just socks. We don’t get rid of our homes as soon as they show signs of wear and tear, as soon as the plumbing goes out, or the roof leaks, or a fire levels the garage. We do so much living in our vehicles, that the same should be said of them too.

So, I’m going to learn from the Cubans as much as I can. Such a way of doing things is laborious, sometimes not especially cost-effective, and within the unimpressive rigidity of our convenience-driven consumer culture, it’s probably even just plain lunacy. But so long as I can afford parts and can tackle the relatively modest learning curve of car maintenance, then by all means: call me crazy.

(Must be a Jeep thing.)

More on the Cuban cottage auto industry:

More on high mileage cars:

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