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Lost to history: Fidel Castro's Lincoln Continental

Streamlined as a speed boat, the 1940s Continental was an immediate classic. 
   V-12 ENGINE purring, the big Lincoln rolls along U.S. 1 through Florida.
   Since leaving New York five days ago, the two couples inside have caught only glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean. But after St. Augustine the road swings east, and now, between the palm trees that whisper to them of Cuba, they see the saltwater channels of the Intercoastal Waterway and know the ocean is near.
   Soon they will be crossing it on their way home to Havana.
It is December 1948. The driver, one casual hand on the Bakelite wheel, is a tall and voluble 22-year-old law student named Fidel Castro. His brother-in-law, Rafael Diaz-Balart, rides next to him. In the back seat are Castro's wife of 10 weeks, Mirta Diaz-Balart, and Rafael's wife Hilda Caballero.
   Other vehicles will figure in Fidel Castro's long and eventful life – the Buick he crashes into a curb in the attack on the Moncada Barracks, the Land Rover from which he leads his guerrilla fighters in the Sierra Maestra, the Soviet jeeps he favours as Cuban leader in Cold War defiance of the United States.

   Yet none will say as much about Castro, his aspirations, his image of himself, as this sleek and rich-looking 1947 Lincoln Continental coupe. This is the car of movie stars Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth and Mickey Rooney, of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
   This is a car that commands attention.

Young marrieds Fidel and Mirta.
   It's a bit surprising, then, that Castro's Continental has had little notice in the history books.
   One mention comes in Rafael Díaz-Balart's memoir, Cuba: Intrahistoria, Una Lucha Sin Tregua, published nearly six decades after that journey down the Eastern Seaboard.
   Rafael and Hilda, also recently married, were living in New York when Fidel and Mirta arrived from Miami on an extended honeymoon. The two had met through Rafael, Fidel's close friend from law school.
   With wedding cash from their parents, the couple decided to stay on in New York. They rented a room in Díaz-Balart's building on West 82nd Street while Fidel taught himself English.
   Castro also found time in New York to buy the one-year-old Lincoln, his brother-in-law would recall.
   "He only had the money to buy a new car like a Pontiac," Diaz-Balart told Georgie Anne Geyer, author of Guerrilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro. "But Fidel fell in love with his enormous Lincoln. It was grandissimo, huge ..."
   The acquisition was yet more remarkable given another Castro purchase in New York as recorded by Geyer – a copy of Karl Marx's Das Kapital. Could there be a more visible symbol of the capitalism Marx excoriates than this 18-foot-long luxury car?
   Another friend from the time, however, said the choice was fully in character.
   "Fidel was very ostentatious; he took his wedding money to buy that car – and that was just like him," Luis Conte Agüero told the Miami Herald in 2008.

   WITH SOFA-SOFT seats, hydraulic power windows and Adjust-O-Matic radio, the white Lincoln was well-appointed. But it was styling, not comfort, that set it apart.
   The inspiration for the Continental was a bespoke "personal car" created by Lincoln designer E.T. “Bob” Gregorie for Ford Motor Co. president Edsel Ford. Based on a Lincoln Zephyr, Gregorie's car was streamlined like a speed boat, with a great prow-like hood over the 12-cylinder engine and a canvas roof that wrapped around the rear seat. The spare tire sat proud above the rear bumper, offering a parting fillip.

'Bob' Gregorie's Continental prototype. Henry Ford Museum photo.

   Some claim Ford had been taken by the look of sports cars he saw on a trip to Europe and asked Gregorie to create a custom car with a "continental" style. But the designer himself is said to have disputed this, and others have noted that the close-coupled two-door body style had been a U.S. design motif since at least the 1920s.
   Gregorie's custom one-off was shipped to Ford's winter home in Florida. It was a hit. "Ford turned heads wherever he drove and, according to Lincoln lore, received no fewer than 200 requests to purchase his chic new automobile," writes Matt Anderson, a curator at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.
   The Continental was soon approved for limited production, with 350 cabriolet models and another 54 coupes assembled for its 1940 debut. The list price was US$2,840.   After the Second World War the Continental returned to the market, now with a heavy "egg-crate" grille and a US$4,392 base price. Its biggest year was 1947 when 1,569 convertibles and coupes, Fidel's among them, were produced.
Ornate grille was the largest postwar change. Henry Ford Museum photo.
   Noteworthy for its looks, the Continental was average in other respects. Its three-speed manual transmission and transverse leaf springs were common for the day. The 292-cubic-inch engine was 12-cylinder smooth, but with an output of just 125 horsepower, acceleration was middling.
   Worse, that flathead powerplant, the last V-12 to be employed in a U.S. production car, was known to overheat and burn oil. Some of its problems were addressed in the postwar models, but Fidel's car broke down repeatedly on the trip south, Cuban author Norberto Fuentes relates.
   Still, it brought them to Miami, where the story of the Lincoln becomes muddied. According to Fuente's fictionalized "auto-biography" of Castro, the Diaz-Balarts flew on to Havana while Fidel and Mirta drove to Key West to catch an auto ferry to Cuba.
   It's a romantic image – the newlyweds in their big white car skipping along the Florida Keys via the Overseas Highway, built to replace a rail line that had been destroyed in a hurricane a decade before. But we know auto ferry service would not be available from Key West until 1956, seven years later.

   DOES THIS mean Fidel and Mirta found some other vessel to take their car from Key West? Did they never drive through the keys, instead shipping the Lincoln by rail ferry from Miami? Did they leave it behind in the United States?
   According to Fuentes, the Continental did reach Havana, where Castro lacked the cash to pay the import duties.

   "Once again, El Chino (fellow student Alfredo Esquivel) came to the rescue," Fuentes writes in Castro's voice. "He mobilized some of our classmates, the Granados brothers – one of whom, Raúl, was one of our buddies on our outings to the brothels – whose parents owned a farm, and they sold one or two cows to pay the customs fees."
Hilda Diaz-Balart with sons
 Rafael, left, and Lincoln.
   We know what became of the people on that road trip. How Castro and Mirta would divorce, how Castro would overthrow the Batista government and rigidly control a communist Cuba for decades. How Rafael Diaz-Balart would break with Fidel and eventually settle in Florida, how two of Rafael and Hilda's four sons (one named Lincoln, though not for Fidel's car) would be elected to the U.S. Congress.
   Equally documented is how Ford would drop the Lincoln Continental after 1948 and revive the model name repeatedly in subsequent years, and how the classic long-hood, short-deck proportions of the first-generation Continental would influence American car design to this day.
   What we don't know is the fate of the particular white Continental that carried Fidel and his companions south in that final month of 1948. Perhaps it found its way back to New York. Perhaps it mouldered away in Cuba, surrendering its parts so more prosaic cars could drive on.
   Or perhaps, just perhaps, it remains whole and in daily use in some corner of the island, unrecognized by history but as grand to those who see it now as it was on the day it caught the eye of a young Fidel Castro and reflected to him an image of himself.


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