The Classic Cars of Swedish

An award-winning portrait series shows a rock 'n' roll youth culture that hasn't aged a day.

The 1950s, decade of classic cars, slicked hair, and music that made people move their hips in ways they never had before. The post-war economic upswing fueled this explosion of pop culture, and not just in America. When young people in Sweden caught glimpse of America's march toward sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll—and the notion that they could also buy their own cars—they wanted in, too.

America of the 1950s was replaced by America of the 1960s, and then the 70s and 80s. But parts of Sweden stayed behind. Not out of Cuba-like economic suffocation, but by choice. "The culture stagnated and a lot of Swedish youth is still engaged in what's best described as a subculture focused on the 50s and 60s," says Axel Öberg, a Swedish photographer who compiled a portrait series of so-called Swedish greasers. Öberg's pictures, taken on assignment for National Geographic, were awarded second place in the Pictures of the Year International's portrait division announced earlier this week.


PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

 

The first weekend each July, people gather in the city of Västerås for what organizers claim is the world's biggest gathering of vintage American cars. By no means are all in prime condition. Some are pristine rarities, while others tend to be languishing pieces of metal, minimally maintained to remain useful for cruising, partying, and impressing women. The climax of the festival is the "parade," a slow meander of cars around the city as their owners drink, socialize, and show off.

The nostalgia for earlier, easier days tends to be more a product of rural communities than in Stockholm, the capital. Öberg admits he sees the car festival through the same lens of nationalism sprouting around the world that's largely a reaction to globalization, social media, and colliding cultures. "What you see is this nostalgic idea of history, trying to preserve what, looking back, seemed so great." Whether it was actually great or not seems hardly to matter. The cars still are.

Every July, the city of Västerås, Sweden, hosts Power Big Meet, one of the world's biggest gatherings of vintage American cars. Over 150,000 people come to show off their cars and socialize. Tommy Blomqvist, far right, gathers with friends around his 1941 custom-built Buick.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Emanuel Sanden, a professional car builder, came with his girlfriend, Emmy Glas, who works as a gas station attendant. They drove from the city of Falun with their 1950s-era Chevrolet pickup.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Lotta Persson, 61, shows off a tattoo fashioned after a wedding photo of her parents. Persson is retired but has been a part of the Swedish greaser culture since her youth.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Pamela och Viktor from Ekenäs, Finland, gets married in a drive-in wedding ceremony arranged by the Church of Sweden.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

At night, people gather in a mall parking lot to party and do "burnouts."
PHOTOGRAPH BY AXEL OBERG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

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