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Happy days for the 'raggare' of Sweden

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Happy days for the 'raggare' of Sweden
16:10 CEST+02:00
Wandering through the seemingly endless rows of classic American cars and stylish retro chic, you get an eerie feeling you’ve been transported onto the set of classic teen sitcom Happy Days.

Cars? Check. Rockers? Check. Leather jackets, greased back quiffs? Check.

This isn’t some futuristic exercise in time travel though, but a classic American car show on the outskirts of Stockholm, on a warm sunny day in June.

What started out as local gatherings of like-minded individuals with a penchant for beaten up cars and an eye for the ladies, has over the years ballooned into global money spinning cultural phenomenon.

Weird and wonderful doesn’t even begin to describe the event.

The American car shows are about much more than showing off four wheels, they are a validation of a lifestyle choice for many, the lasting legacy of the so called “raggare”.

A subculture drawn largely from the countryside and small towns dotted around the country, the “raggare” have often found themselves a target for abuse, but over the years as generations pass down traditions, the sneering condescension from the big cities has subsided, replaced instead by a new found respect.

It is a peculiarly Swedish subculture that has stood the test of time and is all the better for it.

Swedes weren’t the only ones fascinated by the growing rock 'n' roll scene in America in the 50s, but they took to it to their hearts more readily than anywhere else and the first gangs began to pop up in the late 50s, in and around Stockholm, which would act as a magnet for those from the small surrounding towns to gather.

Giving themselves names like The Road Devils, The Car Angels and the Teddy Boys Car Club, they soon gained a reputation for unruly behaviour and fights with other gangs regularly raged up and down the country.

It was perhaps the Swedish equivalent of the mods and rockers slugging it out on the beaches of England in times gone by.

Prejudice towards the “raggare” is based on the fact that historically, these guys (they were mostly guys) had questionable morals, loud mouths and often archaic attitudes towards women.

Looking for a way to fight boredom, the gangs would cruise through small towns, chatting up women, dropping them off in the next town and replacing them as if they were spare parts for the engines beneath the bonnet.

In short, Hells Angels on four wheels instead of two, if you like.

The car was always the star though and although the “raggare” phenomenon does exist in other countries, Sweden is unquestionably its capital.

The annual Power Big Meet in Västerås is the daddy of American car shows, the largest event of its kind in Europe and one of the biggest in the world today.

It is a far cry from its humble beginnings, Kjell Gustafson, the affable organiser and self proclaimed “Biggest idiot of them all” explains.

“We just saw it as a way of meeting up with people really, but it was a bit rough and ready. There were about 80 cars and probably 450 people,” recalls Gustafson.

“But the thing just grew and grew and took on a life of its own. It soon became a word-of-mouth success and each year more people showed up.”

The meeting this year runs from July 7 – 9, kicking off with a traditional cruise around the town until late into the night.

“This kind of thing is almost unheard of in Denmark and Norway, but there are pockets in Finland,” says Gustafson.

Indeed Finland has the highest number of American cars per capita in the world.

The first meet arranged by Gustafson and his friends was in 1977 in Anderstorp, a small town in southern Sweden.

From its humble beginnings, the show has become a phenomenon in Sweden and is now one of the largest events of its kind in the world.

Last year the show attracted visitors from 46 countries and over 100,000 people are expected to visit this year.

On display will be over 17,000 cars, from Street Rods, Customs, 50's cruisers, 60's muscle cars, Corvettes, Mustangs, Camaros – you name it, they’ll be there.

“It has become a real family institution,” says Gustafson.

“Guys come along with their dads and granddads, a real fun day out for everyone. Not like in the old days when it was much rougher. In those days, the cars would be bought for 1500 kronor ($236) one week, then sold on a few weeks later in the next town for 1400. Nowadays, people have sometimes spent millions on their cars.”

Like the subculture it celebrates, the Power Meet is very different from its roots.

“It is now 100% different from how it started. The cars are more expensive, but there is still a real friendship and camaraderie – a guy with a 20,000 kronor car will be chatting with someone who has spent a million on his. There are no social boundaries, which makes it so special. You buy what you can afford and you are just as proud of your car as the next one.”

“It’s like a religion these days” concludes Gustafson.

And that being the case, once a year Västerås becomes its Mecca.

For a fascinating insight into Swedish life far removed from the daily grind of the big cities, a visit to an event like this is unbeatable.

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