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Cuban Soul restores Hemmingway’s car

Cuban Soul restores Hemmingway’s car

I returned last night from Havana and a week filming with acting-singing legend David Soul (most famously Hutch from the 1970s cult TV show Starsky & Hutch). What a fabulous experience as we followed the trail of Ernest Hemingway’s long-lost 1955 Chrysler New Yorker convertible, the “discovery” of which I reported in my May 6, 2011 blog post: “Hemingway’s Chrysler to be Restored in Cuba”. Back then things looked promising. Various yanks, not least Bill Greffin of the Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, had promised assistance.

I made several more visits, each time bringing Ada Rosa, of the Museo Hemingway, useful documents such as a CD of the original maintenance manual for the 1955 Chrysler New Yorker. The Chrysler Corporation even offered support. Then things went south. Killed dead by the U.S. embargo.

Enter stage left David Soul…

David has been a decade-long cubaphile, and the island has held an allure for him since as a boy he became enthralled by Hemingway’s Nobel-prize-winning novel, Old Man and the Sea. On his travels around the isle, David has recorded with the country’s top recording artists, such as Buena Fe and Eliades Ochoa. He also befriended Ada Rosa, who in September 2012 told him of her problem in sourcing replacement parts for Hemingway’s near-derelict Chrysler.

She threw her hands in the air in despair over the paltry U.S. aid filtering through the embargo… and at her urgent need to secure the hard-to-locate parts necessary to restore the car in time for the 14th International Hemingway Colloquium, to be held in Havana, June 20-23, 2013.

Ada Rosa asked for David’s help. “Sure, I’ll do it!” he said, although he knew absolutely nothing about restoring an automobile. Fortunately, as a full-time British resident and British citizen, David could source and send the parts legally. He contacted the U.K. magazine, Practical Classics, whose editor, Danny Hopkins, got enthused. Hey presto! Financing was soon forthcoming and parts were located and secured.

Meanwhile, last October I arrived home from researching my Moon Handbooks Costa Rica to find a message from David. He had read and fallen in love with my coffee-table book, Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles.

He wanted to meet. “By chance, I’ll be in London next week,” I replied.

We met in London, where David invited me to partner in a documentary film about the restoration… and the stage was set. Cut to Havana and David cruising down the Malecón in a banana-yellow 1952 Chevrolet Bel-Air while waxing lyrical about his passion for ‘Papa’ Hemingway and for Cuba… and David looking on, jaw-agape, as he gets his first look at the deteriorated 1955 Chrysler and the primitive conditions under which the resourceful Cuban mechanics and chapistas (panel-beaters and welders) are now at work, applying their renowned ingenuity and wizardry in a battle against paucity, the elements and time.

The story of the car’s restoration and the legends surrounding its disappearance will be the narrative around which we have begun to build, through the documentary Cuban Soul, a fascinating insight into contemporary Cuba—an irresistible isle of eccentricity, eroticism, and enigma, in which Hemingway is considered a national treasure, serving alongside the beloved Detroit classics as ambassadors of an abiding affection that still binds the two nations together.

This promises to be an exciting documentary, to be produced by award-winning London-based Red Earth Studio, and filmed in awe-inspiring cinematic style by Adam Docker.
Meanwhile, we have secured the support of Cuba’s Consejo Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural (National Heritage Council), which has guaranteed us exclusive access to the restoration project and files.
To make this documentary a reality, however, requires sponsorship—an unparalleled opportunity for promotional branding as part of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to document something unique.
Potential sponsors should contact Greg Atkins or Ces Terranova. RED EARTH STUDIO

What happened to Ernest Hemingway’s car?
Of the many mysteries swirling around Cuba, there’s one that has captured the imagination of cubaphiles, auto- enthusiasts, and dreamers: “What happened to Ernest Hemingway’s car?”

Exactly fifty years after the Nobel-prize-winning author departed Cuba – his home for 22 years – his long-lost 1955 Chrysler New Yorker convertible has finally been found, derelict and near to ruin.
Cuba’s vast repository of classic American automobiles is synonymous with the surreal and sensual nation, and Hemingway’s much-sought-after vehicle is potentially the most valuable and important of them all.
Guided by acting and singing legend David Soul, we plan to reveal the mystery of what happened to this renowned car after Hemingway’s departure, and to follow its restoration by Cuba’s underfunded yet resourceful and expert repairmen struggling against odds we can barely imagine.

The hour-long documentary will follow the process of sourcing the replacement parts, shipping them to Cuba and, most importantly, restoring the car in time for the International Hemingway Colloquium, in Havana, in June 2013.

The story of the car’s restoration will also be the narrative around which we build a fascinating insight into contemporary Cuba – an irresistible yet much-misunderstood Communist island of eccentricity, eroticism, and enigma, in which Hemingway is considered a national treasure and baseball is the national sport… serving alongside the beloved Detroit classics – from creaky Cadillac taxis to Chevrolet Impalas with fins sharp enough to draw blood – as ambassadors of an abiding affection that still binds the two nations together.

This all-Cuban restoration of the vehicle, and David’s unique access, guarantee a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to document something unique. Christopher Baker Moon Cuba Blog Posting, March 26, 2011

Has Hemingway’s Chrysler been found in Cuba?’
Of all the many mysteries swirling around Cuba, one of the 64 million dollar questions is: “What happened to Hemingway’s Chrysler?” Exactly fifty years after the Nobel-prize-winning author departed Cuba, it looks like his much-sought-after vehicle may have finally been found.

Ernest Hemingway first set out from Key West to wrestle marlin in the wide streaming currents off the Cuban coast in April 1932. Not long thereafter he could be seen driving around Havana in his brand new 1941 V-12 Lincoln Continental convertible, en route for his daily sugarless double daiquiri with his friends.

As I explain in my coffee-table book, Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles, in 1949 Hemingway traded in his streamlined Lincoln with push-button doors instead of handles and bought a royal blue 1947 Buick Roadmaster convertible, with blood-red leather lining and seats. He drove it from Miami to Idaho, and the following spring shipped it to Cuba on the ferry from Key West.

In 1955 he replaced it with a sleek Chrysler New Yorker DeLuxe convertible that cost him $3,924 new. Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles includes the only known photograph of Hemingway in his Chrysler in Cuba, courtesy the J.F. Kennedy Library. He’s shown peering out the driver’s seat window while outside his home, Finca Vigía, now maintained as the Museo de Ernest Hemingway just the way the great writer left it.

After the Revolution, Finca Vigía was seized by the Castro government, though the author had willed all his property to this fourth wife, Mary Welsh . Somehow the Chrysler escaped and apparently passed into the hands of Augustin Nuñez Gutiérrez, Hemingway’s driver who later became a Cuban policeman, according to writer Joann Bondi. The Cuban government understood full well the value of Gutiérrez’s possession and offered him a new Russian Lada (basically a Fiat 124 built in Russia under license). Instead he demanded a house. Supposedly, he grew frustrated with the increasingly depressing difficulties of life in Cuba (not least the bureaucracy surrounding the trade) and, after hiding the car, hopped on a raft for Miami (apparently he died in the attempt).

Popular legend says the car’s whereabouts are still a mystery and that the Chrysler still awaits discovery as some incredibly fortunate collector’s dream. Well, after a fifty year hiatus, the Cuban government appears to have acquired the long sought after car rumored to have been Hemingway’s.

Bill Greffin, a former board member of The Ernest Hemingway Foundation, in Oak Park, Illinois, last week sent me a photo of the car, with news that the Cuban government had acquired the car and moved it to the museum.

A decade ago, Bill contacted DaimlerChrysler to check on the provenance of the missing car. The company was happy to assist and even entertained the idea of restoring the documented car (if it could be found) and returning it to Cuba. More recently, having received the vehicle numbers, he shared them with Chrysler’s archivist. While no direct link exists to Hemingway, the car in question was produced in the correct two-tone red color code and assigned from the factory to “Comiac Havana,” presumably the Imperial Automobile Company, the sole Chrysler dealer.

Chrysler archivists haven’t been able to find a direct link between the car and Hemingway, as his name doesn’t appear on any of their production records, Bill later informed me. “But neither do the records eliminate it from being Hemingway’s — the two-tone color code and delivery destination are consistent with what we assume about the car,” he stated.

A positive identification of this car as Hemingway’s seems critical to what might hopefully develop into a Cuban-American effort to properly restore the vehicle and reinstall it at its Cuban home. (A precedent was set when the Finca Vigía Foundation brought Cuban and U.S. conservationists together to restore Finca Vigía and save its moldy archives for future generations.)

The hunt is on for paperwork (importer records, sales receipts, titles, registrations, licensing, service or maintenance records) with a firm ID match to the car at Finca Vigía.

The biennial 13th International Hemingway Colloquium will be held at Finca Vigía this June. A perfect venue for a possible official announcement, which I await with eager anticipation.

In December 2009, I toured Havana’s Depósito del Automóvil (Car Museum) with director Eduardo Mesejo Maestre, plus Richard Messer (director of the Petersen Automotive Museum) and Bill Warner (founder of the Amelia Island Concourse de Elegance). I recall Eduardo telling us over mojitos that he had seen Hemingway’s Chrysler: “It is hidden, but it is still in the country and still restorable.” Christopher Baker Moon Cuba Blog Posting

April, 2011
Bill Greffin, a former board member of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, in Oak Park, Illinois, contacted me and asked me to confirm its existence and to try to document as much evidence as possible during my April 3-14 visit to Cuba.

Enthused, I made sleuthing this a priority. First visit was to the Museo de Aotomoviles, where my acquaintance, the director Eduardo Monsejo welcomed me. If anyone knows it’s whereabouts, I thought, it’s Eduardo, who during dinner together in 2009 had informed me that he’d seen the car, which he described as “hidden away” and as being in restorable condition. Alas, Eduardo informed me that he didn’t know the car’s current whereabouts.

Determined to get to the bottom of things, I headed out to the Museo Ernest Hemingway, at the Nobel Prize-winning author’s former home, Finca Vigía, in the hilltop village of San Francisco de Paula, on the southeast outskirts of Havana.

I was amazed to find Ada Rosa, the amiable director of the beautifully restored home and museum, already awaiting my visit. “We knew you were coming. We read your blog,” she informed me. She motioned for me to sit. A freshly-brewed taza (cup) of delicious Cuban coffee came. And Ada then proceeded to document proof that the car – which I could see sitting on cement blocks under a tarp nearby – actually belonged to Hemingway. (The vehicle was manufactured on 18 February 1955 and shipped to Miami ten days later for deliver to Comiac Havana, Chrysler’s distributor in Cuba.)

Although Ada informed me that there is no documentation showing that Hemingway registered the 1955 Chrysler New Yorker DeLuxe convertible coupe in Cuba, she showed me the insurance policy that he took out, with the vehicle’s registration number. She then showed me the placa (the plate unique to each vehicle), with the data recorded by Chrysler about the specific vehicle in question, including its chassis and engine numbers. I photographed both.

Ada then ran through the documentation used to trace the vehicle to Hemingway, beginning with the 1961 legal paperwork from Cuba’s National Registry of Vehicles showing the Chrysler as belonging to Hemingway’s doctor (1961-1973), Dr. José Luis Herrera Sotalongo, to whom Hemingway apparently bequeathed the vehicle; then to his son, José Herrera Bella (1973-78); and a long list of connected individuals that ends with the last known owner, Leopoldo Nuñez Gutiérrez, in whose garage the vehicle was found.

I was then directed to the car, which arrived at the museum in December, 2010. The tarp was pulled off. And I gasped with dismay at the Chrysler’s deteriorated condition.

The original two-tone Navajo Orange with Desert Sand color scheme was no longer visible beneath a shoddy white on top of blood-red paint-job. The original interior trim of Navajo Orange leather with beige leather inserts was lost forever, eaten away to virtually nothing by mildew and the stresses of time. So, too, the Ivory vinyl convertible top. And the chassis was rotten away completely, so that I stared down at the tarmac beneath the car. Even the 250-HP C68 Firepower V8 engine looked beaten up.

“I want to exhibit the car when it is restored,” said Ada. “A Cuban expert will be in charge of restoration,” which will be a 100 percent Cuban effort intended to restore the treasured vehicle to running condition.

Having written a coffee-table book, Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles, I was well aware of the effort this would take. Aware, also, of the amazing skill and ingenuity of Cuban automotive restorers. I have faith.

Ada ran through a list of original parts that would be required, such as whitewall tires and a mechanical system for the convertible roof. I passed these on to Bill Greffin, along with a note that the Museo Ernest Hemingway also seeks a $100,000 donation to help restore Finca Vigía’s former garage as an exhibition center for the precious Chrysler, other memorabilia related to Hemingway’s cars and automotive life in Cuba, plus six other cars that ‘Papa’ owned in Cuba, once they’re tracked down and acquired.

Apparently the restoration work will begin this month, with a rather ambitious three-month goal. More likely a full year will be required, not least to track down some of the required replacement parts.

I can’t wait to see the car once restoration is finished.

To Ada, her staff, and the restorers… suerte! Good luck!   Christopher P. Baker is a professional travel writer and photographer, and leads tours of Cuba for MotoDiscovery and National Geographic Expeditions. His six books about Cuba include MI MOTO FIDEL: MOTORCYCLING THROUGH CASTRO?S CUBA (National Geographic Adventure Press), winner of two national book awards.
? Christopher P Baker
travel writer ? photographer ? moto-journalist ? cuba expert |

Lowell Thomas Award 2008 Travel Journalist of the Year  

  In 1996 Christopher shipped his BMW R100GS motorcycle to Cuba and rode 7,000 miles during a three-month journey to research the Moon handbook to Cuba. His award-winning literary travel book – Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling through Castro’s Cuba – describing the journey was published by National Geographic Adventure Press.

Travel Book of the Year
Lowell Thomas Awards
“This is a wonderful adventure book… a meditation on philoso-phy, politics, and the possibilities of physical love. It has the depth of a novel and the feeling of a great love story.”
Judges, Lowell Thomas Award
also NATJA Grand Priz  

Rave reviews…
“Mi Moto Fidel is a satisfying and complete portrait of Cuba It’s all here: money, sex, politics, geography, history, cigars, marlin, and, of course, Fidel. Serious travel writing is often intricate and complex. Bikers, it seems, do it better.”
Tim Cahill — Pass the Butterworms and Road Fever

“Baker’s kiss-and-tell account of his romps across Fidel’s island offers a bittersweet glimpse of life inside the last Marxist utopia.”
Jon Lee Anderson — Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life

“Chris Baker’s chaotic pilgrimage–by turns sharp-eyed, lustful, poetic, feverish and joyful–brings a tropical nation of 10 million to vivid, pulsating life. The motorcycle proves itself, once again, a brilliant, ice-breaking instrument of true travel.”
Ted Simon — Jupiter’s Travels: Four Years Around the World on a Triumph           January 2013

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