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Even the most fast-paced thrillers can begin with pure coincidence.
And so it proved for Alberto Cefis, a Mercedes-Benz collector from Bergamo, Italy, who was in a relaxed holiday mood as he leafed through a pile of old books in Havana, Cuba, in 1996.
Beneath them, he discovered an aged and yellowing brochure, a programme from the 1958 Gran Premio de Cuba.
Top-level motorsport, featuring top-level sports-racers and star drivers such as Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio… here?
It seemed so unlikely at the time, with the country locked under the austere regime of Fidel Castro, but it hadn’t always been that way.
During the 1950s, Cuba was under the aegis of the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar. In 1953, he brutally put down a rebellion of resistance groups supporting the lawyer Castro, who was subsequently arrested and exiled to Mexico in 1955.
From there he prepared the revolution that would go on to grip the nation for half a century. At the end of 1956, Castro landed in Cuba with 80 fellow combatants, including Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, and organised a guerrilla war that finally led to the overthrowing of Batista in January 1959.
Castro established a socialist regime on the island and remained head of state until 2008, when he handed the baton to brother Raúl, before passing away eight years later.
Yet in the midst of all this unrest an incredible race was run, and it even played its part in the revolution when a group of freedom fighters kidnapped Fangio from the lobby of the Hotel Lincoln on the eve of the race to generate international headlines (C&SC, July 2011).
Cefis was electrified by the story of the event – even more so when he began further investigating motorsport on the island and unearthed photographs of two 300SL coupés that began competing in Touring Car events the year before.
A Gullwing in Cuba? It’s enough to make a Mercedes fan reach for a mojito…
Coincidentally, while Cefis was on holiday on the Caribbean island, the series Jeremy Clarkson’s Motorworld was flickering across the television screens in Europe.
The Top Gear presenter reported on the automotive scene around the world, and for the second episode of series two he was in Cuba.
During the credits, an abandoned 300SL briefly appeared – not a Gullwing but a Roadster, and moreover in desolate condition, but it was enough to arouse the collector’s eagerness to hunt, despite Clarkson’s parting words: “If you wanted to come on holiday to this super-heated American car museum… that’s fine, but don’t whatever you do feel tempted to buy one of the exhibits.”
Cefis didn’t know much about the Roadster, but he had learned that three W198 coupés were registered for competition in Havana during the Batista dictatorship.
The cars belonged to wealthy Cubans, who put talented drivers behind the wheel for the annual motorsport spectacle.
In 1958, the year before revolution came, three Gullwings were entered for the ‘Il Clasico Automovilistico’ race in the over-2-litre Gran Turismo Class A category on 24 February, and the race was won by Santiago González in an ivory-coloured Gullwing wearing the number six.
Just pipped to the win was the similar car of Armando García Cifuentes, whose horrific crash in the feature race aboard his Ferrari 500TRC resulted in the deaths of several spectators – and would eventually lead to the cessation of all motorsport activities along Havana’s Malecón waterfront.
The engines had roared for the last time as Castro’s rebels struck the final blow against Batista, but what, wondered Cefis, became of that class-winning Gullwing?
The whereabouts of the trio of 300SLs were unknown and their survival seemed unlikely in the Soviet/colonial melting pot that was Cuba, where during the Communist era cars were confiscated and often cut up, and the only imports were Russian Ladas and Moskvitches that were later cannibalised to maintain the ageing 1950s Americana that had previously populated Havana’s streets.
The Italian, already the owner of both a Roadster and another Gullwing, set out to search for clues.
Remarkably, just a short while later he found himself standing in the backyard of a workshop in Bejucal, a suburb 30km to the south of Havana, gazing at a silver-painted Mercedes-Benz 300SL coupé.
The Gullwing was found hiding under a tarpaulin in 1996, but it would be another decade before it would finally belong to Cefis.
Amazingly, the removed engine lay in the shed next door – still showing evidence of a failed repair that began in the 1980s – and its number matched the chassis.
Dotted around the garden were several coupé doors, bonnets and a 300SL bootlid, while the bumpers – still wearing the car’s original numberplates – were found hanging alongside a collection of original hubcaps on the wire-mesh walls of a corrugated-iron hut.
“Today every collector would freak out,” says Cefis, “but in 1996 a Gullwing was only worth around €150,000, even in good condition.” The Mercedes looked pretty shabby but, importantly, appeared to be complete.
After making enquiries, Cefis was told that the Gullwing belonged to an elderly local man by the name of Quico.
Apparently he parked the SL in the garden in 1985 following an engine failure and although he planned to repair it, somehow that never happened.
And what of all those extra doors? Cefis learned that Cuban owners liked to drive with the gullwings raised in period, to combat the unbearable heat inside the cabin, and damage often ensued.
Having made contact with the elusive Quico, the Italian was in for another shock when he learned the history of the car: the 300SL had come to Cuba in 1955, was originally painted ivory, and was the first car to cross the finish line in 1958… wearing number six. Unbelievably, he had stumbled across the González Benz.
Two years passed, and not a day went by without Cefis thinking about the Havana Gullwing.
Further research unearthed the original delivery note, dated 17 August 1955, which confirmed the export of an ivory Mercedes-Benz 300SL to Cuba.
Chassis 5500586 was used as a demonstrator by a local Mercedes dealer until 1957, when it was purchased by architect and diplomat Nicolás Arroyo Márquez.
But still the Italian couldn’t make the car his: “The owner was certainly stubborn. It was only after 10 years that he finally approved the complete sale.”
Before that, Quico suggested an alternative – and rather idiosyncratic – ownership model: Cefis could take a 50% stake in the Mercedes, as long as he promised to have it repaired in Cuba.
The Italian was unconvinced but, at last, he agreed to do the deal – provided that the 300SL was stored with someone he trusted.
He then owned half a Gullwing, hidden away in secret, but again nothing happened.
It was only in 2006 that Quico approved the complete sale of chassis 5500586, after realising that there was no way the full restoration could proceed with the car remaining in Cuba.
Having bought the SL, however, Cefis now faced a new challenge: “After the purchase, export proved to be the next major hurdle. How should we get the Gullwing out of Cuba?”
At the time, the local export ban for classic cars strictly only really applied to the ubiquitous American land yachts, which Castro had declared to be a national cultural asset.
But even exporting a European car could get you in trouble – one foreigner who tried to extract the wreck of a Hispano-Suiza ended up in jail, and the car was confiscated.
“The risk was too great, so we put the issue on hold,” says Cefis. “We removed all of the important items, as protection against light-fingered enthusiasts.”
In the meantime, smaller components came home with him in his suitcase after each holiday to the island.
Meanwhile, the treasure-hunters were invading Cuba.
With 300SL Gullwings by then worth three or more times as much as they had been in 1996, the appetite for restoration projects was growing and in Mercedes circles there were rumours of mysterious forgotten 300SLs to be found on the Caribbean island.
Images continued to appear in the classic press. Which car they were showing was often unclear, and there seemed to be mysterious changes of location.
In 2012, Spanish blogger Miguel Llorentes stumbled across a Gullwing near Havana: the badly damaged coupé was spied resting under the drooping leaves of a banana tree, and so picturesque was the scene that it would reappear three years later in photographer Pjotr Dengler’s calendar Carros de Cuba.
On the same site, Llorentes also found the Roadster that had appeared in the closing scenes of that episode of Jeremy Clarkson’s Motorworld.
In 2014, an unexpected new opportunity opened up for Cefis. Julio, a relative of his landlord on the island, was appointed as Deputy Minister of Customs Affairs.
Over dinner, the men worked out a plan: because the export of a complete vehicle would almost certainly fall foul of customs officials, Julio suggested disassembling the Gullwing in Cuba and shipping it to Europe in pieces, because the export of scrap metal is not scrutinised to the same extent.
For security reasons, the shipping boxes should only be checked in on days when an old school friend was on duty at airport customs.
With the decision made, Hans Kleissl – owner of the famed Mercedes-Benz 300SL specialist HK Engineering based in Polling, Bavaria – instructed Cefis on how best to take the Gullwing apart in such a way that everything could be put back together again later.
At Easter, Cefis flew with his instructions to Cuba, where Quico and some helpers had already begun the preparatory work, and piece by piece the Mercedes was painstakingly cut up and packed into boxes.
In the process, as previously hidden parts of the car were revealed, those matching numbers appeared again – not only did the chassis and engine match, but the axles and steering box were also the same as when they were delivered in 1955.
Even better, there were further clues to the car’s famous past, as Cefis recalls: “The remains of the ivory-coloured original paint appeared under the silver.”
With the car packed up in boxes, Cefis was sweating with fear as he brought the first parcels through customs.
There was some confusion over why anyone would voluntarily pay to export scrap metal to Europe, but the boxes were nonetheless all waved through.
The filleted Gullwing was then dispatched in slices every six weeks to avoid the whole car being seized, with the process taking a full year.
“It worked like a well-oiled machine,” says Cefis, and with no further hold-ups everything was safely landed in Italy by mid-2015, with the last thing to arrive being the disassembled spaceframe.
Yet still the wait went on, with three years of laborious reassembly and restoration lying ahead.
The body was pieced together and renovated by a friend in Italy, before being shipped to Germany for HK Engineering to carry out the repaint in the SL’s original colour, ‘Ivory 608’.
The Bavarian specialist also tackled the engine overhaul, brought the interior up to scratch and repaired the jigsaw of a spaceframe, before the crucial moment of bringing the chassis and body together again.
At the end of the rebuild, Cefis had the Gullwing finished in the racing livery it wore for González’s victory in 1958.
Inside, the plaid seat cushions are new, but the numberplate is the battered original from the car’s first year of registration.
At the beginning of November 2018, Cefis took his maiden voyage in the 300SL, 22 years after he first stood in front of the car in Cuba.
The fuel-injected 2996cc straight-six – an exotic spec for 1955 – roared aggressively as he took to the Bergamo roads, deploying its 215bhp with care so as not to damage the car’s precious finish.
Not that it will remain pristine, because Cefis plans to compete in historic rallies aboard his restored Stuttgart thoroughbred, returning it to the heat of competition for which it was born.
So this particular thriller has a happy ending, and it could yet be the first in a series.
The Gullwing found under the banana tree is said to have since reached Germany via Venezuela; our photographer has been offered the Roadster project for €270,000; and pictures have been circulating of a red Gullwing wreck awaiting rescue.
Cefis isn’t sure how many more of these exotic Mercedes could still be found slumbering in Cuba.
In period, four new Gullwings, one used car and two Roadsters were reportedly exported to the island, but rumours circulate locally of up to 10 300SLs having made the trip. So it looks as if time hasn’t yet run out for the hunters of lost classic treasures.
Images: Thomas Ruddies
- Sold/number built 1954-’57/1400
- Construction tubular steel spaceframe, with steel and aluminium body
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, sohc 2996cc straight-six, with Bosch mechanical fuel injection
- Max power 215bhp @ 5800rpm
- Max torque 228lb ft @ 5000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear swing axles; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering recirculating ball
- Brakes Alfin drums, with servo
- Length 15ft (4572mm)
- Width 5ft 10½in (1791mm)
- Height 4ft 3¼in (1302mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 10½in (2400mm)
- Weight 3000lb (1361kg)
- 0-60mph 8.8 secs
- Top speed 146mph
- Mpg 21
- Price new £4393
- Price now £1m*
*Price correct at date of original publication