Monday, December 31, 2012

Escape from Paradise Island

My Cuban adventure now feels like a hazy dream, with painterly splashes in the back of my head, and the texture of rust still crisp in my palm. Shortly after arriving to Cancún I resolved to rest a couple days before heading into the heart of Guatemala. My departure, however, was postponed after overhearing a German couple at the reception of the hostel. ‘We want to drive through Central America’, they told me. We researched the paperwork they needed to own a car, and set on an exhaustive quest for the best automobile they could get for under $2,000, perhaps an air-cooled Volkswagen or a Japanese four-cylinder. Dozens of polished wrecks later, we came across a bright red, clean “vochito” (Beetle). I can now say that Andris and Latoya, the –now– happy owners of this vintage beauty, will be recurring characters in this expedition.

After two weeks in storage, it started on the first touch of the key. Flawless!
The evening we purchased the car I drove down to Playa del Carmen, where I parked next to one of its most touristy streets. I just could not make any sense of that place: the people who run it, the architecture, its visitors. The Riviera Maya has too much neon that reminds us of our excess back home, and too many locals who keep quiet as they smilingly take the money from the pale drunks. As I walked in the dark beach heading back to the car in visible disgust, I saw an empty coconut lying in the middle of the street. I picked it up, removed the straw, and called it a free breakfast.

The following morning I woke up a little bit after dawn, and took one last swim in the Caribbean. Twenty minutes later my fingers glided across the windshield, covered in a mix of fine sea mist and thin sand, and set on to clean every window for the long journey ahead. I savored the coconut with the racing heart of a child, turned the ignition and drove down to Chetumal, right in the border with Belize.
Is the whole country going to be like this? I am screwed!
I really did not know what to expect out of Belize. I knew it was a country full of expatriates, a tax haven, and had gorgeous beaches worthy of a magazine cover. The first few miles were pretty much a bombed-out airstrip, but as soon as the road smoothed out, the path became straight and allowed for some relaxing time listening to the radio. I was happy to find Jazz. Jazz, after hundreds of miles of Rancheras and noisy “bandas” music, Latin Rap and all the irritating tunes that could ever tamper with my mood. It was a good day as I drove past Orange Walk, but suddenly the day became much better, right after I found an old friend lying next to a local appliance store.

Yes, an American-spec W123 Mercedes! I later found dozens of them, used as taxis.

“Is that your taxi?”, I asked a dark man at the counter. “Yes”, he replied with a hint of surprise. We got talking for about twenty minutes about the W123 Mercedes he owned, and I offered to diagnose some issues he was having, as I knew the car well. “When I shift it in drive, it vibrates a lot”, he said with a worried frown. I moved the shifter back and forth, and much to his relief I found the problem to be $20 worth of rubber motor mounts. “Someone should import these to Belize, they make for very good taxis”, he said. That got my mind working hard, igniting my brain to flare idealistic visions of parking lots full of old Mercedes diesels, and a shiny white showroom with vintage cars refurbished to like-new condition.
Orange Walk, possibly the most harmless town in the route so far.

I spent the night in a fenced motel in the outskirts of Belize City, run by a woman with a deeply uninspired attitude. The next morning I toured around the capital, which really did not have the imposing skyscrapers one would expect out of a tax haven. As I drove towards the Guatemalan border, I savored, mile by mile, acres of green plains that reminded me of Mississippi, and the gorgeous environs of San Ignacio.

Out of not having anything else to show on the route, here's a picture of a telephone booth in Belize.

Once in Guatemala I camped within the impressive natural reserve of Tikal and visited its legendary ruins the following morning. Shortly after, and over eleven hours of torture at the wheel, I found traffic jams, roadwork, large trucks pestering the air, local Mayan women lighting smoky fires at the side of the road and a motorcycle accident that actually taught me what exact hue human brains are. Jazz had long disappeared from the radio. But still, past sunset and with a sore shoulders, climbing up the mountains around the capital with the engine running a little hotter than usual, I managed to pass the borders of Antigua and park in one of its quiet cobblestone streets, where I collapsed on my cargo bed into deep, deep slumber.

Wait, what is that tall thing in the distance?
At 7.30am, I had all these ruins to myself!
It's hard to take pictures of landscapes when you are trying not to kill yourself on the road...
Strangely familiar landscape in the line of Kansas or Arizona...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Havana Snippets

 Señorita Magnolia
Right in the border between El Vedado and Centro Havana you will find a small, brightly painted townhome with a sunny green door. As you sniff the heavenly confections of the bakery next door, you reach for the doorbell and forty-five seconds later the door opens with a dry, metallic snap, thanks to what used to be a piston mechanism in a clothes washer. Several dozen marble steps later, you arrive to a modest, yet immaculately clean living room with two rocking chairs and a dining table. Welcome to Magnolia’s.

In the good company of Wilfred, a man more German-looking than a U-Boat captain, and Lucy, the minuscule yet affectionate family dog, Magnolia runs a little $5 hostel that is home to backpackers and genuine travelers of all creeds, colors and purposes. From a massive New Zealand winemaker to a Japanese food journalist, there is no shortage of interesting characters to spark good conversation and lasting friendship!

Magnolia herself is a 5-foot piece of dynamite in her early 50’s. She knows the city like the back of her hand and can pull out any amount of useful resources straight out of thin air. Here eyes are bright and astute: they can read past any lie and judge quietly, yet they will not hide the comfort of excellent company and genuine interest on every traveler’s needs. Just like everybody on the island, she is another tired sufferer to Cuban bureaucracy, yet despite the stifling procedures by the incompetent –yet impeccably dressed– officials, she will manage to pull out of it all –with a smile– through sheer wit in what would resemble a tournament of chess-talk.

The view from Magnolia's, a line for the bakery and a 50's Edsel belonging to one of the bakers. Photo by Balint Toth.

One Institutionalized Scam

In Cuba you will find two kinds of currency: the CUC (Convertible Peso) and the CUP (Cuba Peso). Each CUC is worth about $1 USD and it is equivalent to 25 CUP. For 20 CUP, you can get a hugely satisfying mini-pizza, or invite four people to five scoops of ice cream each. However, many people take advantage that Cuba is one of the few places where two currencies can be valid simultaneously, and always try to steer tourists in the way of the CUC, from street sellers to policemen. At Coppelia, the government-owned temple of ice-cream, there are two obviously separate sections: one for payments in CUC and one for payments in CUP. What makes it unfair? Well, the same ice cream can cost you 5 CUP for five scoops, or 3 CUC (15 times more!) in the “tourist” section that the uniformed guards will insist on as your sole alternative to have these sweet confections –especially if you look like an obvious foreigner. Always keep in mind an average month’s wage in the island is about 20 to 30 CUC!

You can bet the Bodeguita del Medio charges in CUC. $7 for a Mojito! Photo by Balint Toth.
Callejón Hamel

Wedged between Aramburu and Hospital Street, parallel to San Lazaro avenue and close to a local school, hides a narrow alley worthy of Willy Wonka’s craziest blueprints. From a post covered with brake master cylinders to benches made of bathtubs cut in half, this little corner of the world would be a killer setting for one of the Mad Hatter’s tea parties, a psychedelic haven for minds in love with color, shape and distress. Just short of a hybrid between Yellow Submarine and Antonio Gaudí, this crazy passage is guaranteed to be one of the favorites of any Burning Man lover, a complete, raving LSD experience without the cursed sugar cubes. Every Sunday, to top it off, dozens of people assemble to jam, drum, drink and dance to their heart’s content, in a spicy carnival cocktail of motion, hue and sensorial stimulation that the atypical traveler must not miss.

The crazy textures of the callejón are just short of an acid trip. Photo by Balint Toth.
Dance, music and color intermingle every Sunday. Photo by Balint Toth.

Walking Western Trio

One good afternoon, I decided to accompany my friends Balint and Paola on a walk to the Historic Center to find some good second-hand books. We resolved, however, to try to sing some songs as we strode past the run-down streets of Havana Centro, from popular melodies to classic rock. Tune after tune, laughter after laughter, we walked on proudly, disconcerting many locals, and evoking many smiles from the quiet elders sitting at the doorstep of their homes. We marched loudly and proudly, announcing our presence to the empty windows, the money-hungry taxi drivers, the cuddly lovers by the ocean. As the sun set, I proposed a new twist to our singing, and we kept our parade going through the Malecón, whistling many of Ennio Morricone’s memorable compositions, mimicking horses, with the beat on our feet and in the claps of some random bypassers. Our group would suddenly become quiet upon the appearance of a real musician, plucking a few notes off his guitar with dexterous fingers: we were obviously acknowledging a higher talent. And so, perhaps looking more like drunken tourists than brave cowboys, we trotted on back home wearing our best grins. I do not exactly remember, but I think we did buy some books.

Look at these good people! From left to right, Paola, Romi, Balint and Chieh. Photo by Balint Toth.

The Magic Guayabera

As much as my spell-check tries to correct this original word to Graybeard, Guayaberas do exist. Back in the times of the plantations, these were the garments of the peasants who picked guava fruits, or guayabas –hence the name–, a shirt with tiny pleats covering each side of the chest, stretching vertically all the way to the back. These shirts are very stylish in their minimalism, with an air of retro 1950’s party lounge and Caribbean leisure.

I love my blue guayabera: I got it for $14 in and at this point it has paid for itself. Every time I throw it around my bony shoulders, it becomes a magic blanket of invisibility. As other foreigners get stopped by sketchy cigar sellers, promoters for restaurants, taxi cyclists and other miscellaneous touts, I breeze through the crowds like a shadow, with not one soul acknowledging my existence. Even in the busiest street, Calle Obispo, I glided with such grace I could almost swear I was on roller-skates. My dear guayabera has also given me hefty discounts in many a taxi ride, up to $10 from what a tourist would normally pay. During my stay in Havana, I did not hesitate to share the benefits of this treasure with my obviously-foreign-looking friends, especially those from Asian backgrounds, who would get shamelessly ripped off during the most mundane of errands.

Crazy colors? Yes, but still managed to be completely inconspicuous. Photo by Balint Toth.

Threatened Kiwi

Picture Bruce Willis in his early thirties, speaking with a heavy New Zealand accent, and you will have my friend Lorne (pronounced Lo’hn –loudly– for a more intimidating stance). Along with my San Franciscan friend Ari, a sensible, introspective man in his forties, and Mikhail, a talkative Greek backpacker, they went on what was promised to be a cool French train on an epic journey to the gorgeous landscapes of Viñales. The train happened to be an obsolete, barely-running wreck with broken windows and a sad light bulb dangling from where fluorescent tubes had been formerly… but for $0.60 for the ride, they could not be wrong. They settled in a farm for a few days, from where they would explore the gorgeous natural surroundings, eat some amazing foods and meet some colorful characters –amongst them, a spooky peasant with an oversized glass eye.

One day the three set on visiting one of the local caves to take a swim. However, upon arriving to the top, the guide asked them for an extra fee to access the cave, arguing on some dubious property line issues. Lorne got furious to the verge of almost punching the guide in the face, so, after some negotiation by the Greek guy, they all came down to the farm to talk to the boss. On the way down, the guide picked up a big stick and started to walk closer to Lorne. Ari, in his deep voice, called Lorne’s attention and told him to look behind him… and as Lorne noticed the man with the stick, he slowed down and picked up another big stick. The tense walk continued all the way to the farm, where the issue was solved. In the end, the three friends walked back with a different guide and the boss himself, armed with a machete… for the dense vegetation in the way, of course.

Ari, as he told me his experiences in the farm in Viñales. Photo by Balint Toth.
The Goodman Garage

During my search for the Gullwing in Havana Vieja, I stopped to ask in a mechanic shop in Muralla Street. The man inside had never heard of the car, but much to my surprise, he opened his own home to my friend Ari for him to use the bathroom, obstinate in not accepting any kind of compensation. “From what is mine, I live; and from what I have, I give”, he said with dignity. I was moved by his utter selflessness, a rare quality in the island.

A week later my good friend Chieh came to me, visibly upset. She had come to Cuba in search of true connections with people, but every person she had tried to talk to always wanted her money in one way or the other. I told her the story with Ari, and two days later we set on a mission to visit the last good man in Havana. She had to meet at least one before she left for the airport that same afternoon!

When we showed up at his address in Muralla Street, we found a locked door. “Well, damn. At least, if you peek through this crack, you can see that very nice mural in the back”, I said with an air of disappointment. She tried to photograph it through the door, and suddenly a woman came to open it. At the other side was the good man, who shook my hand with vibrant energy, and greeted Chieh with renewed enthusiasm. I told him about the purpose of this second visit, and he became quiet for a second. He immediately ushered us into his home, where he poured out two cups of the most delicious coffee I have had in years, and two tall glasses of homemade yogurt with natural cane sugar. He told us about the greedy people in Havana, those who struggle to get what they own and those who don’t, the simplicity of good things and the hard life he had. By the end, the three of us were on the verge of tears: him, for having someone admiring him enough to want to introduce his friends to him; us, for the miracle that his infinite kindness had remained intact through so much adversity.

The Good Man (notice the capitals now) soon had to make a delivery at a local hotel, so we all stood up and walked to the door of the chocolate museum, where we waved each other goodbye and he offered us to come and stay in his home anytime. Chieh and I were deeply touched, and still remember this miraculous man –the only good man in Havana, as we called him– with profound fondness to this day.

How many T-Shirts do you think have been printed with this image? Photo by Balint Toth.
Two Cheap Delights

Taking it where the story where the previous one left, Chieh and I set to have some good food before her departure. We started off ordering a cup of hot and cold cocoa at the Chocolate Museum, accompanied by two solid butter cookies and some of the most deliciously rich foam I have ever had on any drink. The total cost? $1.50, expensive by Cuban standards, but more than fair for the Western visitor. We moved across Calle Obispo, early enough not to find a single person waiting in line at the Sociedad Asturiana. Located right in front of the Capitolio, this discreet crumbling structure houses three restaurants in one: Creole-Cuban cuisine on the first floor, Spanish-Cuban on the second, and Italian-Cuban on the third. I told my friend to choose, and we found ourselves on a surprisingly upscale establishment with thick cotton mantelpieces and lavish service. I feared for my wallet, until I opened the menu… a few minutes later, we had gotten a photogenic salad and a massive, mouth-watering, extra-tender lamb leg that fed the two of us to our utter satisfaction. Portions are massive –I went again to have some pizza, and oh my God–, so for a little over $10 for two people, be sure that your belly will be so full you will start questioning whether men can get pregnant or not.

Chieh and I, in the quest for a delicious meal. Photo by Balint Toth.

Castro’s Limousine

It all happened by accident, but let’s start with some facts. Internet service, as well as anything related to telephones, is controlled by the Cuban government –surprise– and it is scarce, slow and furiously expensive. On average, one hour of internet use in any Havana hotel will cost between $7 and $10 per hour. Steep, isn’t it? Well, I soon found that for $10 one could get 12 hours of wireless internet at the Hotel Nacional, which seemed to me like the best deal in the whole island. They give you a little card, you scratch it like a lottery, and you type your data to get access; the only catch is that you just need to bring your own laptop to the hotel.

One fine day, as I was going for an Internet run, I found a large, menacing black car right in front of the Nacional. As an automotive nut I could not resist getting closer and noticing that it was Russian –ahem– Soviet. I asked the driver, who revealed the identity of the car: it was a Chaika, in mint condition, that had been commissioned for chauffeur service on May of that year. There was another one like it, but this one was in such good shape, I was not surprised to head that it had been Fidel Castro’s official car. The driver proudly popped the hood and I found a familiar sight: a Mercedes OM602 diesel engine with Ssangyong badging. It was a non turbo, which I thought would make the two-and-a-half hulk the biggest slug in Havana. It also had an oversized, dual-circuit braking system, which must have made put an extremely frustrating –abrupt, yet efficient– end to the victory of slow acceleration.

Out of curiosity I asked how much he would charge for a ride to the airport, and surprisingly, he said $25 –about average. My eyebrows raised and a mischievous grin spread across my face as I took his business card. As soon as I got to the Hotel’s cyber-center I could not resist telling everyone the news. My friend Balint was impressed, and since he was leaving in two days, the two of us ran back outside and made an appointment with the driver right on the spot.

The day of his departure, we walked to the main lobby of the Hotel Nacional, where our friend Paola pulled out a bottle of cheap rum. We walked ceremoniously towards the threatening vehicle, and I opened the door graciously for the two young VIP’s. They slipped into their velour and fake zebra wood interior, and we pulled away from the Cuban landmark… slowly. The car rode excellent, quiet as can be, with a fuel range of over a thousand kilometers. It was a true Soviet tank, navigating the three of us –two of which were enjoying the rum in the back– to the airport through what felt like a runway of butter. The driver was courteous enough to return us back to the hotel for free after dropping Balint at the terminal. What a glorious, soothing machine! What stateliness, in the disguise of communist intimidation!

Two days later I tried to hire the same car, but a fellow taxi driver reported that the Chaika had broken down. Oh, how short-lived are the pleasures of life!

Wait, wasn't Mr. Bezhnev coming?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Chasing the Cuban Gullwing

Please do not take this narration as more than an interesting anecdote. To those wanting to use this information to track down the Cuban 300SL’s in the island, I will start off by saying that every single one –with three exceptions, NOT for sale– has been sold to foreign buyers and shipped out of the island. Despite being able to see some interesting pieces, the likelihood of finding true, exotic classics in Cuba is almost null at this point. From 1996 on, Jeremy Clarkson (Motorworld series) and Michael E. Ware (Automobiles Lost and Found, 2008) exposed these marvels on a mass scale through television and writing; since then, many a collector has seized the opportunity to snatch these rarities through shady means, tempting the borders of Cuban export law. Other than what I write about, please abstain from asking me for any additional information on the places or people I have met –many names have been modified for privacy–, as it would be a hugely unnecessary annoyance –and danger, even– to these virtuous individuals. Thank you, and enjoy!

Yes, this is a massive spoiler. But hey, getting there is half the battle!


What started as a few seconds of bedazzlement after seeing a Mercedes 300SL on Jeremy Clarkson’s Motorworld (1995-6) evolved into a curious itch that lasted for two full years. I had been twice to Cuba as a kid, summoned by my mother’s thirst for a beachy vacation in Varadero, and my father’s lust for fine Havana cigars. Both these times gave me some familiarity with the island, but they were utterly boring due to the lack of real adventure, the lack of real purpose. Right after watching Clarkson’s special on Cuba, and remembering my childhood sunburns in Las Morlas, I promised myself that my next visit should not be as a tourist, but as a detective. As soon as I confirmed that I would be touring the PanAmerican, I adapted the route so I could make a two-week stop in the island.

A quick snapshot of Jeremy Clarkson’s Motorworld that shows a 300SL roadster.

Two years later I found myself locking Livingstone –my adventure 300TD– in a container near the Cancun airport, nervous about visiting Cuba for the first time in ten years, with the sole purpose of finding Batista’s lost Gullwing. With my flight costing about $250 –booked weeks in advance–, and $5 a day for lodging, the whole Cuban adventure was not to put too much stress on my budget.

The brave diesel warrior before its two weeks of slumber.

In today’s world, the most obvious place to start any kind of research is the Internet. In Cancún I seized the opportunity to rest from the long drive from Chiapas, and found a few relevant websites that could give me some clues on where to look first. A quick glance at Hagerty’s online articles and the wealth of information found in Caristas suggested that the car could be hiding anywhere in Havana, Matanzas or Palma Soriano –close to Santiago, at the other side of the island. These places were very wealthy areas before the 1959 Revolution, so, despite the distance from each other, these were all very good candidates.


Over the course of two days, I roamed the streets of Havana Vieja, the historic core of the city. In order to avoid the crowd of annoying touts, I wore a guayabera shirt and put on my most convincing Cuban accent; no one bothered me for the rest of the day. I walked around Muralla street, in the poorer part of town, and asked a group of mechanics who were working on a Lada, showing them some of Michael E. Ware’s pictures of the car. One of them looked at the front of the car intensely, and told me the car was now running, red in color and the owner was a person named Franco. He pointed me towards San Francisco Square, a few blocks away. I was thrilled to find such a strong lead on the first try!

No, you are not in a war zone: This is Havana today!
Colors and debris intermingle in the streets of the Old Town. Photo by Balint Toth.

Following the mechanic’s indications, I asked in a nearby gallery for Franco, and was taken to the next building, a monumental 19th Century marble structure. The woman at the door directed the to the rooftop, and ringed a humble doorbell in one of the attics. A shirtless, pale man approached the open door with a wide smile.

“Excuse me, sir, are you Franco?”
“Well, my name is Francesco. I am an artist.”
“Hm, pretty close”, I though to myself with excitement.
“I come to inquiry about a classic car. I am trying to find it, and some mechanics down the streets pointed me out to you as someone who has one”
“Yes, I do! It’s a Saab, a fifty-four”
“Oh! Nice car! The one I am looking for, however, is different” I showed him the pictures.
“I have never seen one like that in my life”, he said with a shrug.

That day finished at the Capitolio Square, home of some of Cuba’s shiniest Detroit iron. One of the owners commented that Havana’s Classic Car Club met every Saturday near the Hotel Nacional. That would be quite a select crowd of people to ask…

The second day in Havana Vieja I kept asking mechanic after mechanic, parking attendant after parking attendant. Finally, I took a break and had some coconut ice cream. Next to the shop I noticed a street seller with a cartload of bitter oranges, and approached him, as he seemed like he knew the area well. He told me the same story on the red car, and pointed out he usually parked around Obispo, sometimes close to Cuba Street. I tried to give him a few pesos for the information, but he declined politely, and wished me the best with my search. I darted on to Cuba Street, and, after some inquiries in nearby businesses, I confirmed the red car was a convertible Fiat Spider, which had some obvious resemblance with a badge-less 300SL. That pretty much closed the Old Havana chapter for me.

Hitting the streets, asking at the Goodman Garage. Photo by Balint Toth.
Just a few blocks from the beautifully restored Calle Obispo. Photo by Balint Toth.


Havana is a VERY LARGE place. About two million live in its metropolitan area, crammed in residences in all stages of disrepair. Looking at a map of the city, I realized I might be looking for a needle in a haystack… but still, with faith, patience and a magnet, the needle can be found. After a series of unsuccessful attempts around La Zanja –where a gold-colored Gullwing was supposedly spotted a few years ago– I decided to continue the quest in the neighborhood of Marianao, mentioned in the Caristas blog.

A fruitful search never starts giving you tokens along the way, like this 50’s photo of an old Maserati.

The morning on my Marianao expedition started off to a fifty-cent taxi ride to the middle of 100th street, and several people shrugging their shoulders. Some man confirmed seeing a running Gullwing in a completely different neighborhood thirty minutes away, so I remained cautious with following everybody’s advice. Still, the first thing I had to do to cover an area as big as Marianao was to get myself a set of wheels. Driving in Cuba is both risky and messy, so the best option is usually to rent a taxi. For $40, I was chauffeured to my heart’s content through the expansive outskirts of Havana, stopping to ask tens of people, and getting to know the nuts and bolts of how a country could keep 1950’s cars running daily.

Professional after professional, I got many a dead leads but TONS of stories

We asked everyone, from motorcycle technicians to parts store clerks, without any positive clues. Even the official photographer of the Classic Car Club had never seen a Gullwing in his life, so that meant that the car had always been stored with utmost zeal.

Moving from neighborhood after neighborhood, and close to 40 people later, we found a glass professional who pointed us out to a man who owned an “all-aluminum Mercedes”. I was shocked, as it could be one of the rare alloy-bodied 300SL’s… the quest was getting interesting now. In the back of a restaurant we found such man, who gladly showed us his pride and joy…

A 220S coupe, not all aluminum, and not a sportscar, but a rare bird in beautiful shape!

I spoke a good while with this gentleman about my former position as a Mercedes mechanic, his travels all over the island, and his current ride, a Lada in mint condition. I talked to him about my search, and he said a Mercedes “with gullwing doors” lay rusting under a tree, somewhere around El Cano. He also pointed out that a buddy of his knew of someone who owned a few Mercedes, that maybe he could know where the Gullwing was. We shook hands and exchanged phone numbers… maybe that could mean the happy end of my quest!

That baby blue '55 Plymouth has a very special place in my life!

El Cano is a small community in the outskirts of Cuba without much Internet presence, renowned for its clay craftsmen. The little Plymouth stopped right in front of a mechanical workshop, where the master mechanic approached me to shake hands. His nickname was Trillo, and he had told me about a local family that owned a black Gullwing before the Revolution. He pointed out to a neglected tract of land, and said that those were the realms of their former estate. He gladly took on my quest and we went around the village asking the elders, many of Spanish parents –an unintentionally emotional connection to my roots–, about the car. No one knew anything on the whereabouts of the rusting shell, yet many recalled seeing the car as kids, a car in which “the doors opened up, not sideways, like a seagull”. I thanked Trillo for his immense help, and the heartwarming memory that touched the stories of many a Spanish immigrant like myself. I decided to finish for the day at El Cano, and decided to take a small break for to do some sightseeing and take my mind off the car.


The morning I resumed the quest I called the man with the restaurant, and he gave me some vague directions to a place near a factory. Javier, my loyal taxi driver, knew the place right away, and we stopped near a gas station where a Mercedes Ponton lay to be restored. There we found a muscular man nicknamed Mitty, who owned a Messerschmitt microcar and a Ford Crown Victoria that he had adapted for racing with a 302 under the hood…

There is some serious horsepower! Raced frequently at the Malecón!

Much to my surprise, Mitty knew right away about the Gullwing, and gave us specific directions and names to see it. We continued for a while, excited as can be, and halted near a chicken wire fence in a neighborhood full of potholes. If there was a place no one would ever be looking for a Mercedes racecar, this was it…

I hollered through the door, asking to see Marcos, the owner. He showed up right away, and opened the door. “I am looking for a Mercedes, and heard you have some”, I said. “Yes, I have some. Come in!”, he answered merrily. As soon as he opened the door, I was in complete shock…

The minute I saw it...
What would you put in the engine bay of this car-shaped piece of rust?
Because the car had been transported and stored poorly, it's almost broken in half.

There it was, right in my face. Crusty, disintegrating, broken in half, but a Gullwing nonetheless. It just lay there, surrounded by home building debris and miscellaneous clothing, completely ignored, rusted into oblivion, as if its glorious history did not matter. My jaw dropped to the floor and my eyes became cloudy: I had found the lost Mercedes –both, the Gullwing and the roadster–, and I could not care less if they were for sale or not –which they weren’t–. I obviously could not resist interacting with the poor things, and ventured into the fractured carcass of the Cuban legend…
Let's take a look at what is remaining here...
Naturally, a victory shot was in order...
Trying to push the ceiling back in place. It was a futile effort...

Marcos also had several other cars, including the 300SL roadster featured in Clarkson’s Motorworld, an Abarth Zagato, a Hispano-Suiza racecar and a super-rare Chrysler Ghia “Thomas Special”. I took photos aplenty, many of which are not featured here. For those who are curious, the Chrysler and the Abarth are for sale for $500k and $20k, respectively. Did anyone say hot deal? Nope… because these poor things need a restoration so complete and thorough, it would surpass the market value of the cars…

The owner has the intention to restore this one...
Screw it! I am not paying thousands for original 300SL taillights! VW Beetle ones will do just fine!
Corvette engine under the hood... I wondered what happened to the original!
Another racing legend, a Hispano-Suiza, rotting on a field. Shouldn't it be made of aluminum?

Right markings straight from my own country!
An Abarth Zagato, rusted and not working. Wait, wasn't that EVERY ITALIAN CAR?
While this does not allow for much detail, I promise it is the double-bubble coupe!
Sad, sad interior of the Abarth... owner claims he's got all the pieces.
Pretty unusual face, uh? Only a few made!
Very un-American curviness, a Ghia trait.
Original dial on the car! In km/h!

And so, dear reader, concludes the hunt for this legend. What can I say? I came to Cuba looking for the Gullwing, and, many days of arduous search later, I not only found what I was looking for, but made three friends just as passionate about his automobiles, touched the old soul of the Spanish immigrant, and was rewarded with one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire life. This might not be the most literary, or the best-written chapter of This European Life, but certainly it is a story to remember, a story about finding treasures in the process of finding yourself.

Identical one to the one on Caristas! Those rust marks are hard to replicate

Identical one to the one on Jeremy Clarkson’s Motorworld! Notice the headlights and emblem.

If you would like full-resolution pictures for editorial purposes, contact me. No picture here can be replicated without my permission, as it took too much darn work –and a good wad of cash in tips and taxis– to find these cars!

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