Photos: Christopher Baker
“Beautiful!” exclaimed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as he caught sight of Lola in Havana’s Plaza de San Francisco during a trade mission to Cuba in April 2015. “A work of art!” he gushed, admiring her lipstick-pink door locks and wheel rims.
Cuomo slid behind the steering wheel of the pink-and-white ’56 Chevy Bel Air. Then her owner Julio Álvarez Torres, 53, raised the hood. Lola’s original power-train had long since quit, he told Cuomo. And since he couldn’t get replacement American parts because of the U.S. embargo, Lola was now running with a four-cylinder diesel Toyota engine.
When President Barack Obama visited Cuba in March 2016, Julio and his wife (and business partner) Nidialys Acosta Cabrera—co-founders of Nostalgicar, a luxury chauffeured classic-car touring agency—were invited to Obama’s forum for Cuban cuentapropistas (self-employed entrepreneurs). The next day, they were among 500 dignitaries in Havana’s gilded Gran Teatro as Obama told the Cuban people that he’d called on the U.S. Congress to end the embargo. And in 2017, Julio and Nidialys were among eight Cuban cuentapropistas invited to speak at the Global Innovation Forum, in Washington, DC. president Obama even invited them into the White House.
“That was the high point of my life,” recalls Julio, beaming. “Imagine! Me, a small-time entrepreneur from Cuba speaking to the U.S. President one-on-one in the Casa Blanca.”
By international comparison, Nostalgicar is small-fry. Nonetheless, it’s one of the biggest and best-known success stories of Cuban entrepreneurship. Julio and Nidialys credit hosted visits to the USA in 2014 to meet American entrepreneurs and participate in a business course at Columbia University, New York, with giving them a different vision of how to succeed in business. “I thought I was just going to talk to students, but we were invited to the State Department to talk with John Kerry,” Julio told me, chortling at the memory of being underdressed.
The couple started their business in 2011 with “Nadine,” a turquoise-and-white 1955 Chevy Bel Air. “It was my uncle Daniel’s car, and with the same colors as now,” Julio recalls fondly. “He loved that car! But his kids didn’t share his passion [and] it started to deteriorate,” he adds wistfully, as we talk in his ‘50s-retro-themed base in Havana’s Arroyo Naranjo suburb.
Before the Revolution, his dad was a General Motors mechanic. Julio inherited his papá’s passion for classic cars. “I studied mechanical engineering. After I graduated, I acquired my uncle’s car and restored it,” he says. Julio’s restoration was so meticulous that Nadine won a casting contest for a leading role in Havana 57 (2012), a Cuban-Canadian sex-filled crime thriller set amid the revolutionary fervor of Batista’s debauched heyday. (Thankfully, the film never showed inside the hood. The original 265 cubic-inch V-8 engine was a gas-guzzler, delivering only four kilometers per liter. “I swapped it for a four-cylinder Toyota diesel motor,” laughs Julio. “Now, 12 kilometers to the liter!”)
In 2011, after Raúl Castro embraced cuentapropismo (market-based liberalization to foster self-employment), Julio began parking Nadine outside the Hotel Nacional, offering his services chauffeuring tourists around the city. Later that year, Julio bought a junked ’56 Chevy Bel Air so wretched it looked like it had been in a war zone. “At first, I wasn’t sure I’d made a wise purchase,” he chortled. “But we didn’t have much money, so I bought una mierda and dedicated an entire year to fixing her up.” He paused. “Look at her now,” he sighed, pointing proudly to Lola. “She’s more like a family member.”
In 2011, President Obama eased travel restrictions to Cuba, permitting U.S. citizens to visit on “people-to-people” group tours. By 2012, the trickle turned to a flood. A ride in a classic car became de rigueur. Business was further boosted in November 2013, when Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism allowed state tourism agencies to contract with classic cars owners for city tours. The couple registered the Nostalgicar name and to meet demand, partnered with five friends who also had classic cars. (American actress and social activist Susan Sarandon inspired the name. “It feels so nostalgic!” she’d exclaimed gleefully, while touring Havana in Lola.)
Today, the fleet comprises 22 cars. Julio and Nidialys own Nadine, Lola, and eight other Chevys with original engines. The flota also includes a ’55 Buick Roadmaster, ‘55 Ford Fairlane, and ’56 Ford Crown Victoria. But Julio sticks to Chevys. “There are more fifties Bel Airs than any other marque in Cuba,” he explains. “Parts are easy to obtain. And I was raised with Chevys. I know them inside out,” he tells me.
Julio’s favorite is “Margaret”—a black 1959 Chevy Impala hardtop that Secretary of State John Kerry asked to sit in during his Havana visit to reopen the U.S. Embassy on August 14, 2015. And in March 2016, the low-slung iconic Chevy with super sharp fins chauffeured Michelle Obama and “the girls” to Finca Vigía, Ernest Hemingway’s former hilltop home in the suburb of San Francisco de Paula. Beyoncé, Bon Jovi, Madonna, and even Ray Magliozzi of NPR’s Car Talk, have all been chauffeured around Havana in Nostalgicar classics. The cars themselves regularly star in movies and music video clips, such as “Benny” (a ’59 Impala, and Nostalgicar’s only convertible), which features in über-hip groove artist Cimafunk’s “Ponte pa’ lo tuyo.”
All Nostalgicar’s autos first arrived as forsaken Tin Lizzies at its taller (workshop) on Avenida Boyeros and were turned into Cinderellas by Julio’s team of eight young mechanics, chapistas (body-workers), and upholsterers. (On the day in 2013 that Julio bought Margaret, all four tires blew as Nidialys drove her into Havana.) Most of the restoration work still occurs at the state-leased taller, where Julio runs an ancillary business charging Cubans who want to have their jalopies brought back to life. In 2019, however, Julio moved the Nostalgicar HQ to his own workshop—rigged with a 1950s gas pump and retro décor—in Arroyo Naranjo.
“My dream is to own a complete fleet of cars and exclusively employ my own drivers,” he said. With his own ten vehicles, he’s well on his way. For now, Nostalgicar operates like an informal co-operative: the other owner-drivers work as independent cuentapropistas and keep 100 percent of their earnings.
While Julio keeps the engines running, Nidialys—who studied chemistry at university, then worked in marketing for the government for 11 years—administers the day to day operations. If needed, she takes over behind the wheel. “She’s the brains behind the business,” jokes her husband, enfolding his wife in a bear hug.
Nonetheless, this resourceful duo struggle against restrictions we can barely imagine. Public advertising, for example, isn’t permitted (no bad thing to those of us who cherish Havana for its non-consumerist culture). Government regulations are constantly changing. Taxes are high. And let’s not talk about obtaining rare parts to restore the cars!
Julio sources most parts from California’s Danchuk Manufacturing, which makes 1955-1957 Chevrolet restoration parts; and from MAC’s Antique Auto Parts in Lockport, New York, for the Fords. He even buys on eBay. “Because of the U.S. embargo, we have to arrange for parts to be hand-carried to Cuba on flights as personal baggage,” explains Julio. As a Cuban, the embargo laws prevent him from having a U.S. bank account or making credit card payments. Thus, he uses his Miami connections. “We have friends who buy the parts for us. But they charge us 20 percent surcharge… so I guess they’re not friends!” he laughs. Cuban customs duties dramatically increase the cost.
Julio fears the current climate of newly-soured U.S.-Cuba relations will make things even more difficult. The arrival in 2016 of the first U.S. cruise ships (another Obama liberalization) brought thousands of passengers eager for a ride in sexed-up Eisenhower-era classics. “We did really well for a few years,” Julio sighs. Alas, in June 2019 President Trump canceled U.S. cruises to Cuba, and shortly thereafter banned “people-to-people” group programs. The brief boom abruptly ended. “The majority of our clients are from the USA. Now there are very few tourists. Yours is the first group we’ve had in a week,” Nidialys tells me, sadly, while members of my Los Angeles Times Expeditions’ “Cuban Chrome” tour group “ooh!” and “aah!” as eight gleaming cars assemble for our own ride through Havana.