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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  1. Good show Miguel ! .

    Keep up the good works and travel safely ! .

    Plenty more rare cars in Guatemala......


  2. Enjoyed very much! GRACIAS! Bernie

  3. Thanks! Really enjoyed reading this....great work!

  4. fantastic article, really enjoyed it, good work.

  5. Good job detective Miguel! A+

  6. The person who let these cars get in this condition should be horse whipped.

    1. Circumstances , poverty and the embargo is what got these cars to where they are. Cuban inventiveness is what has kept the rest running . Custodian of a running unrestored one owner 1934 Buick series 90.