Raggare Love Hot Rods and Rock 'n' Roll
Feb 22 2013
Gamen, Pilen, and Henry from the Road Devils gang sitting on Gamen's 1951 Hudson. Photo courtesy of Sten Berglind.
Raggare are modern-day greasers who are as important to Sweden’s national identity as meatballs, ABBA and blue-eyed blonds. This is despite the fact that the raggare subculture is all about the appropriation of American cars, rock ’n’ roll and tough-guy leather jackets. And it’s become so commonplace in Sweden that nobody looks twice when greasy-haired small-towners cruise by blasting oldies while waving the Confederate flag from their classic hot rods (or shitty Volvos if they can’t afford the real thing) on their way to the biggest American car show in the world: the annual Power Big Meet in Västerås.
Raggare first came on the scene in the 1950s, as Swedish teenagers took inspiration from the American films and music flooding postwar Europe thanks to the Marshall Plan. Sweden had remained neutral in the war, so its industrial infrastructure was left unscathed and its export economy boomed. Suddenly, even working-class youths could afford cars, copies of Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock and tickets to Rebel Without a Cause. The US became synonymous with hope, dreams and modernity.
Still, this was the 50s, and Sweden was very conservative. The raggare – who were swimming naked, having sex, fighting and drinkin – quickly became a favourite scandalous subject of the tabloids. Naturally, the subculture spread as rebellious youth across Sweden and the rest of the Nordic nations began to fetishise the rough-and-tumble American youth immortalised in the movies of the time. For greasers in the US, having an American car obviously wasn’t that big of a deal. If you managed to get your hands on one in Sweden, however, you were the owner of one of the coolest clubs in town: a living room on wheels equipped with a stereo, a make-out couch, a moonshine-filled trunk and a dance floor wherever you parked.
Curious to find out more about the origins of these Americana-celebrating Swedes, I tracked down one of the last living members of one of the four original Stockholm raggare gangs: Sven-Erik “Svempa” Bergendahl. Svempa still spends his days pimping out his rides, only the American cars have been replaced with massive, gaudy Scania show trucks, for which he’s won more than 200 prizes at exhibitions all over the world.
Svempa, now 74 years old, in his garage in Stockholm.
VICE: How did the Swedish raggare movement begin?
Svempa Bergendahl: Gamen [an infamous early-day raggare] started the gang Road Devils in the northern part of Stockholm. To counter that, some buddies and I from the motorcycle club KFUM got into hot rods and renamed our gang Road Stars. I must have been 17 or 18 at the time. I had a Ford Thunderbird that I got for $900. Today, they cost more than $60,000. Can you believe it? Gamen and those guys hung out in the city center at a place called Cupido, while our hangout was in Bollmora, in the south. Then there were two other gangs in southern Stockholm: Car Angels in Farstanäset and Teddy Boys in Södermalm. Later, copycats started appearing in small towns, but they didn’t have real cars. They drove Volvos or Opels. We called them blöjraggare [diaper raggare].
Where did the name raggare come from?
In Swedish, ragga means “to pick up girls,” and all we did was cruise around and pick up girls. These days, people date online, but back then you had to go to clubs or do what we did: pick up girls in need of a ride. It really worked. They all wanted to drive around in nice cars. I was never that much into the ladies, but they still seemed to like me. For me, it was all about the beautiful American cars and my love for hot rods. I worked as a mechanic at a garage, and because I couldn’t afford a spanking-new Yankee [slang for “American car”], I bought old ones, fixed them up as best as I could with new hubcaps and paint, and then traded them for better cars. I must have gone through 25 old Yankees.
What was raggare life like back in the day?
In Bollmora, there was a lady called Raggarmorsan [the raggare mom] who ran a café and let us hang out. When she was evicted from Bollmora and had to move the café to a fancier suburb in the north, we all followed, but the neighbors did not want us “raggare scum” around so there was a lot of commotion. At Raggarmorsan’s, you could buy a coffee and cinnamon bun or a Coca-Cola for about a dime, then we’d drive to various cafés around Stockholm. None of them allowed alcohol, and if they saw that your Coke was spiked—which gave it a slightly lighter color—they’d kick you out.
Some of the lads brewed their own moonshine. I didn’t drink, though. We’d drive around all night, make out with girls, and listen to 7-inches from the car stereo or the Radio Luxembourg station, which was the only channel that didn’t play boring religious music. I usually wouldn’t get home till 4 AM. I tried to stay out of the house as much as possible because my dad was an alcoholic, and my mom was very poor and had to work several shifts as a cleaner to make ends meet. Sometimes I’d get home and only a small piece of sausage would be in the fridge. I was skinny, but some of the other guys were very handsome and popular with the girls. We’d take time fixing up our cars and spend hours in front of the mirror before driving out.
Svempa, behind the wheel, with his Road Stars gang in his 1953 Pontiac Cabriolet. Photo courtesy of Sven Aberg/Scanpix.
What sort of innovations to fashion did raggare bring to Sweden?
Looking good was very important, of course. I was one of the first in Stockholm to wear jeans. I had a pair of Wrangler Blue Bells that I’d bought in Hammarbyhamnen [the harbor in southern Stockholm] from a ship worker who had just returned from the States. My gosh, how jealous everyone was! They were in awe. This was before Lee and all those brands came to Sweden. I was so fucking proud, and the girls were ecstatic! I also wore one of those varsity jackets that you could turn inside out. We’d wear leather boots with buckles on the side and vests with the club name painted on the back. Only a few of us could afford leather jackets. That’s why we’d wear vests or jean jackets, but jeans didn’t appear until later. Then we’d put foxtails, called raggarsvansar [raggare tails], on our car antennae, and comb our hair back with Brylcreem so it’d stay in place no matter how fast we drove. Having thick black hair combed into a ducktail was considered really cool.
What were the ladies wearing back then?
My wife, Monica, wore the highest stilettos in town and was one of the few who could actually walk in them. She worked at a shoe shop so she always wore fresh stuff. Girls didn’t wear that much makeup back then, not like the young girls you see now with eyebrows painted almost up to their hairline. Raggare girls wore eyeliner and mixed zinc paste with colored powder to get that pretty pink shade on their lips. They looked like movie stars with big hair and elegant skirts. Sometimes they wore their hair up in ponytails with cute hair clips on the sides. And hula hoops were really cool back then. There were other subcultures around at the time, jitterbug dancers who we called swingpjattare and mods who played complicated jazz in basements and wore tight pants and pointy shoes. We were all in competition for the girls.
Was moving to the US a dream for you guys?
Yes. Some of the original raggare eventually moved to the States and did really well, but others were forced to move back. I personally never wanted to move there. I went to the States for the first time in 1989 with Scania and drove almost 4,000 miles in a truck, so I saw a lot of the country. The food was bad, people lived rough, and many of them were as big as houses. I was relieved to go home. However, people tell me that California is really nice. At the time, America had a massive influence on us because it was where Elvis Presley and rock ’n’ roll first appeared; to us, rock music came as liberation.
Raggare hanging out in a Stockholm cafe in the late 50s, early 60s. The cafes didn't serve alcohol and were simply furnished with a few tables, chairs, and a jukebox. Photo courtesy of Sten Perglind.
How did the Confederate flag become appropriated into the raggare culture?
We never used that flag, it came later, but I know that the only connotations applied to it [by the raggare] are the rock ’n’ roll and rebellion that emerged in the southern US.
What was the media’s reaction to raggare?
We were feared in those days. It was a very different time. Sure, there were the occasional fights and petty crimes, like stealing gas or driving without a license, but compared to what kids get up to today, what we did then was nothing. But in the eyes of the media and police, who were stricter then, we were up to no good. It only took hanging out on Kungsgatan [in central Stockholm] for what the cops considered to be a bit too long for them to smash a baton into the roof of our car. I was often interviewed in the papers, and some parents even scared their kids by saying, “You better be nice or Raggar-Svempa will come and take you away!” What caused the biggest scandal was that a few of the girls got pregnant. Condoms were more or less forbidden in Sweden in the 50s, and this was before the pill, so the girls were reluctant to go all the way. But it’s easy to be peer pressured when you’re young and in love. I met my wife, Monica, at that time. She was 16, and it took months before she let me in her pants.
What do you think about the kids today who’ve embraced a raggare-ish look?
In my opinion, the raggare culture ended when the original gangs and our hangouts disappeared in the 70s and we moved on to family life. Sure, there are still people who call themselves raggare and busy themselves with fixing up American cars, but that just makes them car enthusiasts. What makes you a raggare is cruising around to pick up girls, but that’s no longer possible because, nowadays, you can’t hitchhike without risking getting raped or killed. There’s so much violence these days. When we started out, girls stood along the streets looking to get rides, and we’d drive around to parties and listen to Elvis Presley. That sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore.
Do you still hang out with your raggare buds all these years later?
I’m 74 and have worked my whole life and never been sick. Sadly, my friends from the early raggare days have all passed away. My teacher used to say, “Nothing will come of Svempa,” because my grades were too low to land a job at the national phone company or wherever people used to work in those days that I can’t imagine anyone enjoying. Things have turned out amazingly for me, but I’ve had to work extremely hard to get where I am today, and I couldn’t have done it without my wife’s help. She’s good at the business side of things.
Sounds like you’ve been living the American dream, but in Sweden.
[laughs] There’s a whole culture around Svempa. I’ve met people who’ve tattooed my name on their arm. When I went to China with my show trucks, half the country knew who I was! I have my own fan club, and MTV came to my show-truck garage a few years ago with all sorts of celebrities.
Special thanks to Sten Berglind, author of Raggare.
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