Some things we just need to see for ourselves, whether it be to erase that hint of doubt or simply for the joy of discovery.
Fact or Fiction?
Tales of a rusting and neglected Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing, sitting somewhere on the island of Cuba of all places, had been floating around for some time. Apparently the existence of this car had been exposed to a wider audience by Jeremy Clarkson (Motorworld Series) back in 1996 and more recently by Michael E. Ware (Automobiles Lost and Found) in 2008.
Hearing of the legendary automobile, possibly rusting away somewhere on the island, a man by the name of Miguel Llorente, a world-traveler and classic car aficionado, took it upon himself to embark on a two week visit to Cuba in search of the famous Gullwing.
The Search Begins
After much planning and research, Miguel set out to find a hidden piece of history in a place you would least expect to find it. Only a limited number of 300SL Gullwings had been produced and for any of them to end up in Cuba (or still be there 60 years later) was questionable at best.
He set out with a plan, to search wealthy areas of Havana, Matanzas and El Cana – asking random mechanics, part-store clerks and the like, for clues… anything. He showed them Michael E. Ware’s photos of the car, almost as if searching for a missing child. He accepted any information he could get, as these cities were not exactly small places! Even the vaguest hints that could potentially point him in the right direction would be more than helpful.
A Few Dead Ends
Following the first few unsuccessful leads was a frustrating, but interesting part of the adventure. Miguel had been directed a number of times to people who “thought” they might have seen the car he was looking for, but usually it turned out to be something similar looking or in some cases, something completely different.
One such conversation led him to believe that somene had seen the car recently and that it was in fact still running! An extremely exciting prospect. But was it true? Or was this just another red herring? After following this lead and knocking on the door of a man by the name of Franco, their conversation went roughly like this:
“Excuse me, sir, are you Franco?”
“Well, my name is Francesco. I am an artist.”
“Hmm, pretty close”, Miguel thought to himself with excitement.
“I came to inquire about a classic car. I am trying to find it, and some mechanics down the street 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” He showed Francesco the photos.
“I have never seen one like that in my life.” he said with a shrug.
His next adventure, similar to the previous one had him chasing stories of a “Red 300SL” – another lead which turned out to be a similar looking, Red Fiat Spider. Excitement followed by disappointment was all part of the experience now and it seemed to become almost expected. At this point its likely Miguel was doubting if he would ever find the car – or perhaps if it even existed.
Following reports from the blog ‘Caristas’ that he read prior to the trip, Miguel decided to check out the neighborhood of Marianao, where a gold-colored gullwing was apparently spotted years ago. Another man confirmed seeing such a car, about 30 minutes away as well, but this let Miguel to be cautious about following every lead. After so many bad leads, he ended up deciding to expedite his search by renting a taxi and driver for the day enabling him to be whisked around the outskirts of Havana to his heart’s content.
After talking to close to 40 people that day, and following another tip – a man had reported seeing an “all-aluminum Mercedes”. Could this have been possible, that the hidden Gullwing was one of the only 29 rare aluminum alloy bodied 300SL’s ever made? It was doubtful, but it was a trail that had to be followed.
What Miguel found next was a man happy to show off his Mercedes 220S Coupe, in beautiful shape – but once again, not the rare bird he was searching for. After speaking for a good amount of time with the owner, explaining his search for the car with the “winged doors” that was rusting away somewhere possibly under a tree near El Cano. The man pointed Miguel to a buddy that owned a few Mercedes and who he thought might be able to help him locate the car.
Miguel met and spoke with the friend, a master mechanic in El Cano, who pointed out a neglected tract of land that apparently was the remains of a former estate. An estate belonging to a wealthy family that had owned a Black Gullwing sometime before the Revolution. He happily showed Miguel around the village, talking to elders who recounted seeing such a car when they were younger, a car with winged doors that looked like it might take off. But they had no knowledge of one being around any longer or where it may be.
After more adventure and coming up empty handed once again, Miguel retreated to do some sightseeing to take his mind of the car for the next day or so.
Soon after the break he decided to resume his search with renewed enthusiasm, calling a restaurant owner, a contact he had received a couple days earlier. His taxi driver knew of the place and so they set off. Stopping at a gas station along the way, they spotted a Mercedes Ponton sitting and waiting to be restored, while heading to check it out they also ran into a large man who owned a Messerschmitt microcar and a Crown Vic that had been modified for racing.
“If there was a place no one would ever be looking for a Mercedes racecar, this was it…”
– Miguel Llorente
After chatting with the man briefly, surprisingly – he knew immediately about the Gullwing Miguel was searching for and provided very specific directions and names as to where they could see it. Following what he hoped was the final lead in this adventure, Miguel and his driver came upon the most unlikely place for a classic automobile. A neighborhood full of potholes, chicken wire and building debris.
They stopped at the address they had been given and a man opened the door. Miguel told him that he had heard there were some old Mercedes lying around, which the man replied “Yes, I have some. Come in!”
The Legend becomes Truth
The man led them to a number of decaying cars, but Miguel spotted it almost immediately, in complete shock. There amidst debris and rubble, under a tree sat the famous Cuban Gullwing. Disintegrating and almost broken in half, but still the unlikely treasure he had set out to find.
“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…”
– Miguel Llorente
Not only did Miguel end up finding the Gullwing, but there in the same yard lay rusting, a 300SL Roadster as well, that apparently was going to be restored by the owner.
There was a small treasure trove of cars here including an Abarth Zagato, a Hispano-Suiza and a rare Chrysler Ghia.
So concluded Miguel’s amazing journey, he described as “one of the most rewarding experiences of his life” – not only finding the missing Gullwing, but making new friends, just as passionate about automobiles as he was along the way.
See more photos of the Cuban Gullwing on Miguel’s blog “This European Life”.
Photographs republished with permission.
For full gallery visit This European Life