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Cuba's cars may be a cliche, but they tell a cultural story

Cuba's classic cars tell a story of a country whose tranportation sometimes seems to be cast in amber.

The spirit of Harley Earl is alive and well and living in Cuba.

Earl, an automobile designer for General Motors, is known as the father of the tailfin, the flashy post-World War II design that mimics the P-38 Lightning fighter plane.

That era of classic cars stands out in Cuba, partly because time stood still, automotively speaking, after the 1959 overthrow of the government and the ensuing blockade.

The scores of cars you see today might be a cliche, but they're riveting, says Alice Short, who recently returned from Cuba. Short, an assistant managing editor for features at The Los Angeles Times, made her first trip to the island nation in the spring. She and veteran travel writer Catherine Watson, who recently returned from her fifth trip, talked about the car classics in conversation last month.

"They are stunning," Short said.

Because she has the perspective of time, Watson added, "They are now." On her first trip to Cuba in 1999, they were old clunkers.

Articles by Short and Watson and photography by Times photographer Brian van der Brug will appear Sunday in the Travel section of the Los Angeles Times and online this weekend.

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