Hemingway’s Last Ride

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“There are only three sports: bullfighting, mountaineering and motor racing; all the rest are merely games”.  Ernest Hemingway, author of The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls and arguably one of America’s most illustrious authors is said to have uttered that famous quote.

Throughout his colorful lifetime, the famed author and ex-patriot was a car buff, having owned a number of different vehicles in a number of different countries around the world.   Unfortunately, when the author committed suicide in 1961, his vehicles were scattered about from his time in Paris, Cuba and the western United States. But it is the last car he owned, a 1955 Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe convertible coup that has captured the imagination of car enthusiasts around the world.

In 1955, Hemingway paid $3,924 for the Navajo Orange and Desert Sand convertible while living in Cuba. He had been living there since 1939 when he purchased his home “Finca Vigia” located about 10 miles outside Havana. It was here that he penned some of his most famous works, including The Old Man and the Sea and Islands in the Stream.

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When the Cuban revolution occurred in1959, the author left the island to return to the United States and Finca Vigia was seized by the Castro government.  But what became of his 1955 convertible? Of all the mysteries swirling around Cuba, one of the most intriguing was “What happened to Hemingway’s Chrysler”? For decades, the car survived only in legend. Was it still on the island? Had it been secreted away? Or was it lost to history?

What little is known about the car reads like a novel. Somehow the Chrysler escaped government hands and apparently passed to Hemingway’s driver. The driver hid the car before he fled by raft to the United States. It then somehow made its way into the hands of Hemingway’s doctor. In the 1970s the doctor passed the Chrysler down to his son. From there, it changed hands again, and again, and again. With each new owner, the car’s connection to Hemingway dimmed. The Chrysler disappeared into Cuba’s’ automotive jungle, where it might have been sold for scrap, chopped for spare parts, or simply pushed, rusting, onto a junk heap. It would have stayed lost forever, had Ada Rosa Alfonso not continued the search.

Ada Rosa Alfonso is the director of Finca Vigia, now a restored museum. With Ada’ s help, a Chrysler matching the description of Hemingway’s car was discovered nearby and towed to the museum where it sat on cement blocks under a tarp rusted and topless. Although there is no documentation showing that Hemingway registered the 1955 Chrysler coupe in Cuba, he did take out an insurance policy on the car. The recently discovered policy included the vehicle registration number.  That registration number matches the VIN number of the Chrysler now located at Finca Vigia.  Mystery solved!!

There is now an attempt underway to totally restore the 1955 Chrysler back to its original condition. It will be a long road – the original two-tone Navajo Orange and Desert Sand color scheme was no longer visible beneath a shoddy white paint job. The original leather interior was lost forever, eaten away by mildew and the stresses of time. The chassis had rotted away and even the 331 cubic inch Hemi V8 looked beat up.

Although Cuban mechanics are experts at keeping old American cars running, much of their work comes down to improvising repairs and hand-making parts. But proper restorations require original components, impossible to find on the island. The Chrysler New Yorker is, after all, an American car, and although the Cold War has been over for decades, the United States still has a trade embargo with Cuba. This means that anyone in that country hoping to get authentic car parts for a rare American classic will have a heck of a time getting them through customs. However, with the best efforts of many people some parts are slowly making their way into the hands of restorers. The 50 year journey to bring Hemingway’s classic ride back to life continues and it is as colorful and interesting as the author’s life.

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