I'm making a pretty big claim in that headline there. There's so many incredible car clubs in the world, but I think if you factor in all the things stacked against Iceland having any sort of viable vintage car scene at all, what these dedicated kooks in Iceland are doing becomes even more impressive.
Back in LA, there were many great, active, and dedicated car clubs, of all types and specialties. And while organizing and maintaining any sort of car club isn't trivial, if we're honest, having a car club in LA is easy. There's interesting cars everywhere, there's no major environmental conditions working against your cars, and the cars can be used and enjoyed year round.
If you take that last sentence and flip everything to mean the exact opposite, you start to get a sense of what the challenges of having a classic car club in Iceland are. It's not that Iceland doesn't love cars — they actually have a very strong car culture, and one of the most diverse general populations of cars I've ever seen — but that strong car culture happens to be in a place that's removed from pretty much every car-producing nation by vast chunks of salty, cold ocean, a place where the winters are brutal, dangerous, icy monsters that last 3/4 of the year, and where the weather and road conditions are seemingly designed by some car-hating demon to systematically destroy cars.
From someone who's spent nearly the last two decades in balmy, decadent LA, it's amazing there's any classic cars in Iceland at all. But there are. Lots of them. Jón Loftsson, the very friendly and open man who responded to me about the club, and offered to show me around, told me the Antique Automobile Club of Iceland has about 2500- 3000 classic cars in its ranks, and he estimated that there's likely between 8000-9000 vintage and classic cars, in various states of repair, in all of Iceland.
When you recall that the entire country only has about 300,000 people, that becomes a seriously impressive number. That means about one classic car for every 33 people or so. And this is also in a country where almost everyone who has a classic car can only use it about three months out of the year, since weather and road conditions are, again, engineered to murder cars.
Jon picked me up in his cab (since his day job is a cab driver, you see) and, along with club chairman Þorgeir (that Þ is pronounced 'th'), took me out to the outskirts of Reykjavik where the club has a number of warehouses for storing cars and other club-related materials. I was expecting to see a handful of interesting vintage cars, sure, but I wasn't remotely prepared for what I ended up finding.
In hindsight, what these guys are running isn't just some weekend pleasure-club for vintage car enthusiasts — it's the very life-support system and infrastructure that even allows classic cars to exist and thrive in Iceland at all.
Only a fraction of their member's cars are in the three car-storage warehouses they have in their complex of corrugated-metal buildings in Reykjavik's industrial outskirts. But what they do have in these buildings, even all bedded down for winter hibernation, gives a pretty good sense of what the classic car scene in Iceland is like.
There's some iconic classics you'd expect to see anywhere here — old Jags, Benzes, big, ornate '50s American iron, some more specialty interest cars like old Beetles — but there's also some things that may only have achieved restoration-worthy status because this is Iceland, and there's a culture of appreciating what you get.
There's also some absolutely unique-to-Iceland cars here as well, like this Icelandic-rebodied Willys army Jeep. Willys Jeeps were fairly plentiful for years thanks to the American military base, but their open-bodied design just didn't really make sense for Iceland.
Local craftsmen began to build new enclosed bodies (adorably referred to as "houses" by my Icelandic hosts) for the Jeeps, and developed an idiosyncratic design for these that works really well. I especially like the geometrically-faceted enclosed front fenders and the use of house door hinges on the cab's doors. One of these should end up in a US auto museum, I think, because who outside of Iceland has ever seen one of these before?
There's also just some good, genuinely strange stuff in this collection. Like the strange early '70s Volvo wagon that seems to have been either an ex-ambulance or a study in how many roof racks a car can withstand. There's what may be one of the nicest unrestored Soviet Poebdas in existence here, as well as what I'm pretty sure is the absolute finest Plymouth Volare taxi I've ever encountered in my life.
Iceland really loves old American cars, and the fact that something as unloved and forgotten about in the US as a Volare is treated so wonderfully here tells you everything you need to know.
The club's car collection is excellent and highly diverse, and you can see it all on their site, or, if you happen to find yourself in Iceland during the three months when their cars are free to roam and drive, at one of their many and huge meet-ups, cruises, and drives.
So, while it's a solid collection, any classic car club can have that — hell, that's the absolute minimum you need for a car club. But what really impressed me about the Club is all the support systems they have in place, including one I'm not sure I've ever heard of any other private car club having: they can make their own legal, government-sanctioned classic license plates for their member's cars.
See, when Iceland switched their license plate design to a more modern format, the Club arranged with the government of Iceland to get the old license plate stamping press and tooling. This means that any member who wants a set of period-correct plates can pick a number, make sure it's available, and then have genuine vintage plates hand-stamped right there in the club's workshop.
The license plates are absolutely government-legal for vintage cars. This would be like if California gave all their materials to make legal black California plates to some car club in Fresno. It's amazing.
Less novel but no less remarkable is the clubs massive caches of vintage parts. And not just piles of junkyard salvage, either — the Club has been taking donations of obsolete car parts for decades, and the result is at least two dedicated warehouses of new old stock, used, refurbished, and salvaged parts for just about any car a member is likely to have or acquire.
Walking through their warehouses, with stacks and stacks of boxes and bin after bin of parts was an incredible feeling. The rough wooden shelves and piles of rare automotive treasure make it feel a bit like that building they stashed the Ark of the Covenant in at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. When was the last time you — or anyone — saw an GAZ part still in its box?
In a way, the parts warehouses reminded me of that Global Seed Vault in remote Norway — a remote bunker of information and materials designed to help guarantee the survival of species — but in this case, old cars, not plants.
And even when it's piles of filthy carburetors on shelves, you can tell that everything in here is recorded, organized, and inventoried. Jón confirmed that all this work was done with a glassy-eyed look and a shake of his head, like a man remembering a painful ordeal. Members of the club can buy parts from the Club's vast reserves at minimal cost, and I got the very real sense that a great number of the classics alive and running in Iceland owe their mechanical lives to the support and resources that this Club provides.
And, of course, this idea brings me back to my original, only slightly hyperbolic statement: this club isn't just any club for rich guys with time on their hands to show off their pampered Sting-Ray or whatever on some manicured lawn. This is a confederacy of people who genuinely love cars, and the club is the collective they've built to insure those cars can keep making them, and everyone around them, happy as long as possible, even in a fairly remote and harsh environment that doesn't want to make things easy.
So, Antique Car Club of Iceland, I salute you. Your dedication, love, and commitment to old cars is enough to even make me pretend that an old Volare cab is somehow a genuine, worthwhile classic.
Enjoy some more photos of these hidden treasures just outside of Reykjavik: