What’s really under the hood in Havana?

With his late brother Tom Magliozzi, Ray Magliozzi hosted the National Public Radio show “Car Talk,” now airing as “The Best of Car Talk,” for 25 years. Since ending the show in 2012, Ray Magliozzi has continued to write a syndicated column on cars and contribute to the Car Talk website. Recently, he took a trip to Cuba, where midcentury American cars famously rule the roads.

Q. What cars did you find in Cuba and how are they possibly still running?

A. So the 1959 Cuban revolution takes place, and at that time there were predominantly American cars on the road and American parts and dealerships, like an adjunct of what you’d see in Florida. Then the embargo starts and no one knew how long it was going to last. But they had parts available so the cars kept running. Then when they ran out of parts, they had a lot of “parts cars.” That lasted about 20 to 25 years of cannibalizing cars. When they ran out of what could be scavenged, they ran into ingenuity. What we saw were beautiful cars.

The 1957 Chevy taxi we rode in was beautifully maintained. But it was not original by any means. A lot of cars had Hyundai diesel engines. They’ve taken out the original engines and transmissions and transplanted a Hyundai drivetrain. These are simple and durable and relatively new. Those vintage cars are outwardly restored American cars, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d say, “Wow.” But that’s part of their ingenuity – to rip out engines and create something more reliable and newer and something you can get parts for.

Q. What’s your impression of the car community in Havana?

A. On the first day, we were picked up in an old Ford and a ’56 Chevy. They took us for a ride down what’s called Avenida Quinta where all the fancy houses were. I was surprised at how many people were out for a Sunday drive. I think it’s because Cubans love cars, and they love them even more because they can’t have them, especially since cars are so central to their culture. They are obviously doing business – it’s one of the few businesses allowed – and they’re doing it because they get a great satisfaction from taking something banged up and making it work again.

Q. Where would you send travelers to Cuba who are interested in cars?

A. The front entrance of Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which is the fanciest hotel, I believe, in Havana. The lobby is breathtakingly beautiful, and there’s this constant parade of taxi cabs coming and going at the Nacional. You’ll get to see the best of the best. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re culling the ugly ones.

I sat one day for an hour or two and just watched. It’s a nostalgia trip for me. Cars then were so easy to spot. I was able to do that at the Nacional.

Q. What’s it like driving in Cuba?

A. I had heard that the cars were OK and that the roads were so bad you’re not able to do more than 20 mph. That was hardly the truth. Some roads were difficult and impassable, but most streets in Havana are at least as good as the streets in Boston. They’re not ravaged by salt and ice. And the cars are able to drive 50 to 60 mph.

Of course there are no air bags, no seat belts, and all the things we’ve become accustomed to, to save our lives.