The Forgotten Icon – Cuba‘s Racing Gullwing

Amongst enthusiasts, rumors had existed for decades about a forgotten Mercedes Benz 300 SL in Cuba. One of them did not give up the search and was rewarded. The Gullwing which was hidden under banana trees. 

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In 1996 an Italian, Alberto Cefis, was on vacation in Havana, Cuba. Relaxing he was paging through a pile of old books and discovered an already yellow with age brochure – the program of the 1958 Gran Premio de Cuba. Top-class motorsport with top-class racing drivers. Stars such as Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio here in Cuba? At a time of rebellion and the subsequent coup, a first-class race was said to have taken place in Cuba?

Captivated by this story, Alberto Cefis came across pictures of two 300 SL Coupés while researching Cuban motorsport. At the 1958 Il Clasico Automovilistico in, Santiago González won with an ivory-colored Gullwing carrying the number 6. A short time later, Fidel Castro came to power and all racing activities were suspended. But what had become of the winning Gullwing?

Spurred on by his love for the 300 SL, Alberto Cefis looked for clues about the whereabouts of the two Gullwings. At this time, he already owned a Gullwing and a Roadster but research fascinated him. As the saying goes, “If you look, you will find!”. So, it came about that a short time later he stood in a neglected garden near the Cuban capital. The Bejucal site was only 30 kilometers from Havana. Behind a workshop under banana trees stood a silver Gullwing.

Now you could easily assume that the story ends there. It was, however, actually only beginning! Of course, there was great joy in finding the car. The enthusiasm rose even higher when the engine which had been removed from the car was found in the shed next door. Many of the original parts were found scattered around the property. Another highlight were the bumpers still with the original license plate on them.

Cuba 300SL und 300SL Prototyp

Apparently, in 1985 the 300SL had been parked where it was found after an engine failure, with the intention of repairing it. Unfortunately, that never happened. Alberto Cefis was amazed when he found out that he was looking at the 1958winning car. 38 years after the Coupé celebrated its great racing success it had been rediscovered. However, just because you can find the car doesn’t mean you own it. It took an incredible 10 years longer to complete the sale.

But what does an Italian do with a 300 SL in Cuba? To export the car was out of the question as a result of the strict export laws in place in Cuba and to flaunt the law would have caused some public outrage. As a result, everything was safely placed into storage and with every subsequent vacation small parts were put into a suitcase placed and brought back to Italy.

Sometimes the unexpected does occur. In 2014, a Cuban relative of his wife was promoted to a higher position in the ministry where they worked. This enabled Alberto to gain better insight and, so, it became clear that the export of a complete car would never succeed.

A decision was made to carry out an incredibly elaborate, yet promising plan. What they did was really nerve wracking.

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The 300 SL was completely dismantled, packed it into various packing boxes and wrote on the custom’s declaration the designation “Precious Scrap”. An enthusiast’s nightmare!

Don’t worry – the Gullwing wasn’t just simply brutally dismantled. Hans Kleissl was in constant contact with Alberto and great thought was put in as to the best places to cut up the car. This ensured that the restoration could be carried out without any major issues. Every six weeks for more than a year the boxes were individually loaded and taken out of the country. The last box containing the dismantled tubular frame reached Italy in middle of 2015.

Finally, all parts were in Europe but Alberto Cefis had to wait another 3 years for his treasure to shine again in its long-forgotten splendor. The Cuban 300 SL has been lovingly restored in Polling in Bavaria, Germany. The HK-Engineering team took on this special challenge with great enthusiasm.

As soon as it all arrived the tedious puzzle began. In the body shop, the individual parts were gradually restored to their original shape. The work benefitted greatly from the fact that the exact gauges for the frame and body were on hand as every important point is finished with millimeter precision. Even so, the process was very labor intensive. Especially since the team always strived to use or obtain as many of the original parts as possible. After months of work, the Gullwing became visible again.

At the same time, the heavily rusted frame was painstakingly restored and reassembled. When the body was put back on the frame for the first time, the team held their breath for a moment but everything fitted perfectly. After completing the bodywork, the car went to the paint shop. Of course, Alberto opted for the original color of the car that it carried when it won the race. The racing car shone again in its original ivory color. The rally stripes and the starting number 6 were added later but of course they couldn’t be left off as the look of the car was to be perfect.

Coppa Milano Sanremo 2

In the HK-ENGINEERING in house saddlery, the interior of the car was also repaired using the materials that could be saved. In the places where materials had to added these were artificially aged so that any difference was no longer apparent. As with all work carried out at HK-ENGINEERING the HK specialists were just as passionate that everything should correspond to the original 1958 winning Gullwing. The fittings, seats and the entire interior were lovingly handcrafted.

Last but not least, the heart of the 300 SL, the engine, was carefully put back into place.

Now nothing stood in the way of the official handover.

Since then, the Gullwing has taken part in many events including the 2019 Mille Miglia and the 2019 Coppa Milano-Sanremo. Wherever the car appears, it attracts a great deal of attention as it is one of the very few vehicles that left Cuba after the takeover of power by Castro.


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