Time Travel to a 1950s American Trailer Park
Ok, maybe a trailer park is a bit harsh. What are the odds of spotting a pristine baby blue ’57 Chevrolet and a mint condition Plymouth Road Runner together at a U.S. trailer park? It’s possible I suppose….but you certainly wouldn’t fathom them at an auto show in Sweden, the land where every other car on the road is a Volvo. That is unless you find yourself at Power Big Meet, the biggest American car show and celebration in the WORLD, sprawled out across the thin airstrip and surrounding fields of Västerås, Sweden. The trailers have a presence to be sure, but they are confined to off grounds parking, so as to not detract from the true metallic gems.
The Swede and I arrived on opening day of the event and were forced to take a taxi out to the grounds due to a reduced bus schedule (presumably everyone interested in the car show drove their own car and therefore didn’t need supplementary transportation). During the 10 kilometer congested trek from town out to the airfield, we chugged past hot dog stands, tents hawking trashy t-shirts, people in lawn chairs drinking beer and watching the world go by…it was all very NASCAR.
The cab dropped us off a half a kilometer outside of the main entrance, which was nothing more than a dusty dirt road leading past a single red white and blue tent. Another half a kilometer beyond that lay the glittering hoods of thousands of perfectly aligned automobiles. When we passed the tent we were stopped by two shirtless young men who politely asked us to wait a minute while they tried to fanangle a shower out of a water cooler. Apparently by noon they were already far too lubricated to perform such an arduous task so after sloshing the contents of the coolers on themselves they turned their attention once more towards us and asked for our admission fees. I thought, these asswads are in charge of ticket sales? This is shaping up to be an interesting day!
As we approached the first line of cars, we began to discern the faint crooning of Buddy Holly’s “that’ll be the day” wafting haltingly over a scattering of asynchronous loudspeakers. As the rockabilly tunes rolled on, we started oohing and ahhing over the impressive specimens. Shamrock green Ford mustangs, camel toned Buick roadmasters, candy apple red Cadillac Coupe de Villes…I kept thinking how much I wanted nail polish in all those dazzling colors.
While the cars themselves sparkled cheerily, the general atmosphere was somewhat desolate. Where were all the people? What we saw before us were the exceedingly well preserved bodies of prize winning automobiles and hardly any person around. Given the nature of the event and the unusual heat of the day, I assumed the crowds were swarming around the beer vendors. We spotted a line of tents flanking the airfield on the horizon and set our course to find people.
When we arrived at the tents, the first thing I noticed was not all patriotic American garb (confederate flag belts, stars and stripes bikinis, bald eagle car hood ornaments), it was how terribly unattractive everyone was. In a way I felt relieved. I had been under the impression that all Swedes were beautiful and it made me uneasy, as things that seem too good to be true tend to do. Now I knew the truth and it warmly reminded me of home, well home back in the early 90s when Americans suffered from pudginess and not full blown obesity.
After scanning the crowd I made a mental note of the general body type and dress code of the attendees. For the women, large droopy breasts flimsily supported by black bras, tan loose bellies, and cut off jean shorts, while for the men, beer guts and tattoos were the norm. Everyone regardless of sex went shirtless. Who were the Swede and I to reject such a custom? Of course I didn’t feel like stripping in front of a t-shirt stand with slogans like “if you want big honkers drive a tractor” so we hastily tucked behind a silver bullet trailer to de-shirt. I momentarily considered purchasing a stars and stripes bikini top, but I figured a black bra and suspenders were redneck enough.
Strictly speaking, “redneck” is not the right word to describe this particular subculture in Sweden. The proper term is raggare, which pertains to Swedes who enjoy riding around in old American cars, blasting rockabilly tunes, using snus (Swedish dip), and participating in an occasional burnout which entails burning the rubber of a car’s tires by spinning the wheels while a bunch of big dudes push down on the car hood to keep it from driving off. Bragging rights are awarded to the driver who can create the biggest smoke cloud. Apparently it’s a total hoot! Other popular pastimes involve riding around on the roof of a car, cruising with your windows AND doors open with your feet sticking out, and cramming as many raggare into one car as possible. The cars driven by raggare are aptly termed raggarbilar (raggarbil in the singular); the best examples are primarily American but raggare have also been known to drive beat up old volvos and gussy them up with ‘coon tails trailing from the antenna or fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror. To spot a raggare in action, head into town on a friday or saturday night, park yourself on a street corner with a fair amount of traffic, and watch as the same cars slowly cruise around patrolling their habitual circuit. Alternatively, you could wait until spring when the local high schools host their annual prom and watch the party goers stream towards the dance in a parade of convertible raggarbilar, their proud raggar-dads at the helm. I’d imagine it’s what prom looked like in Minnesota fifty or sixty years ago.
The faithfulness to 1950s American culture was so true that on several occasions I forgot I was in Sweden. Two things brought me back to reality though: one, the ratio of blondes to brunettes leaned disproportionately in favor of the fairer group, and two, there were no beer stands. Beer was simply not sold anywhere on the premises. I inquired to the Swede as to why this was and he explained that Sweden’s strict alcohol laws require that a venue serve both food and alcohol, have a permit, and properly enclose the drinking area so the party can’t spread out. For an event that encompasses the space of an entire air field, selling alcohol in a confined area was simply out of the question. Some people brought their own coolers, but I got the impression that most presenters were more interested in celebrating American car culture, which meant that anyone who wanted to drive around showing off his pride and joy would have to stay sober (unlike in the U.S., drinking and driving is simply not done in Sweden). I later learned that the serious drinking would kick off after the evening “power” cruise around town had concluded.
Though somewhat disappointed, we reckoned there was no use crying over nonexistent beer when there was plenty of other junk to indulge in. That reasoning led us to a barbecue tent that served one thing and one thing only: hamburger patties on buns. If you wanted anything else you had to go to the condiment table which provided ketchup, mustard, and runny nacho cheese from a can. I guess that’s one way of streamlining the cheeseburger process. Fake gooey cheese that melts in the sun and doesn’t need to be individually melted on the burgers. The crafty men at the bbq stand also sidestepped the problem of thawing the frozen burger buns overnight by instead laying them out on the grass to bake in the sun. Crafty indeed!
We ate our gooey cheesy burgers while ambling through the rest of the tents. The merchandise was all pretty much the same, cheap t-shirt and bikini stands with an occasional obscure car part or rockabilly CD stand thrown in. When we had seen all we needed to see we dove back into the sea of cars one last time. On our way out we passed this handsome trio of young people casually posing as if for some kitschy portrait or antique pepsi-cola commercial. Total raggar-babes, especially Danny Zuko there with his greased back hair!
Power Big Meet is hosted annually in July in Västerås Sweden. For more info and event photos checkout www.bigmeet.com
For a better idea of the Swedish obsession with Americana check out the blog of the Stockholm based shop Americana Classic Vintage.