Raggare against the Machine
Cadillacs, tight jeans and Brylcreemed hair - it ain’t the USA but rural Sweden, where a band of Americana-obsessed farmers are part of a thriving classic car scene. Words by Conor Creighton. Photography by Steve Ryan.
It’s hard to keep a lime-green Chevy shiny if it’s parked on a farm. In summer, the husks and cobs attack the windscreen like bees to ice-lollies. But when Martin Westerlund built his home on a farm in Arboga, in the Swedish countryside a few hours from Stockholm, he built the garage first. Today, his Chevy is the cleanest muscle car in town at the weekly meetings of his Raggare gang Burning Wheels. It’s also, as Martin likes to repeat over and over, the fastest, strongest and best.
“It could take any car here,” he says, stepping out from the avocado-coloured beast in leathers, flares and a busted pair of plastic Crocs. It’s certainly a lot grander than a Volvo, the Swedes’ reliable, everyman car of choice.
Martin, 35, is a member of the Raggare, a rockabilly, 1950s-themed subculture obsessed with V8-powered cars and Creedence Clearwater Revival records. The Raggare are what happens when one country develops an emotional attachment to another amid opposing changes in economic fortunes. When the oil crisis hit the US in the 1970s, transforming the nation’s fortunes overnight, rural Swedes bought up chunks of their culture – mainly big cars like Buicks and Dodges – and started living out their own rock ’n’ roll fantasies.
It began with Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis and James Dean and extended to muscle cars and fashion. They called themselves Raggare (roughly translated as “Pick-Up Artist”, in the womaniser sense), and defined themselves by their tough guy image, cars, jeans, leather jackets, pompadour hairdos, drinking ability and pretty girls.
The phenomenon took root and today claims half a million Swedish members, as well as numerous Finnish and Norwegian clubs.
And it really is an obsession. Today’s Raggare drive their American mean machines around town at least once per week, and comprise older members who have been doing it since the late 1960s as well as a younger generation located in and around Stockholm.
In the capital itself, Raggare take over the main Sveavägen Avenue on the last Friday of every month. Chapters regularly meet to watch movies like The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause, spend cash on the look and their days fixing old wrecks. In summer, they’re omnipresent as skinny-dippers, but in winter the V8s go into hibernation and those reliable Volvos come out again.
Burning Wheels is just one small chapter of Sweden’s Raggare and has 15 members – more of them older than younger. They meet every Sunday at de facto leader Georg Gado’s garage to rev their engines, play rock ’n’ roll records and talk about the 1950s, while their kids run around dripping ice cream down their chins.
But it wasn’t always like this, according to Georg, 57. In the early days wheels meant freedom, parties, drinking, races and fights. “We used to meet up for rumbles between different gangs. No weapons or martial arts really, and if you fell on the ground it was all over and everyone would go for a drink.”
Sounds quite civilised. But some fights did develop into lasting feuds, with cars vandalised and gang members attacked. The Burning Wheels’ rivals were the Sleepy Town Cruisers, or the “Sleepy Town Losers” as the gang called them, and they had some run-ins. Earlier in the day, when we met our Burning Wheels contact Patrik Mehlqvist, 31, we’d been directed to our meeting point by a member of Sleepy Town. When Patrik arrived they exchanged a couple of less-than-friendly glances, eyeing up each other’s Dodge Coronets in a sort of Mexican standoff on wheels. Still, as the Raggare grew up, had kids and the new generation got involved, the fight part of the scene faded and the car scene grew.
An average 5,000 cars are imported into Sweden from North America every year and the country now has more restored classic cars within its borders than anywhere else. “We’re even getting some Americans buying back the cars,” says Georg. “They come to Sweden looking for classic Buicks and Cadillacs because they are in better condition here.” They also come to find spare parts. Rare wing tips and original fittings are more likely to be found at the back of a Swedish barn than in a US garage.
On the whole it’s a male-dominated world, but women do play a part, too. Maud Pettersson, 53, has been involved with classic cars since her grandparents first took her out in their Caddy as a little girl. However, today she drives, yes, a good old Volvo. Top-notch muscle cars don’t come cheap and aren’t too reliable, despite Martin’s claims to the contrary. But if you really want to get your hands on one, you can buy beat-up ones for only €2,000–€3,000, shipping included.
Later that day when Martin’s smart Chevy refuses to fire up, it’s Maud’s Volvo that jumpstarts it to life! Running repairs and impromptu mechanical surgery go hand in hand with being a Raggare, which is why Leffe Lindh, 35, a long-standing member of the Burning Wheels, has spent his Sunday in overalls tinkering under the hood of a Chrysler Newport. You get the feeling that the Raggare meet at Georg’s garage not just because of its central location, but also because of the number of car-saving tools he has to hand.
Georg picked up his first muscle car, a 1965 Pontiac, in Los Angeles in 1980 for just a few thousand euros. By the time he’d finished with it – sourced original parts, re-sprayed and kitted out the whole body – it was worth closer to €40,000 and had an engine that purred like a tiger. “Right now, putting your money into a classic car is safer than putting it into property,” he says.
He’s not wrong, and the Raggare meetings across Sweden – where members parade their tail wings like tail feathers, talk shop and trade cars – attract Raggare from across Scandinavia and even Russia, the latest nation to join the bandwagon. They line up their vehicles, have picnics on the bonnets and listen to Creedence albums till their car batteries run flat.
The biggest event is the Power Big Meet in Vasteras every July, the largest gathering of American classic cars in the world, attracting over 10,000 vehicles and thousands more visitors. Then, as autumn comes, the Raggare’s sleeveless shirts disappear and the jump leads come out. The Buicks are tucked under blankets, Martin’s Chevy hits the garage and the Crocs are swapped for sensible snow boots. As the temperature drops, the Burning Wheels crew still drive over to Georg’s to celebrate the 1950s with Chuck Berry on the radio, but it’s the good old Volvo that gets them there.