Havana’s Forgotten Treasures
In search of hidden
Havana, 1962. Prologue. The
2016. Cuba’s isolation is a thing of the past; the embargo is coming to an end. Yet Cuba’s capital Havana still seems like a place that time has forgotten. There’s a thin line between desperation and hope here. The search for the island’s
The first clue leads to a decorative iron gate. The missing classic
The next day, however, that hope becomes a bit more tangible, in the form of Maxy Ramos and his 1952 Plymouth Cranbrook. Maxy explains that he’s actually a veterinarian. But he doesn’t have a job as a vet—just his grandfather’s old Plymouth. The car, with its leather-upholstered backseat, is his life. He uses it to earn the pesos he needs to support his wife and seven-month-old son. The aging sedan enjoys Maxy’s full attention.
He artfully dodges every pothole in the crumbling asphalt, implores us to close the doors with care, and—in the strongest possible terms—curses the salty spray of the Atlantic waves that crash over the walls of the Malecón promenade and attack the body of his taxi. Every day, he and his freshly polished car are found in front of the hotel. Maxy is our human navigation system in our quest to find those with an automotive passion that is deeply felt and shared even in Cuba: namely, that select group of people who love
Once again, it is the poker-faced Orlando Morales who ultimately—aided by Manuel García Fernández and Alberto Gutiérrez Alonso—leads the way to the last existing
In his small apartment on the Plaza de la Revolución, he spreads out some black-and-white photos of Cuban
Another photograph shows Carroll Shelby, creator of the AC Cobra, behind the wheel of a
1958. It was that time in Cuban history when President Fulgencio Batista was endeavoring to turn Cuba into an El Dorado for the international jet set. Havana was to become a second Las Vegas. And to draw in the rich and famous, attractions were necessary. Batista managed to ensure that the international racing scene would find its way to the Cuban capital. But while high-society types were cavorting around Havana in American limousines, trouble was stirring in the mountains. The group of bearded revolutionaries formed around Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were just waiting for the right moment to overthrow the Batista regime. The rebels took advantage of the 1958 Cuban Grand Prix to kidnap the world champion Maserati driver Juan Manuel Fangio. They would hold him for nearly 30 hours.
Fangio missed the start of the race, but lived to tell the tale. By kidnapping Fangio, the revolutionaries gave Batista plenty to think about and showed the world that they were a force to be reckoned with. Four years later—Castro had long since taken over by then—the city on the Malecón witnessed its last international race. On June 24, 1962, the engines once again roared into action. Against the competition from Italy and North America, the two
In addition to the 356 models, a few 718 RSKs and 550 Spyders found their way to the largest island in the Antilles. Yet Orlando never counted more than 30
2016. Our focus turns to
Supposed or indeed real luxury goods are still kept under wraps in spite of the new policy of openness that has begun to emerge. The morbid charm of bygone riches still defines the picture of modern Cuba. The buildings and infrastructure of the city continue to deteriorate slowly before the eyes of its inhabitants. A walk through the glorious Havana of old provides ample proof of that. One may peer into a historic library or a crowded bar, and then, just next door, encounter a huge hole where a structure once stood and a pile of debris left on the street. The bare frame of a building lies exposed with an intact stairway hinting at the life that once filled the space. Pedestrians give a wide berth to such scenes. Havana keeps moving and yet stands still.
Orlando Morales reveals that during his time as an active race-car driver, he once drove a
Although Orlando didn’t manage to qualify for the main field, you can still sense his euphoria half a century later: “I’ll never forget that day.” He seems electrified; his energy is back, and the aging archivist of Cuban automotive history wants to help smoke out the
The few car fanatics in Cuba form a well-connected network, and as soon as we’ve won Orlando’s confidence, the door opens to Manuel García Fernández and Alberto Gutiérrez Alonso, who is president of the Club de Autos Clásicos y Antiguos. At first, however, we just exchange telephone numbers and business cards. Once again, waiting is the name of the game. The network is working its magic.
The next day, Manuel García names the meeting spot: the old Castrol Villa. Movement at last! Maxy’s Plymouth starts up without hesitation. He’s got his sunglasses on and “Guantanamera,” the island’s song, on the car’s radio: “I am an honest man from where the palm tree grows, and before I die, I want to share the verses of my soul.” The lyrics originally penned by Cuba’s national hero José Martí describe the Cuban soul, an enigmatic mix of macabre longings and joie de vivre.
We drive past the legendary Hotel Nacional, an aging palace looking out over the sea. Again and again, surges of seawater crash over the Malecón in gigantic waves. Clichés are a reality of everyday life here.
Manuel and Alberto drive ahead toward Miramar and Punta Brava. The taxi fills with the sound of “Riders on the Storm” by The Doors: “Into this world we’re thrown, like a dog without a bone.”
We drive past the architectural sensations of the 1950s, which are somewhere between grandiose and grotesque, then an amusement park that’s been out of operation for years. After countless miles of astonishing sights, we again encounter the commonplace: a locked steel gate. To guard against the overly curious, thick glass shards have been applied to the sandstone walls on either side. Once again, the magic word is wait. If there’s anything one can be absolutely sure of in Cuba, it is the inevitability of having one’s patience tested.
Finally, the heavy gate swings open. The path leads through an unkempt garden to a
The holes where the taillights once were are noticeably larger than on the original. Its owner, who now lives in Florida, was evidently obliged to replace them with the blocky taillights from a Russian Lada. Alberto is in a hurry. The next
What, already? We wait four days to encounter a single sports car from Stuttgart, and now, within 30 minutes, we’ve got two on the line? Alberto can’t wait. Time to move. Manuel bids farewell as Alberto hops in the Plymouth. We hit the road. Once again, an iron gate blocks the way. Cuidado hay perro, says a weathered sign. Beware of the dog. There will be no biting here. In the distance, hidden behind some palm trees, is the silver silhouette of a
The gate opens, and we follow a labyrinthine footpath across the grounds belonging to a former “supporter of the revolution,” as Alberto puts it. Three more minutes. The car is an early
One minute. I glance through the open door of a surprisingly modern interior. The Recaro seats couldn’t be more than 20 years old. But before I even get around to the first question, our time has expired. Who owns this little gem? No answer. “Maybe next time,” says Alberto, “but not today, not now.” Somewhere, there’s a phantom with an affinity for
On the way back to the city, the phone rings. Ernesto Rodríguez, cofounder of the once-vital
Two 356s could scarcely be more different than this duo. One is beige, a flawless specimen, model year 1957. Fresh and gussied up as if in its Sunday best. The other one looks more like a patchwork rug, a mosaic-style 356 made up of various blue tones. Model year 1953, with the characteristic center-creased windshield, or Knickscheibe. Time has taken its toll.
While the beige-colored
Epilogue. Orlando, the archivist, has 30
By Bastian Fuhrmann
Photos by Anatol Kotte