Geely pushes Lada to the kerb


MOTORSNEWS:AFTER THREE decades as the favoured car of Cuban top ranks, the austere, Russian-built Lada is eyeing up a Chinese rival in its rear-view mirror.

Ministers, communist officials and police are switching their Ladas, with their stiff manual steering, for the smooth hydraulics of the Chinese-made Geely CK, a modern saloon that symbolises the island’s new alliance with Beijing.

China, now Cuba’s second-largest trading partner behind Venezuela, has shown an ability to quickly penetrate and dominate markets around the world with many of its products.

But Cubans say their love for Ladas, which are probably the most visible legacy of the country’s Cold War alliance with the Soviet Union, will keep the cars on Cuban roads. “I do not think it will be easy to displace the Lada,” said David Pena, a 39-year-old mechanic who recently founded Cuba’s Russian Automobile Club. “For us, this car is like a family member.”

Cuba is well known for the vintage American cars that prowl its streets, relics of pre-revolutionary Cuba and rolling tributes to the islanders’ mechanical inventiveness.

But the truth is they are greatly outnumbered by Ladas, of which there are an estimated 100,000 in Cuba, compared to somewhere around 60,000 of the old US cars.

The Geelys, based on a Daewoo design and powered by a 1.5-litre engine licensed from Toyota, have started to appear with increasing frequency on Havana streets. They have a sleek and stylish look and come with air conditioning, electric windows and CD players.

The Chinese cars are so far showing up in very limited numbers, as government vehicles and rental cars, but their ranks are expected to increase in a sign of China’s growing economic relationship with Cuba and business interests on the island.

Geely, China’s biggest privately owned car maker whose worldwide strategy has been founded on exporting low-cost vehicles, shipped more than 1,500 cars to Cuba this year through June, the Miami Herald reported on its website.

But the no-frills Lada, based on the Fiat 124 from the 1960s, has become a cult object in Cuba for both its utility and its enduring presence.

From the time it arrived in the 1970s, the car, so spartan it does not even have hubcaps, was a good fit for economically challenged Cuba.

It was inexpensive, and earned a reputation as a durable car that, when repairs were needed, was easy to repair. “Anyone can fix it with just a piece of wire,” said Carlos, a veteran mechanic in Havana. “If you ask a Cuban he will tell you he does not want to exchange his Lada for anything in the world.”

There are those who doubt that the new Geelys, flashier but not imbued with the Lada’s image of tank-like solidity, will last as long on Cuba’s pot-holed streets.

In Cuba, a government minister must give approval for someone to buy a car legally, and in most cases even when it is purchased, it still belongs to the state.

Only people who bought a car before the revolution or those who afterward were granted the right to purchase one for personal or political achievements actually own their vehicles.

– Reuters