By Daniel Trotta
HAVANA (Reuters) - Luis Abel Bango spent seven years searching for his dream car, a 1957 Chevy Bel Air. He finally found it on Cuba's far western tip, buying it off the original owner for $7,000.
"I went everywhere looking for what I wanted. Out in the provinces, central Cuba. I had to go to the end of the island to find this one," Bango said.
The black-and-white four-door had been kept intact by the original owner, complete with all the chrome bits such as the rocket-like hood ornaments that give a '57 Chevy its style and make it a collectors' favorite.
"The whole package was nearly complete," said Bango, although he still needed take the car apart for a complete diagnosis and new paint job.
Around 60,000 vintage cars have run on Cuba's roads since before the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro, but finding a collectible of value is a challenge.
For every hidden gem, there are thousands of beaten up clunkers, largely stripped of their original parts.
Cuba and the United States agreed last week to restore diplomatic ties that were cut off after the revolution, when the tail fin was still a recent innovation in automotive design.
Under the rapprochement, U.S. President Barack Obama plans to remove economic sanctions imposed against the communist-run island. In a land of chronic shortages made worse by those sanctions, Cubans kept the pre-revolution cars on the road, using makeshift parts and considerable ingenuity.
Still, American collectors who envision a wave of classic cars coming onto the market will need to temper their expectations. Even if the U.S. completely lifted its trade embargo, a 2010 Cuban law bans cars being taken off the island.
More importantly, most of the vintage cars, the backbone of urban transit, have suffered heavily on pothole-filled roads and the repairs, although inventive, would turn off any purist.
Convertible roofs are often replaced with sheets of plastic and many original motors have been replaced with diesel engines because they are cheaper to run.
"What you see are a lot of cars that are just kind of rolling hulks held together with duct tape and chicken wire," said Lance Lambert, host of U.S. television show Vintage Vehicles.
Alejando Torres, a Cuban mechanic, bought a '57 Chevy with only 74,000 miles on it from its original owner 10 years ago.
In what would be sacrilege in the United States, he put in a Mitsubishi diesel engine because the old gas guzzlers are just too expensive to run.
Torres said he has turned down $50,000 for it, although in the United States the listed value on that car in excellent condition is $28,100.
"Maybe I'd sell it if I could buy a modern diesel car at that price," Torres said.
Under Cuba's one-party system, the new car market is tightly regulated and a brand new sedan costs upwards of $200,000. For decades, only pre-revolutionary vehicles could be bought and sold freely, which is why so many have stayed on the road.
The early 1950s Chevys seem to be the most common, though there are Fords, Buicks, DeSotos, Plymouths and Oldsmobiles. Occasionally a gigantic late '40s or early '50s Cadillac can be spotted.
"There are a lot of Americans that have the dream of finding the rare car in Cuba," said Bill Warner, founder and chairman of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance car show. "For the most part, the cars you see on TV are really pretty hacked up. You’d find better cars here in the United States."
Some cars from Cuba might have value as novelties but "for serious collectors the novelty will soon wear off," said Phil Skinner, a collectibles editor with Kelley Blue Book, which lists new and used car prices.
MORE VALUABLE IN CUBA
Lifting the U.S. embargo would mostly help Cuban classic car owners buy parts.
Most of the cars are far more valuable in Cuba than they would be in the United States. Not only have they lost so many original parts that collectors crave, but the old workhorses also provide crucial income for their owners.
As taxis, their famously spacious interiors can accommodate half a dozen passengers. Cubans squeeze in for the equivalent of $0.40, while tourists like to take rides in the spiffier looking convertibles for about $30 an hour.
In the United States, the '57 Chevy Bel Air is perhaps the most coveted, with its distinct tail fin, though Cubans tend to prefer the 1955s and 1956s. All three years make up the "Tri Five" models that featured tri-colored bodies and lots of chrome.
The Kelley Blue Book Early Model Guide values a two-door 1957 convertible in excellent condition at $86,200, though the right car can go for over $100,000 to the right collector, experts say.
Roland Franz Henning, a German living in Cuba, said he owns a pristine 1957 Chevy Bel Air two-door, painted white and baby blue. In one important detail, it is the version that does not have a post or pillar separating the front and rear side windows.
"There are only three like this, in this condition, in all of Cuba," Henning said. "It looks just like the one from the 1957 brochure."
Bango, a member of Havana's V8 Club, had a '57 Chevy in mind when he decided to restore an old car for the club's weekend outings. While the two-door versions are more valuable, he likes the four-door and after his long search found one without a pillar.
On Christmas Day, he went to see his car at the garage of his mechanic, Santiago Rodriguez, another V8 Club member who loves old cars.
The black-and-white body is mostly disassembled as Rodriguez methodically puts it back together. The project was stalled for several years while he gathered the parts he needed.
Bango wanted it to have extra power, so they are replacing the original six-cylinder engine with a 1970s-era Chevy V8. That would lower its value in the U.S. market but Bango says he would not sell even if it were allowed.
"I've been offered $27,000 for it as it is, all taken apart and not finished yet," Bango said. "There's no way I'd sell. This one is for the club. This one is for me."
(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Detroit and Nelson Acosta and Rosa Tania Valdés in Havana; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Kieran Murray)