Text by Hans Seeberg
There’s something slightly surreal about being lectured on the merits of Chuck Berry’s back catalogue by a 17-year-old Swedish girl. “Remember, you have to go for his late ’50s period like Johnny B Goode – that’s the best stuff,” says Denise Bogren from Falköping, sitting with her friends in the back of the gold 1963 Cadillac DeVille her dad’s just bought her (even though you can’t learn to drive in Sweden until you’re 18).
Dressed in a white vest top, plimsolls and one of those knee-length skirts that twirl up when you dance, Denise looks like she’s auditioning for a remake of Grease. The same goes for her friends. They’re four teenage girls out on a Saturday night, dressed like the ’50s never ended, raving to music that was recorded roughly 40 years before they were born. “Don’t you all prefer Rihanna and Lady Gaga?” I ask.
“We listen to things like that sometimes,” shrugs 18-year-old Johanna Hellström, her flame-red hair curled back into a wave. “But it’s not as good as the old stuff.”
The girls are part of the new generation of raggare, followers of a Swedish subculture that celebrates the cars, music and fashion of Rock Around the Clock-era America. The place they’re from, Falköping, is a small town roughly halfway between Gothenburg and Stockholm, and it’s home to local raggare club the Nasco Yankees, formed in 1976.
A few hours before encountering Denise and friends, I spend the afternoon at a Nasco Yankees “meet” in a central Falköping park with Fredrik Svensson, an affable Swede with a leather waistcoat and sideburns so extensive that they take up most of his face. “Most Swedish people used to hate raggare culture because there was a lot of drinking and fighting,” says the 39-year-old.
“That’s true!” laughs 62-year-old Peder Jonsson, who I meet later, and who’s been on the scene for half a century. “We would go to other nearby towns like Skara and Mariestad to fight. It was pretty violent. We don’t do that anymore – we’re too old! I bumped into a guy the other week who I used to fight back in the day and we had a laugh about it. It was like, ‘Sorry for trying to knock you out!’ It’s all so much friendlier now.”
So it seems. Among 100 or so vintage cars gathered this afternoon, clusters of old people chill out on deck chairs; couples are pushing buggies that bulge with sleeping babies; a group of children are playing hide and seek around a 1969 Chevrolet Impala that Fredrik tells me is worth at least €60,000 (NOK475,000). It looks like a very polite Hell’s Angels gathering.
I find myself chatting to Nasco Yankee Jennie Säll, who’s here with her husband Stefan, their two kids and their highly unusual automobile. I have to ask, “What do people think about you and your children driving around in an old hearse?” Jennie laughs. “Some people think it’s cool, others think it’s horrible – but the kids » love it,” she says, beaming with pride at a car that formerly transported dead bodies to funerals. Stefan, she explains, bought the 1968 Plymouth Satellite 10 years ago to celebrate the birth of their daughter. Since then he has lovingly added a purple roof and matching curtains to compliment the black exterior. Peering through the windscreen I can see on the dashboard what looks like a blood-filled syringe. “Don’t worry!” chuckles Stefan. “It’s just a ball-point pen that looks like a syringe.”
At Falköping I learn of a place called Nostalgeek in Lidköping, 50km away, that has a retro American milkshake bar and is a popular hang-out for raggars. Forty-five minutes later, I’m walking into the store and stepping six decades back in time. It’s a pastel-hued fantasy with a black-and-white checkered floor, Naugahyde booths and a proper old jukebox belting out crackly Buddy Holly hits. Pulling up a chrome-rimmed high-top stool, I feel like I’m guest-starring in an episode of Happy Days.
The question I have to ask myself is why? Why is a Scandinavian country with a population of around nine million so obsessed with the half-a-century-old culture of a country 7,000km away? How is it that Sweden has the largest number of American classic cars in the world – even more than there are in the United States itself? Nostalgeek owner Tone Nielsen, who is a well-known figure on the scene, offers some answers: “I think it was all due to life after the Second World War. People in Sweden had the money to ship cars over from the States, that’s how it started.”
“I think it goes back to Elvis,” chips in Niclas Carlsson, a Nostalgeek regular, with an immaculate quiff and the biggest turn-ups I’ve ever witnessed on a pair of jeans.
“I think there are just some people who don’t live in the current era,” adds Tone. “There’s so much trouble in the world today, so we live in the ’50s and ’60s. Maybe we think the world was better back then.”
Back in Falköping, it’s 10.30pm and the families and children have long gone; the party has moved to a venue half an hour out of town. A rockabilly band is playing and while a lot of alcohol is being consumed, the atmosphere remains convivial. It’s no different to what goes on in a thousand other places across Scandinavia every Saturday night, but with a lot more quiffs.
A few days later I drive 350km north east, bypassing Stockholm, to meet with members of the Uppsala Rebels Car Club, who have invited me to a low-key Tuesday night meet. It’s an already-familiar scene of parked classic cars, a spectrum of age ranges and a ’50s-tribute band supplying the music. As I chat to 53-year-old Mikael Johansson, a proper old-school raggar sporting well-worn denim, a leather waistcoat and shaggy hair that doesn’t look too familiar with shampoo, a toddler waddles by on unsteady legs dressed in a T-shirt that reads “Raggare for ever”. He’s 18 months old and his name is Ruben Köppä, says his mum, Tina: “I had this scene passed down to me when I was little and I’m doing the same to Ruben.”
“My teenage daughters are into raggare culture too,” says Mikael. “But then it’s all they’ve ever known. I took my eldest to a meet when she was one day old.”
If that all sounds a little evangelical, then this does seem to be a culture that inspires life-long dedication. “I’ll be a raggar for the rest of my life,” Peder Jonsson told me that Saturday afternoon in Lidköping. “When I die I’m going to be buried in my 1959 Oldsmobile 98.”
“I know of something better,” I told him. “I met someone who drives a vintage hearse. Maybe you can borrow that.”
“A hearse?” he laughed. “That’s cool.”
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