Cuban Project Car: 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air

Disclosure: This site may receive compensation from some link clicks and purchases.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing a post that details (with photos!) how my vintage Toyota HiAce project made its way from Panama to the U.S. In a similar fashion, this 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air arrived in the U.S. from Panama after beginning its journey in Cuba, giving it one of the more colorful histories we’ve seen on an unrestored Bel Air. Find the car here on eBay with bidding approaching $4K and the reserve unmet. 

By now, most of us know that Cuba retains a large assortment of classic U.S. vehicles still in active road use. This is not done due to a large enthusiast population that lives there but out of necessity due to trade agreements (or lack thereof) that prevent new cars from flowing in. The seller doesn’t detail how long this Bel Air has lived in Panama, but it would seem it was built for overseas markets as the speedometer is in KPHs, not MPH.

That was one of the telltale signs of my van’s overseas origins, and confirmed the diesel-powered oddball was sent to Panama as a new car. To see such a slow vehicle with a speedometer indicating anything over 100 was possible still makes me laugh, but then I recall the KPH abbreviation on the gauge face. This Bel Air retains an exceptional interior despite the tired exterior, but overall – if it’s not rusty – this Bel Air is holding together incredibly well for a car that’s been living in Cuba and Panama all of its life.

In the case of my van, it came back to the U.S. with a service member stationed with the Air Force at a base alongside the Panama Canal. I wonder if that’s the case here as well, but the seller sheds no light on that part of its history. The six-cylinder, three-on-the-three combination is said to work well, and that the Chevy is a strong runner ready to drive anywhere with rust repair needed in the rockers. I love cars and trucks with a good story, and it would seem this Bel Air has plenty of tales left to tell.

Auctions Ending Soon


  1. RayT

    A Chevy from Cuba would certainly be a show-stopper at any Cars & Coffee. And it would be fun to own, though one look at the firewall tells me there are almost certainly major issues hidden away under the skin.

    We’ve all heard stories about the, shall we say, heroic measures Cubans have had to take to keep their old rides on the road, from fabricating unavailable parts to clever — and sometimes ham-fisted — substitutions, to stitching two or more derelicts together to make one runner. A full tear-down would be almost mandatory.

    But the story almost makes it worthwhile without getting into the grimy details. I hope its Cuban license plates come with it!

    Like 7
  2. Michael

    I visited Cuba back in 2010. Rode in several classic taxis. The Cuban people are very proud of these American classics. Many of the ones I saw were spotless.

    Like 7
    • Karl D.

      I suspect that buying new would require money that the average Cuban doesn’t have, while these old cruisers are already paid for and handed down through the family. For that matter, they could have purchased Russian cars during the Soviet period (and probably did), but that still requires money, no matter what kind of subsidies the Sovs offered in exchange for Cuban sugar and mercenary troops.

      Like 1
    • Mountainwoodie

      I was there in 2000………..I’m wondering where the coffee can to feed the carburetor is ?

      Glad to see they’re still rolling.I have a boatload of pix somewhere. Had a ball. Vinceromos!

      This looks pretty good for having been in Panama :)

      Like 0
  3. Dave

    Ive never understood why Cuba doesn’t buy everything from China or India. Those countries were never part of any embargo. Mahindra Roxors should be popular.

    Like 1
  4. Karl D.

    Sorry, I meant to reply to David, not Michael. Might make more sense that way!

    Like 0
  5. Fred W

    The 100mph speedo may not be as optimistic as you think. According the the source I found, a ’56 with Blue Flame Six and overdrive is capable of 96mph.

    Like 2
  6. Jamie

    I was there a few times, and the classic cars are abundant. They cut the roof off of 4 door cars all the time to make convertibles.
    I had a great laugh when my wife and I met up with her parents in a little town (we were at different resorts), and they showed up in a convertible taxi. The “taxi” was an old Lada 4 door with the roof chopped off. It was sagging so bad that the doors wouldn’t open and they had to climb over the top of the doors to get in and out. Pretty funny… and sketchy at best!

    Like 4

    One of my neighbors back in the 90s was a banker in Batista’s Cuba.
    He managed to exit Havana with his family…a good chunk of “fresh start” money…and a gorgeous ’54 Eldorado.

    Like 2
  8. Mark Tuovinen

    I was there in 2016 and saw many vintage American cars, the oldest was from the 1920’s the newest I recall was from the 70’s but those extremes were one time sightings most were from the 1950’s. There were other countries represented as well, 1930’s English cars, a 50’s Porsche, and late model Audi’s and Mercedes. Conditions varied from very nice to pieced together, missing pieces, to sitting neglected for years. Most of the cars even in the very nice looking condition were 20/20 cars, up close you could easily see signs that they had undergone many repairs over the decades. Cuba’s access to parts is limited and even more limiting is their lack of the money necessary to purchase them. The average wage is Cuba is $30 – $40 dollars per month which leaves little money for car repairs. During our drive from Havana to Trinidad we passed a 1957 Fairlane driving on the highway that was missing the right rear door and the drivers door. Another car on the road I could see the back of the front seats through the openings on the rear body panel where the taillights should have been. Some of the vintage cars have had their engines rebuilt, probably more than once. Other cars have had their engines swapped out usually for Toyota or Nissan diesels. Our last host drove a 1952 Pontiac Chieftain with a 2.0L Toyota diesel, disc brakes, a/c, and p/w. He uses it as a tourist taxi which is one of the best paying jobs a Cuban can have. Since Castro took over they have purchased vehicles from Russia, China, and South America. Their rental car fleets are Geely or BYD brands from China. Our host at one place we stayed is a manager with the Cuban transportation company the runs most of the trucking, and rental cars there. He told me the rental cars last about two years and then they have to replace them as they are worn out. Other forms of personal transportation there include, bicycles, Tuk tuks, horseback, and horse and wagon. The Cuban people are resourceful, they have to be as they have nothing to work with and no money to pay for anything.

    Like 0
    • Miguel

      How did a ’70s car, or even a late ’60s car get to Cuba?

      Like 1
  9. Mark Tuovinen

    Here is a photo of a custom 1957 Thunderbird dashboard I saw in Havana.

    Like 2
  10. leiniedude leiniedudeMember

    Ended: Feb 19, 2019 , 8:17AM
    Sold for:US $8,000.00
    [ 11 bids ]

    Like 0
  11. stillrunners

    For maybe those that don’t know history….Cuba was in full swing after the great war in the 40’s and still swinging into the 50’s until the end of the 50’s. A new 1956 Chevy hardtop was not a big stretch. My 56 210 hardtop came out of Mexico at some point in it’s life…

    Like 0

Leave A Comment

RULES: No profanity, politics, or personal attacks.

Become a member to add images to your comments.


Get new comment updates via email. Or subscribe without commenting.

Barn Finds