Champion of the revolution

Phil Manzanera is best known as guitarist with pioneering 1970s rock band Roxy Music. As a boy, though, he was a privileged witness to the 1958 Cuban Grand Prix, when Juan Manuel Fangio found himself a hostage to rebel kidnappers. But instead of condemning his polite captors, the great man befriended them
Writer: Richard Williams

While the racing engines revved, the small boy sat with his mother on a grass bank in the gardens of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, taking in the noise and colours: red cars, blue cars, white cars, lined up in threes on the Malecon, Havana’s seafront boulevard. The city’s finest hotel had been built in 1930 on the site of the Santa Clara Battery, two of whose artillery pieces remained as ornaments, pointing out into the Gulf of Mexico.

Its guest book recorded the passage of countless figures from the world stage: Errol Flynn, Ernest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich, Winston Churchill, Rocky Marciano, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor among them. In 1946 it had hosted an infamous Mafia summit convened by Meyer Lansky and the exiled Lucky Luciano, with delegates including Vito Genovese, Santo Trafficante Jr and Albert Anastasia, the founder of Murder Inc. Sinatra provided the evening entertainment as the mob bosses spent a week discussing how to divide up the heroin trade and develop their casino interests in Havana and Las Vegas.

Lansky now owned a piece of the Nacional, a gift from President Fulgencio Batista. He and his North American partners had enhanced the hotel’s appeal to foreign visitors by adding the Casino Parisien nightclub, opened by the singer Eartha Kitt in 1956, its gambling facilities staffed by personnel brought in from Nevada. Within a couple of years the casino’s takings were said to rival those of any Las Vegas establishment. A Grand Prix, with its aura of glamour and danger, was just the thing to lure more high rollers from the Bahamas, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Mexico.

And so here by the side of the sun-splashed boulevard, on Sunday, February 23, 1958, sat the young Philip Geoffrey Targett-Adams, better known today as Phil Manzanera, the guitarist with Roxy Music, one of the most influential rock groups of the 1970s. He was accompanied by his mother, who had appeared with her husband in a photograph in the previous day’s edition of the Diario de la Marina, socialising at a pre race function with Stirling Moss and his new wife, the former Katie Molson, heiress to a Canadian brewery fortune, and members of the staff of Her Majesty’s embassy.

“Obviously everyone was terribly excited because of Stirling Moss,” Manzanera says now, looking at the newspaper cutting in his West London recording studio and imagining himself back in 1958, “but my parents also knew all about Fangio – they’d lived in Argentina, where my brother was born. He and my sister weren’t there, because they were at boarding school in England. So I got plonked with my mother on the grassy knoll of the Hotel Nacional, and we watched the race – and it stayed with me. When I eventually got to England, I wanted the Scalextric set with all those cars. It was that wonderful and incredibly dangerous period – the drivers with flimsy little helmets and white overalls and the beautifully shaped cars, red and white and blue and black, and that amazing noise, so loud and exciting.”

His father, Duncan Targett-Adams, had arrived with his family in Havana a few months earlier. Born in Hastings in 1912, the son of an English mother and a father who was on tour with a Neapolitan opera company, he had joined the British Council in his mid-twenties. His first posting was to the port of Barranquilla in Colombia, where his duties included teaching English to the locals; there he met and married the 19 year-old Magdalena Manzanera, one of his students. They had moved on to a posting in Argentina by the time the first of their two sons was born in 1943; before the end of the Second World War they would spend time in Uruguay.

Magdalena was pregnant again when they returned to England in 1946. Their daughter, Rosemary, was born the following year in Gravesend, by which time Duncan had left the British Council and joined the staff of British South American Airways, with the job of opening up new routes. An Act of Parliament consolidated the airline and others into the British Overseas Airways Corporation, and in 1956 Duncan was transferred to Cuba, to establish a Havana office.

Phil, born in London in 1951, remembers being taken to Heathrow – lodged in the small boy’s memory as “not much more than a series of Nissen huts” – to board BOAC Stratocruiser G-ALSD, a scale model of which is on display in his studio. “We were staff, remember,” he says, “so we were at the front, on the upper deck, in first class, where there were things like couchettes for you to sleep in. And downstairs you’d got a cocktail bar. It was like being on an ocean liner.”

Their first Cuban home was in an apartment three streets away from the Nacional, in the smart residential district of Vedado. Opposite their house stood the handsome British embassy. With his brother and sister back home at boarding schools, Phil was first sent to Havana’s school for American children, which meant the excitement of being picked up every morning by an authentic orange American school bus. A move to Miramar, a beachside residential district a little further along the Malecon, meant a transfer to a Cuban school, where only Spanish was spoken; soaking things up as children do, he became bilingual within three months. And his family had installed themselves in their new home – this time opposite the villa of Batista’s Chief of Staff – by the time race weekend came around.

The first Cuban Grand Prix had been held a year earlier over the same anti-clockwise 3.5-mile circuit. Starting on the northern carriageway of the Malecon, opposite the tall memorial to the 266 sailors killed when the USS Maine was blown up while at anchor in 1898 (the incident that kicked off the Spanish-American War), the track passed the Nacional and circled the Parque Antonio Maceo before running back up the Malecon’s southern carriageway, looping around the Parque Jose Marti along the Avenida de los Presidentes and returning down the Avenida Calzada to the start/finish line.

Slotted neatly into the calendar between the Formula 1 race in Buenos Aires and the Sebring 12 Hours, that 1957 race was only slightly hampered when many of the cars sent by the European factories failed to arrive on time, forcing the top drivers to borrow from local owners. It was won by Juan Manuel Fangio in a Maserati 300S entered by a Brazilian team, the Scuderia Madunina, ahead of a field including the Ferraris of Fon de Portago, Eugenio Castellotti, Phil Hill, Olivier Gendebien and Carroll Shelby, plus the Maseratis of Moss, who initially led the race until his engine seized, and Harry Schell, whose car was taken over by the Englishman, only for a valve to break.

A year later Fangio was back, at the wheel of a Maserati 450S owned and entered by Temple Buell, the Denver oil millionaire; the world champion posed for photographs with Batista before going out to set the fastest time in the practice sessions. This put him in pole position at the head of a 26-car grid including Moss on a rare outing in a Ferrari – the North American Racing Team’s 4.1-litre 335S – plus the Maseratis of Shelby, Schell, Jean Behra, Cesare Perdisa, Jo Bonnier and Giorgio Scarlatti and the Ferraris of Masten Gregory, Wolfgang von Trips, Ed Crawford, Paul O’Shea and Porfirio Rubirosa, rounded out by assorted Porsches, a Mercedes 300SL gullwing coupé and Luigi Piotti’s little 1600cc OSCA. Practice was marred, however, by local driver Diego Veguillas’s fatal accident.

For months revolutionary fervour was building to a climax in Cuba, and the guerrillas led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were making serious headway in the fight to overthrow Batista. On the eve of the race, as Fangio chatted in the lobby of the Hotel Lincoln, a few blocks from the circuit, with Nello Ugolini, Maserati’s team manager, Guerrino Bertocchi, their head mechanic, and the Argentinian wheeler-dealer Alejandro de Tomaso, he was approached by a bearded young man with a gun in his hand. Announcing himself as a member of the 26th of July Movement – one of Castro’s revolutionaries, in other words – the intruder ordered Fangio to leave the hotel with him. A second gunman instructed other guests and staff in the lobby not to attempt to follow them and to do nothing for five minutes after their departure. Two companions were waiting outside in a stolen Plymouth and the group drove off with Fangio to the first of a series of safe houses in which he was held while the news flashed around the world, making newspaper headlines and leading TV and radio bulletins.

While Castro was fighting in the Sierra Maestra, the kidnap plot had been hatched by the 26th of July Movement’s leader, Faustino Perez. Some of the hotel’s staff, sympathetic to the guerrillas, tipped them off about the timing of their target’s arrival in the lobby. All efforts by Batista’s police to track down the perpetrators were unavailing. And not only was Fangio unharmed by the ordeal, he made friends with his captors. One of them, Arnold Rodriguez Camps, later became a trade minister in Castro’s government and exchanged letters with his ‘victim’ for many years afterwards, eventually paying several visits to Fangio in Balcarce, the Argentine’s home town.

“Our purpose was not to exchange him for money,” Rodriguez told the Swedish journalist Fredrik af Petersens many years later. “We just wanted to prevent him from driving and to get maximum publicity for the revolution out of it – nothing else – and we certainly got it. We also wanted to ridicule Batista, and we did that in a big way. We needed to show the world we meant business but that we were not murdering thugs, as Batista said we were. I am very proud of what we did and of the fact that Fangio was not harmed. If that had happened, it would have been a catastrophe for the revolution.”

They held Fangio until the Monday after the race, finally releasing him into the care of the Argentinian ambassador in order to avoid contact with the local authorities. Fangio made no subsequent effort to help the police identify his abductors. “Although he could not have been very pleased,” Rodriguez said, “he was a real gentleman.” But their activities on behalf of the revolution ensured that he and Perez would eventually be captured, imprisoned and tortured by Batista’s police.

The Second Cuban Grand Prix, then, had to take place without the five-time world champion, its principal attraction. Manzanera and his mother were among a crowd estimated at 150,000 when the race started on the Sunday afternoon, with Maurice Trintignant in the cockpit of Buell’s 450S.

In the early laps the lead was swapped between Moss and Gregory in their Ferraris, but Roberto Mieres’ Porsche had been dropping oil and on the sixth lap a local driver, Armando Garcia Cifuentes, lost control of his Ferrari 500TR at a kink on the Malecon, close to the US embassy, ploughing into the crowd before coming to rest against a construction crane. Seven spectators died, 40 were injured and Garcia Cifuentes was driven to hospital by his team-mate Abelardo Carreras on the bonnet of another 500TR.

Gregory had been in the lead when he and Moss, in close pursuit, passed the scene of the crash, where a red flag was being shown. But the wily Moss knew the rules stipulated that only the Clerk of the Course could show the red flag, and concluded that since the official in question was unlikely to have been where the accident took place, it was legitimate to carry on racing until they reached the finish. Gregory, thinking the initial red flag meant the race was already over, reduced his pace and Moss followed suit until, just 50 yards from the line, he dropped into second gear, floored the throttle and nipped ahead in time to be declared the winner. The race had lasted 13 minutes. Afterwards Gregory was placated, and a possible stewards’ inquiry avoided, by Moss’s offer of 50 per cent of the winnings.

Fangio had listened to the race on the radio with his captors in his secret location. That evening they watched the television news bulletins showing footage of the terrible crash. When he was released, he asked the Argentinian ambassador to let the news agencies know about it immediately: “The lads (his kidnappers) had planted in my mind the idea that if Batista’s people found me, they might kill me and accuse the movement of it.” A day or two later he left Havana and travelled to New York for an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. “I had won the world championship five times and I had raced and won at Sebring,” he reflected, “but what made me popular in the United States was the kidnap in Cuba.”

Two days after the race Garcia Cifuentes was charged with manslaughter. History does not record whether he stood trial, but after the revolution he left Cuba for a new life in Madrid. Two of the kidnappers, disillusioned with life under Castro, eventually followed him into exile, settling in Miami; the other two stayed and prospered.

The young Manzanera returned to his new school the next day, sharing the excitement with his classmates. But the all-too-brief thrill of the race was nothing compared to the events that would unfold over the next 10 months, as Castro and his followers swept towards their date with destiny. On December 31, 1958, Batista stunned the crowd at a New Year party by announcing his decision to leave the country; he fled with 40 friends and family members and a personal multi-million dollar fortune on a flight from a nearby military airfield, Camp Columbia, close to the Targett-Adams’s house. Just over a week later a triumphant Castro entered central Havana.

The night after Batista’s departure, an attack on the Chief of Staff’s villa in Miramar brought Manzanera into closer contact with the Revolution. “There was a gun battle,” Manzanera says. “We watched from the landing window as the government guards were attacked by the Fidelistas. Two trucks appeared, whizzing down the street. There were machine guns, people screaming, my mother pressing my face down to the floor of the bathroom, bullets flying around everywhere, chaos, scary as hell.

I don’t know whether they shot the guys or not.

“Then there was a lot of looting in Havana. People were just turning up and filling their car boots with stuff, so Castro decided to put guards on key places, including the Chief of Staff’s house. There was a guard, a barbudo, sitting out there every day, bored as hell, so my mum said, ‘Why don’t you take him a cup of coffee?’ He invited me in. The place was piled high with rubbish – and being a small boy, what I took were the epaulettes from the Chief of Staff’s white tuxedo-type jacket, a photo album that ended up in Venezuela and got thrown away, including lots of pictures of Batista with RAF planes, and some .303 shells, which for a small boy were fascinating. The guard would empty out the shells and light the gunpowder for me: Whoof! I’ve got a photograph of him, with me wearing a Zorro outfit.”

The family soon moved with other foreigners into a specially designated apartment block; a few months later they left for New York before transferring to a new posting in Hawaii. Today Manzanera, who took his mother’s name when he began playing in bands while a boarder at Dulwich College, looks at his father’s career and wonders about the moves that took the family to hot spots at significant moments in history – the Peronist revolution in Argentina, the scuttling of the German heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee during the Battle of the River Plate off Montevideo, the overthrow of Batista – and wonders if there was something going on beneath the surface of his apparently mundane jobs with BOAC and the British Council.

The new Castro-controlled Cuba hosted one final Grand Prix, in February 1960 – not along the Malecon but on a circuit around the perimeter roads of Camp Columbia, the military airfield from which Batista had made his hasty getaway. Moss was back, this time for his first race in Lucky Casner’s ‘Birdcage’ Maserati Tipo 61, winning the 160-mile event in front of the NART-entered Ferrari of Pedro Rodriguez and Gregory’s Porsche.

Duncan Targett-Adams died in 1965, followed almost 20 years later by his wife. Their son has been back to Havana several times in recent years, playing concerts with Cuban musicians while also taking the opportunity to visit the landmarks of his childhood: the apartment in Vedado, the house in Miramar and the grass bank where he sat with his mother on a hot day in 1958 and marvelled at the sight and sound of one of the strangest contests in the history of motor racing, a moment when the sport found itself caught up in an event that helped shape the modern world. The small boy’s impressions remain vivid in the mind of a man now in his sixties. “Cuba was dangerous and sexy then,” Manzanera says. “Sex, drugs and mambo. And those drivers truly were heroes, weren’t they? It really was life and death.”