HAVANA - Before Fidel Castro's Communist revolution, Julio Alvarez Torres' father was a General Motors mechanic. Alvarez studied mechanical engineering, and his father's passion for 1950s-era American cars never left him.
In 2010, Raul Castro embraced the cuentapropismo, a series of market-based reforms allowing the entrepreneurial sector to grow. Alvarez started to drive tourists from the Hotel Nacional around Havana in his 1955 Chevy Bel Air.
About a year later, he and his business partners formed the NostalgiCar Group with a gleaming fleet of about 22 classic cars. Russian engines and homemade parts hid under the hoods of the classic beauties.
When then-President Barack Obama opened the doors to Cuba after 56 years of limitations, most American tourists were attracted to the vintage cars. The flurry of tourists included Madonna, the Kardashians, Karl Lagerfeld and Beyonce. Even for them, the allure of taking a ride around Havana's seafront Malecón esplanade in a classic convertible was irresistible.
"We did very well," Alvarez said.
They were able to refurbish more cars at their Garaje NostalgiCar. The family business grew. Even the Fast & Furious franchise took notice of Havana's iconic classic cars. But it all came to an abrupt halt after President Donald Trump was elected. His world of sonic attacks, travel warnings and new regulations put a stop to the flow of U.S. dollars.
"There is a great scarcity of tourists," Alvarez said.
Alvarez believes their Cuban ingenuity and perseverance will keep them afloat. Despite the U.S. embargo's blockade on original parts, they have been able to maintain a 1956 pink-and-white Bel Air they refer to lovingly as Lola. Someone in Canada helped them with their website and someone in Miami helped them to find car parts.
Alvarez's wife, Nidialys Acosta Cabrera, deals with the marketing. They are offering city tours, country tours and full-time rentals. They are finding some success with the Airbnb experiences, a package deal for tourists who might want to also visit their Garaje NostalgiCar, a workshop full of secrets.
The tourists who get to visit the garage where the magic happens learn about the process of restoring a rusty monster to its former glory. Chuck Cihak, who was visiting from San Francisco, was marveling at the vintage cars' shine. He appreciates Alvarez's passion for brightly colored, mint-condition beauties.
"It just brings back old memories of being a little kid, being able to experience the shop, talk to the owner, just to see his enthusiasm," Cihak said. "This is the change that is coming to Cuba. You can’t stop it."
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