Meet the Swedes Who Love Classic Cars and Elvis

The Power Big Meet is the biggest American car show in the world—and it takes place in Västerås, a small town in central Sweden. This year, 17,000 car owners from all over the world gathered at the three-day event in early July to do what car...

Jul 23 2012, 7:55pm

The Power Big Meet is the biggest American car show in the world—and it takes place in Västerås, a small town in central Sweden. This year, 17,000 car owners from all over the world gathered at the three-day event in early July to do what car enthusiasts love to do—stand around, look at each others’ cars, rev their engines, and shoot the shit.

The event comes out of Sweden’s “raggar” subculture, which emerged in 1950s and was inspired by American greasers. Raggare are mostly from small towns and are known for their love of rockabilly music, leather vests, pomade, and, of course, cars—the raggare’s mode of transport, sleeping place, chick magnet, and party venue.

Thanks to the raggar culture, Sweden is a hub for restored 1950s American cars. By some accounts there are now more of them in Sweden than in the entire US. At Power Big Meet you’ll find Street Rods, Customs, 50s cruisers, 60s muscle cars, Corvettes, Mustangs, Camaros—you name it. I went there to photograph the raggare and see what they had to say for themselves.

Nathalie Rothschild is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @n_rothschild and on her

The American flag and 50s pop culture symbols are everywhere at the Power Big Meet. Rockabilly music blares out from car speakers. Hamburgers and hotdogs are dished out at makeshift stands. It’s about the only place in the world where fuzzy dice are still cool.

I’m not sure that parrots are part of the raggar culture, but this guy had one anyway.

Bertil Johansson, 67, makes 50s-inspired birdhouses. The car-shaped ones were snapped up on the first day of Power Big Meet, but on the third and final day, Bertil still had these Elvis-themed ones left. They’re 800 Swedish kronor (or $115), if you’re curious. “I’ve been interested in cars since I was born,” said Bertil. “But today all the cars look the same. They’re all plastic and awful. And you have to take your car to the shop for every little thing. You can’t even change the sparkplug on your own these days.”

Sebastian Stridh, 24, comes from Årjäng in Värmland County, Sweden. Årjäng has a population of nearly 10,000 people. His dad is a raggare too, but he was too old to make the trip. For Sebastian and his friends the car is a symbol of freedom. “The car is central. It’s very important when you’re young and living in such a small place as Årjäng. It gives you a feeling that you can get out. Me and my friends ride around and drink in our cars.”

Niklas Berggren, 28, shown here leaning against his brother’s Chevy, which was bought in Flordia, thinks the 1950s was a much nicer era than the present. “I would rather have lived back then,” he said. “Everything seemed so easy. You just took life as it came. Finding work was not a problem. You just had to go up to someone and ask for a job and they’d give you one. Neither of my parents had any trouble finding jobs even as teenagers.”

A young couple watches the awards ceremony, which has prizes for car owners competing in 12 categories, including Hot Rod, Custom, Street Machine, Pickup & Jeep, and Best in Show.

Berra Andersson from Upplands Väsby in Stockholm won first prize in the 1964 - 1973 Hard Top category for his immaculate red Buick Wildcat 1968, which he’s posing with here. “I grew up with cars. My dad was also into this stuff and, well, it’s a kind of hereditary disease,” Berra said.

But what’s so special about American vintage cars in particular? “Well, first of all the car is one of the greatest inventions in the world. But I also like everything around it: the music, the clothes and all that. There’s a great community spirit here.”

Erik and Anita, 58, come from Borås, a town on the west coast of Sweden. They own a 1966 Dodge Charger. Erik is holding his new trophy for third prize in the 1964 - 1973 Hard Top category. For Erik, the Meet is a chance to reminisce about the past. “We used to ride around Borås and the cops would chase us,” he said. “I was stopped 23 times in two years when I was in my 20s. We felt a bit like rebels.”

Anita, who insisted on changing from sneakers to pumps before being photographed, said she has become a “raggar chick” in recent years because of her husband’s car hobby. “We love to come to events like this and meet people. I love the music from the 1950s and the clothes... It will never go away. Just look at all the youngsters and children who are here. They are born into this culture and they’ll keep it alive.”

The Meet is a chance for owners of vintage American cars to buy and exchange spare parts and accessories that can otherwise be hard to come by. Like hubcaps, just for instance.

Apart from swapping and admiring cars, Power Big Meet is a chance to party hard. Rockabilly music and Swedish dancehall favourites blare out from competing loudspeakers. Beer cans are strewn across the field. Dudes put on dresses. Why not?

Anna-Lena Borgkvist, 41, is a raggar chick. “I spend weekends in my man’s pink Chevy Nova,” she says. “He chooses the car.”

Bart Mazur and Jeanetta Izdebzka, a Polish couple, were among the many foreign visitors at the Meet. Last year, there were visitors from over 40 countries, including the US, Russia, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Japan, Israel, Turkey, and Morocco.

Bart knows his Confederate flag t-shirt it is associated with slavery and racism, but insisted he wears it because “it represents rebellion and being against all social norms.” The Confederate flag (along with the star-spangled banner, the Swedish flag, and Viking symbols) is a popular piece of raggar paraphernalia. It has led to accusations of racism in the past, but raggare insist that it was adopted as a symbol of the American South, which raggare have traditionally looked up to as a place with a rebellious spirit and as the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll.

Polished to perfection, this was one of the more colorful cars at the Meet.

Magnus Andsveden, Petra Lövqvist, and their daughter Gloria come from Katrineholm on the southeast coast of Sweden. Katrineholm used to have a “raggar street” in the 1950s where raggare would go on cruises to show off their cars and pick up girls.

Magnus and Petra, are attracted to the 1950s and the raggar subculture mainly because of the styles, the music, the design, and the bold colors. “I love the sharp, daring colors,” said Magnus. “Who today would make a pink or a turquoise car?”

Magnus and Petra believe that things were definitely better in the past. “Nowadays young people are sitting indoors in front of their TV screens and their computers”, said Magnus. “Back then they used to meet up a lot more and socialize outside with friends.”

Many young couples flock to the Power Big Meet.

Who needs a house to get drunk and pass out in when you have a car?

A jolly gang of friends from Falun and Borlänge, two towns in central Sweden. After the Power Big Meet, they'll  possibly join the evening cruise through Västerås. Cruises are raggares’ chance to show off their cars, play loud music, flirt, and cause a ruckus. “The police are usually OK,” the Power Big Meet website advises, “but sometimes the alcohol checkpoints are quite frequent.”

Vice Channels