No longer is it a desperate task to travel by car from Havana to Varadero, or Santiago de Cuba to Cajo Coco. Of course those rental cars certainly don’t have the same charm as an American collectable from the 1950s, held together with ambitious and crazy repairs and the fruit of a talent rendered necessary by many years of embargo, witnesses of the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, forced out in 1959 by the revolution led by Fidel Castro, with Che Guevara at his side. That’s why in Havana, we still see so many of those well-known brands – and even a few in the countryside too – Cadillac, Plymouth, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Studebaker and English Spiders, MG, Sunbeam and Austin Healey. The largest are used as taxis, as luxury vehicles with drivers, and the best kept are offered as limos to be used as wedding cars. A sort of heaven for fans of historic cars, who come time and time again to the Caribbean island’s most forgotten ravines in search of hidden treasures on four wheels.
What’s for sure, however, is that a brand new Maserati had not been seen in Cuba in the last 50 years, aside from those on the television. But between Cuba and Maserati there exists a bond, created by an event which played its part in changing history. The main characters: a Maserati, a grand prix and Juan Manuel Fangio, an Argentine driver who brought many victories to Maserati, including two F1 world championships. Bringing them all together, the Amigos de Fangio cultural association (find out more at www.amigosdefangio.com). It was thanks to them that a Maserati made its return to the Malecon, the four kilometre long road which runs along the coast and makes up part of the Cuban Grand Prix’s town circuit. True enthusiasts, the Amigos de Fangio are race lovers and fans of the five-time world champion.
They made the dream become a reality: a flaming Maserati GranCabrio in silver with a Sabbia (Sand) interior, sent especially from Modena to drive along those Cuban roads so closely linked to Fangio’s legend once more. It’s hard to describe the Cubans’ amazement at seeing the GranCabrio, with its 440 HP, making the drive from the capital Havana to Malecon, 53 years after Fangio’s kidnapping, with many travelling alongside the four-seater cabriolet, bearing signs reading: “Fangio, Italy, Maserati.”
We also have the Amigos de Fangio to thank for the reconstruction, 53 years later, of the kidnapping which caused such a stir, organised to show the world that Batista’s regime and his secret police were on their last legs. During the night of Saturday 22 February 1958, just a few hours from the start of the second Cuban Grand Prix (the first, in 1957, was won by Fangio in a Maserati 300S), Manuel Nunez, one of the revolutionaries from the “26th of July” brigade, holding a .45 Thompson submachine gun in his hand, said to the Argentine driver, “I’m sorry Juan, but you’ll have to follow me”. The scene unfolded in the hall of the Lincoln Hotel in Havana, while the champion, who was staying in room 810 (today a kind of shrine dedicated to him, available to rent) was chatting with his mechanics. Alejandro De Tomaso, one of Fangio’s co-racers, tried to reach an open window, but a chilling suggestion stopped him: “Watch out, another move and I’ll shoot”. Danger also for Stirling Moss, who found it hard to stay still. El Chueco (Knock-kneed, Fangio’s nickname) was forced out of the building and into a black Plymouth. He was made to crouch down on the floor of the car and it was then that he knew this really was a kidnapping, and not, as he had first thought, a practical joke.
They drove around the city, avoiding the checkpoints until Fangio found himself in a house in Vedado (today this is marked by a plaque to commemorate the kidnapping), an aristocratic area of Havana, surrounded by people who cared for him and asking for autographs.
Of that night, Fangio always said that he was treated well, and even years on, he remembered the endless questions, the excuses he was given, the frugal meal of egg and chips, prepared by the lady in the house. The next day, on the Sunday morning, Faustino Pérez, the brigade commander, allowed him to read the newspapers and Fangio asked if his family had been informed. The race was shown on TV, but the driver refused to watch, as he couldn’t stand to hear the sounds of the engines when he was unable to fight against the parade of Ferraris which had been sent from Maranello to compete with the Maseratis.
After the race, their mission completed, the members of the group of revolutionaries were faced with a new problem: how to free Fangio without putting him at risk. They feared that Batista’s thugs would kill Fangio simply to discredit them. They thought about leaving him in a church, but El Chueco asked to speak with the Argentine ambassador. And that’s how one woman and two young men came to take him to the diplomat, the cousin of Ernesto Che Guevara, along with a letter of apology to the Argentine people. Twenty-seven hours from his abduction, Fangio, safe and sound, was in the hands of the Argentine authorities. And since he was the superstitious type, he came to think of the kidnapping as fate.
The kidnapping increased Fangio’s popularity, both at home and in the United States. When he left Havana for a few days rest in Miami, the mayor gave him the keys to the city, and he was then invited to appear on America’s most popular TV program. A thousand dollars for ten minutes on the Ed Sullivan Show, with Jack Dempsey, where Fangio, then aged 47, commented ironically: “I’ve won five world championships, I’ve raced and won in Sebring, but only my kidnap in Cuba has made me popular in the United States”.
Photo credits Maserati/Renato Zacchia