It Raced And Then Almost Rotted Away In Cuba Until A 22-Year-Long Process Brought This Gullwing Back To Life
Photography by Rosario Liberti
Story by Laura Ferriccioli
There are some cars that become so canonized that there’s hardly anything new to say about them as automobiles, but the unique histories attached to them are always worth digging into. In the case of the Mercedes-Benz 300SL pictured here, it wears the same livery it did when it raced in Cuba so many years ago.
Triumphing over two other Gullwings in the second-ever Cuban Grand Prix to finish first in Class A (for GTs with engines two liters or bigger) with Santiago “Chiaguito” Gonzalez at the wheel, this car’s result is not nearly as interesting as the context that it was surrounded in. As motorsport historians may recall, the second Cuban Grand Prix was preceded by Juan Manuel Fangio being kidnapping by Fidel Castro’s rebels, before being released unharmed after the race. The event was also marred by the death of several spectators as a result of Armando Garcia Cifuentes’ terrible accident.
After the current owner of the car, Alberto Cefis, discovered it in Cuba in 1996 (not every car in Cuba from the 1950s need be an American one after all), he spent the following 22 years exhibiting a level of persistence and enthusiasm that ultimately culminated in a beautiful restoration of the car that could once again be topped-off with a fresh set of blue stripes and the number “6” on its flanks.
It was the designer of the National Theater and the Hemingway Marina in Havana, Nicolas Arroyo, who settled on this elegant racing look in period. The existing ivory-colored bodywork was brilliant enough on its own thanks to the form it was laid upon, one that any embellishments need not distract from. Arroyo also served as the Minister of Public Works, was a bonafide car enthusiast, and proved as much by buying a handful of Mercedes-Benzes and Ferraris to enter in competitions with local drivers at their helms.
He bought this 300SL (chassis number 5500586) directly from the dealer, which had imported it to Cuba in 1955 to use as a show car of sorts. Under Arroyo’s ownership it participated in the Gran Premio de Libertad and in other Cuban races of the period, a life it enjoyed until the 1959 Revolution occurred and effectively put the kibosh on such activities. When the new government was established, Arroyo, who had also been the Cuban ambassador to the United States just a year earlier, moved off the island and settled in Washington D.C., selling the Benz to a Cuban race team in the process.
Not long after, in 1965, it was bought by a local enthusiast on the island, but sadly this individual didn’t seem to do anything with the Gullwing for the 15 years he owned it. He paid a mechanic to keep it parked indoors and under cover (both literally and figuratively I would imagine), but, contrary to this instruction, the poor thing remained outdoors, exposed to the elements for quite some time. Obviously, a few pieces disappeared along the way as rust started to eat away at the body panels and components were siphoned off for quick bucks. However, we can say that this willful neglect also saved this car in a sense; the lengthy negotiation process that led to Cefis buying it meant that the level of deterioration had advanced to the point of the car requiring a full restoration in Europe.
How did this lengthy negotiation start you may be asking? How does one find a Gullwing in Cuba in the 1990s? It all started with a vacation, during which Cefis fell in love with the island. The Italian entrepreneur ended up returning to Cuba many times in the early ‘90s, and made some good friends along the way.
On one trip, he heard that an automotive treasure might still be lurking somewhere in Havana, and that said treasure was in fact the Gullwing from the 1958 Cuban Grand Prix. Being an expert on the model, Cefis was intrigued and got straight to searching. The investigation lasted years, with Cefis sometimes staying in Cuba for up to six months at a time as a result.
When he finally found the 300SL near the capital city, the engine (a 2996cc straight-six with about 225bhp when new) was sitting on the ground, and the doors were found not attached to the rest of the body, but “nearby,” a location shared with many other components. A quick trawl through the Mercedes-Benz archives in Germany ensured that the semi-intact vehicle was the genuine article it claimed to be, and all the numbers matched where they should. The thrill of discovery was initially in vain however; the very bad news at the time was that the owner didn’t even want to entertain the thought of selling. Four more years passed before he reconsidered his stance, and he agreed to let Cefis buy a 50% stake in the car as a first step toward letting him own the whole shebang.
Another six years of negotiation followed (how many of us are dedicated enough to chase a rotting car with a stubborn owner for the better part of a decade?), and when the handover was finally completed in 2006, it took six months to remove the various pieces of the car from their various resting places. Many items were blocked in by oil barrels, redundant machinery on the property, and other weighty junk, all of which required moving out of the way. The car now lives in Italy with Cefis, who will say that it was certainly all worth his while, but how was everything transported there you might be wondering?
“After the chassis and the engine, the other parts were sent in pieces, including inside suitcases, in an interminable transfer period that lasted ten years. Meanwhile, the car as a whole was declared of no national interest by Cuban authorities, and therefore could be exported with perhaps less hassle than was to be expected,” explains Cefis.
Once it had journeyed to Italy, it was a step by step process of rejuvenating the elegant bodywork in Castelvetro Piacentino, not far from Milan. Work commenced in the workshop of a coach builder that is part of the Munich-based HK Engineering, respected marque specialists with a focus on the Mercedes-Benz 300SL in particular. The overall restoration, including a full nut-and-bolt mechanical rebuild, took two years (so relatively no time at all in the timeline of Cefis chasing this thing) and was completed last January. This fascinating beauty is now ready for its debut in the Mille Miglia next week (May 15th-18th), a competition that Alberto Cefis knows very well already, having done it every year since 2010 with the other Mercedes-Benz 300SLs in his collection. This one will be a bit sweeter though, after 22 years of patience, one would imagine.