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Love of Classic American Cars Fuels Reality TV's "Cuban Chrome"

Discovery Channel
Hernan Montalvo works on a classic car on the Discovery Channel's "Cuban Chrome."

How often do you see a classic American car on the road?  Every week?  Once a month?  Once in a blue moon?

You know the kind: tail fins, mammoth headlights, painted from front grill to back bumper some sort of electric Crayola crayon color and looking like it was just driven straight off the set of “Grease.”

In Cuba, they’re all over the place. 

It’s estimated that Cuba is home to about 60,000 vintage American cars, left there in 1959 just as Fidel Castro came to power and two years before an embargo would cut off the flow of new American cars -- and car parts -- to the island nation.

The result is that Cuba’s car culture lives in a kind of suspended animation, with Ford Fairlanes and Chevy Bel Airs tearing up and down the Malecon, Havana’s main strip.  The sight of bicyclists sharing the road with Chevy Coupe de Villes, Packards and Studebakers is so common it’s unremarkable. 

Admiring the cars might be easy, but repairing them and keeping them running in a country where parts are nearly impossible to find is a labor of love.  Or as one member of A Lo Cubano Car Club would put it, in heavily accented English: “It is a bish.”

The club’s members, just a fraction of Cuba’s auto enthusiasts, are the focus of the Discovery Channel’s “Cuban Chrome,” billed as the first American television show shot in Cuba.  The reality show follows the members of the club as they scour Havana looking for decades-old parts, sometimes selling prized possessions to buy that elusive carburetor or gasket.

According to the show’s producer, Discovery Channel Executive Vice President Craig Coffman, plans for the reality series were underway well before President Obama’s December 2014 announcement that the United States would start to normalize relations with Cuba.

“It took a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of persistence to convince both sides (the U.S. and Cuba) to let us make a non-political TV show about the cars and about the people who make the cars,” says Coffman.

Credit Discovery Channel
Discovery Channel
Demetrio Montalvo, right, and his sons Hernan, left, and Michel, center, inside a garage in “Cuban Chrome.”

So does Discovery have any more “made in Cuba” TV shows in the works?  Not at present, according to Coffman.  But he says everyone involved with “Cuban Chrome” hopes that similar shows will acquaint American audiences with a country most of them know precious little about.

“When they hear what Cuba is like and what the people are like, it’s very enlightening,” says Coffman.  “They really are just like us.”

"Cuban Chrome" airs Mondays on The Discovery Channel.