VASTERAS, Sweden (Reuters) - Thousands of classic American cars from Mustangs to Corvettes and Cadillacs have rolled into a lakeside town in Sweden for three days of bumper-to-bumper cruising, rockabilly nostalgia and some serious beer drinking.
Touted as the world's biggest American vintage car show – some 20,000 cars are expected over three days – it highlights Sweden's unusual love affair with post-War American cars, rock and roll and cultural rebellion – known here as “Raggare”.
As if fresh off a Detroit factory line, gleaming 1950s Cadillacs with tail fins and 1960s Chevrolet Impalas with rear lights shaped as rockets paraded through the historic, Viking-era town of Vasteras on a hot summer day.
They lined up row by row in an old airfield where many proud, sunburnt owners sat in deckchairs, beer in one hand and iPhone in the other, to ogle each other's rigs. Most were Swedes, but some came as far afield as the United States.
"The Swedes here are just crazy for these cars. When you put so much work in a car, it's in your soul," said Al Young, a former World Champion drag racer from Seattle who had driven 7,000 miles through Europe with his 1973 Plymouth Road Runner before arriving in Sweden.
Sweden's annual Power Big Meet show, founded in 1978 with 80 cars, symbolizes a national obsession with classic American cars and culture - a far cry from the image of Swedes as prudent, safety-first drivers of solid and sensible Volvos or Saabs.
In one of the world's most socially liberal countries, U.S. Confederate flags – widely viewed as a symbol of slavery - flew opposite Swedish banners, and 1950s rock and roll blared from loudspeakers hoisted on a crane.
Each owner had his own little love affair.
"This was the most beautiful of years," said Cronje Hellberg, a Swedish truck equipment company owner as he readied his red 1958 Chevrolet Impala for a cruise along with his wife.
He waxed lyrical over the car's curves. He has 15 Chevrolets, all from 1958, in a "rather large garage".
"My wife and this car were born in 1958. It was the perfect year," Hellberg added.
The obsession has deep roots in Sweden where half a century ago many young Swedes, or "raggare", built a rebellious, drunken and sometimes violent greaser subculture around them, much to the trepidation of local authorities.
"We were all working class, young and beer drinkers," said Jan Gustavsson, who has come to the meet for the last 28 years. He stood by his red 1959 Cadillac convertible, its huge curved tail fins rising up with an aristocratic air. "I guess I’m still an old ragga at heart," the 50-year-old executive said.
The event's organizer, Kjell Gustavsson, said Raggare had its origins in the 1950s when American company cars were left by expat owners in Sweden, often sold off cheaply to youngsters.
"These American cars had what Swedes love - style and gadgets," Gustavsson added. "Remember, we are a small country with big car names like Saab and Volvo. We like to think of ourselves as engineers."
The rebellious air has faded now. With some cars valued at more than $100,000, many owners are greyer and wealthier – faded tattoos one of the few leftovers of a wilder youth. But a newer generation keeps up the tradition.
"I am a drinker by night and a driver by day," said 21-year-old Norwegian airport worker Ronnie Lindboe. He pointed to a rusty 1963 Chevrolet Impala – for many the ultimate Raggare car – with as many dents as vulgar stickers.
A mannequin's legs and cases of beer balanced on the roof rack. "This is our party car. We're here to cruise, drink and meet girls," Lindboe said. His dozen friends had somehow driven from Oslo, stopped, they said, only once by police.
Half naked and sunburnt, they swayed unsteadily in the summer breeze, swigging beers. A child drank red bull, perched on the car rack.
Several kilometers (miles) of stalls packed with car memorabilia and spare parts wound through the airfield. Attendees said it was easier here to buy spare parts for a Cadillac than in the United States.
Vintage car radios vied for attention with native American headdress charms, dashboard restoration specialists, and rock and roll CDs and even stalls of vintage sex toys.
"These cars run in the blood of our country,” said Kjell Gustavsson. "Sweden is not a religious country, but this is the closest we get."
Editing by Mark Heinrich