Actor David Soul (Starsky & Hutch) Restores Hemingway's Chrysler--in Cuba

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 02, 2018

You might not know it from his books, but Ernest Hemingway was something of a car guy. He owned a 1929 Rolls-Royce Phantom II (purchased after A Farewell to Arms was published that year) customized to accommodate his hunting gear.

David Soul with Papa Hemingway's last ride, a 1955 Chrysler New Yorker convertible. The restoration is proceeding slowly. (Cuban Soul photo)

Hemingway bought a Plymouth convertible with wire wheels for his fourth wife, Mary. He was evidently a MoPar fan—his own car in Cuba was a 1955 Chrysler New Yorker convertible in Navajo Orange and Desert Sand. Two tones were in that year.

According to Hagerty, Hemingway had to surrender his cars and his boat Pilar after Fidel Castro came to power. Mary Hemingway handed the keys to the family doctor, but it’s had numerous owners over the year. The Hemingway Museum’s Ada Rose recently tracked the car down, and now it’s getting sympathetically restored—slowly—with the help of Starsky & Hutch actor David Soul, who’s making a documentary about the whole thing called Cuban Soul.

The restoration underway--in the open air, which makes sense in Cuba. Maybe not in Alaska. (Cuban Soul photo)

The film project, which is still in production, was launched in 2012. Soul had been asked by Rose to help source parts for the convertible. “The fact that I knew nothing about restoring a classic automobile—or any car for that matter—did little to hide my excitement,” Soul said. But then the embargo loomed.

“I was confident that, with my status as a dual U.S./U.K. citizen with a newly acquired British passport, I would have no problem sourcing the parts in the States, shipping them to the U.K., and then forwarding them on to Havana,” Soul said. “I was wrong!...and was soon facing the prospect of huge fines and a jail cell.” (He didn't say whether it'd be in the U.S. or Cuba.)

But the parts have been trickling in, with the help of the English magazine Practical Classics. According to Danny Hopkins, that magazine's editor, "I’m a huge fan of Car Talk. [Ed: How could we cut that out?] My role, and the magazine’s, has been to source parts in the UK and supply them via our shippers to the guys in Cuba. I’ve done a load of deals on everything from tires to paint, batteries and leather trim. The last piece is about to go, the gas tank, which I had made bespoke by a small engineering firm near here. My involvement started after David contacted me about six years ago to get it all rolling, and it has been a LOOOOOOONG road. For three years, we imported second-hand Chrysler parts from the States and re-exported them to Cuba. At one time, this was the only way to get round the blockade."

Back in February, Soul was thanking a company called Pro Alloy for designing and building that fuel tank. “The fuel tank is currently at InterFreight waiting on clearance. Fingers crossed.”

Soul isn’t a car guy. He’s a Hemingway guy, initially inspired by The Old Man and the Sea. Here's video on that:

Chris Paquin, the owner of classic MoPar supplier Andy Bernbaum Auto Parts in Massachusetts, said he’s been providing parts—engine, suspension, body and interior to the project at cost. “The car is still very, very rough, although a lot of parts have been accumulated,” he said. “It needs everything. The interior needs to be returned to original, and a top has to be made. Unfortunately, the guy who was restoring it had a stroke and that has slowed things down, so not much progress has been made since I last saw the car three years ago.”

David Soul (seated) at the Hemingway Museum in Cuba. (Chris Paquin photo)

The Chrysler is still pretty rough; it needs, at the very least, rechroming, rocker panels, a top, a correct interior and paint. Mechanically, it undoubtedly requires numerous parts to restore originality and an engine rebuild.

The film is in production, and is said to be darkly comic. “Facing the formidable Cuban bureaucracy on the one hand and, on the other, the hard liners enforcing the ongoing, draconian U.S. embargo of Cuba, David is determined to fulfill his promise [to restore the Chrysler] and prepared also to challenge the status quo in order to shine a light on the farcical nature of the relationship between these closest of neighbors and yet politically, still the most intractable of enemies.”

I predict this car will be returned to its former glory eventually. (Cuban Soul photo)

As you may have learned from Car Talk’s own reporting on Cuba here and here, there are many American cars on the road, but under the hood they’re anything but stock—Russian diesels have often replaced the V-8s. Any other part that can made to fit has gone on them.

The conditions under which the Chrysler is being restored probably look primitive to western eyes, but some of the country’s best mechanics operate in the open air. Here’s Ray Magliozzi visiting a Cuban repair shop:

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