The young man and the 300SL
|All photos courtesy of Miguel Llorente, This European Life.|
But not a lot of metal, it turns out.
In the years-old photos that helped spur his search, a Mercedes-Benz 300SL, engine-less, rust creeping up its sides, lies beached amidst debris in a yard said to be in or near Havana.
In the photos Miguel took of that very car last month, in or near Havana, the rust has spread everywhere: door sills, window frames, the roof. Worse, the car bends up at either end, its trademark doors jammed open. Because it was transported and stored poorly, Miguel writes at This European Life, "it's almost broken in half."
Too little remains for it to be revived. This "fractured carcass," as our writer calls it, might at best provide a serial number and a few scraps to allow some monied collector to turn a Gullwing replica into an original.
But there is rich value in Miguel's tale of the hunt, for which he dons a guayabera shirt and "my most convincing Cuban accent" (his own Spanish is native Castilian) to duck the touts who throng to tourists like sharks to a wounded swimmer. He asks car owners and mechanics if they know of the Gullwing, and soon he is being steered by radiobemba along one tangent after another. He hears fine stories, he sees remarkable sights – a late 1950s Mercedes 220S Coupe, gleaming in the corner of a garage – but he feels no closer to his quarry.
He hires a driver with a '55 Plymouth, and the search takes him farther into the outskirts. He speaks to elders, some of Spanish parents – "an unintentionally emotional connection to my roots," he confides. Many recall seeing in their youth a car with doors that opened up, like a sea gull's wings, but they don't know where it is now.
He drops and resumes his pursuit and finally ... success. At a rough house in a potholed neighbourhood a man answers the door and says yes, he has some Mercedes.
Mercedes and more, Miguel discovers. Rare cars are strewn about the property, some under cover, others open to the sun and rain. Most, like the Gullwing, appear beyond repair. The owner, it becomes clear, is that old car guy we all know (and perhaps, if we admit it, are). He won't sell. He'll get to the needed repairs. But instead of a Pontiac Tempest or Triumph TR6 mouldering in his yard, awaiting that dream day when it will emerge better than new, this man's trophies are a Hispano-Suiza race car, a Fiat Abarth 750 Zagato "Double Bubble" coupe, even a Chrysler Special by Ghia show car.
And, of course, that Gullwing, by now little more than the marlin skeleton brought home by old Santiago of the Hemingway story, that completes Miguel's quest.
It is a tragic ending, and thus, so much more memorable. Miguel, though like all of us wishing he could have found the car in better condition, would not take back a moment of a Havana adventure he calls "one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire life."
Rewarding for him, and still inspiring for readers who believe that other fine cars remain hidden away in Cuba, and who continue to dream – like car guys everywhere – that they one day will emerge, better than new.
|Miguel tries to push the doors back in place.|