Hemingway’s Chrysler to be restored in Cuba

Ada Rosa stands beside a white rusting Chrysler parked on the dirt.

At the Museo Ernest Hemingway, Ada Rosa shows off the famed Chrysler. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

On March 26, 2011, I posted about speculation that Ernest Hemingway’s long-lost Chrysler had at last been found in Cuba. As I mentioned, 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.

The tarp was pulled off. And I gasped with dismay at the Chrysler’s deteriorated condition.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!


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