I was just in Iceland, driving the new Land Rover Discovery, a Lada Niva, and meeting with an incredible group of gearheads — all of which you'll hear more about soon. Much more. But for now, let me just show you a little glimpse of the very bizarre and brutal car landscape of Iceland. Also, they have a penis museum.
We'll talk about penises some other time — maybe over drinks? I won't push it — your call. What I really want to talk about is how incredibly strange the carscape of Reykjavik — and, really, all of Iceland — is.
I went in assuming that Iceland's general population of cars would be a lot like Northern Europe and Scandinavia — and, to some degree, it is. But what I didn't expect was that it would also have a lot in common with the United States, and even Japan.
Iceland is, in a very literal way, divided between the Americas and Europe. It's literal because the island nation actually sits right on the border of two tectonic plates: the North American one and the European one. I actually saw this divide in person, and it looks like a line of mountains, which are created, ever so slowly, where the plates bump into one another.
The cars in Iceland are somehow aware of the country's divided nature, and reflect that incredibly well. You have the usual assortment of European cars — Citroens, Renaults, VWs, Skodas, and so on — but they're sharing the road with the same sort of everyday cars we see here in the US — Chrysler Town and Countrys, PT Cruisers, Chevy Cruzes, big Chryslers, Ford Econoline vans, etc. It's a mixing you really don't see almost anywhere else.
Add to that mix a smattering of cars I've never seen outside the Japanese domestic market and some Ladas, GAZ trucks, and other Eastern Bloc cars, and you have the makings of a very interesting wheeled population.
The one thing you don't really see on the road are old cars, and here's the reason why:
Iceland is positively brutal on cars. Well, really, the climate makes it pretty brutal on anything, but the long, long, wet, cold winters and liberal use of road salt means rust is a cruel, powerful dragon waiting to devour your beloved car in a cloud of brown dust. That Polo up there is from the mid-to-late 90s — not really all that old, but still one of the oldest cars I saw, and it's succumbing to terminal metal acne fast. I thought that lower rear spoiler was plastic, but it looks like it found some novel way to rust too, even.
Iceland does love cars, though, and there actually is a good population of some fantastic classic cars, but I had to really hunt them down — I'll tell you all about that soon. For now, let's just see what's in daily use:
I'm pretty sure Iceland is the only place in the world you can take an unstaged snapshot of a Pontiac Aztek across from a Skoda. People outside the US bought these? Were there diplomatic repercussions?
This was in a mural inside a parking garage. It, of course, reminded me of home and also made me wonder, hey, why don't we have more inside-parking garage murals? They make those big ugly concrete boxes so much more fun!
In America, almost everyone associates Mercedes-Benz exclusively with premium, luxury vehicles. I wonder how a genuine badge snob who just dropped a crapton of money on a new S-Class would feel about that precious tri-star vejazzling the grille of this workhorse?
I hadn't seen one of these Citroën C1s in person before (or their siblings like the Toyota Aygo), but I was really impressed with the packaging of this tiny car. Four doors, a huge big glass hatch, and what looked like a lot of usable space inside. It felt a bit like a modern take on a 2CV.
Also, it's important to point out that these little FWD city cars are all over Reykjavik, mostly because gas — like almost everything else on the island — is pretty expensive. And, while there's lots of 4WD SUVs and trucks getting around the snowy, icy streets, these little guys manage it just fine as well.
People in the US justify buying a Range Rover because they drive in the rain and one day hope to drive a couple hundred feet across a lawn, if they feel brave. Out here, they drive cars the size of Cozy Coupes over ice so slick you can't even walk on it. Just think about that.
Another Citroën, a Picasso. I think that extended, double A-pillar makes this a pretty striking car, in profile. It's not to everyone's taste, but they managed to take a pretty normal-looking econobubble and make it feel novel and futuristic.
I liked seeing the pleasingly half-assed way the Euro versions of the Honda CR-V are modified to accept Euro-sized plates and get rid of the US license plate holder: stick a big plastic panel over it! Slap some badges on! Good enough!
I was so excited to see this: it's a Daihatsu Mira Gino, a Japanese-market only car that apparently did get a Euro version as a Daihatsu Trevis. I've never seen this car outside of Japan, but here it is. I'm sure it's elsewhere in Europe, but still it's great to see this guy mixing it up in the ice and snow.
Full-sized, American-spec Ford Econoline vans are very popular here, often with 4 wheel drive and massive wheels. I bet having your nice, warm, go-anywhere room is a really appealing thing out in the cold, open landscapes here.
Why is the non-US Corolla so much cooler than ours? Or at least was. We never got this pretty great looking 5-door hatch, with its fun round headlights. Now I'm even angrier at all of our boring-ass Corollas.
The French have a real knack for vans, I think. This little Renault Kangoo had a pretty huge amount of space in a fun little package. Stick some stripes on this guy and I'd welcome it to my fleet.
A K-Car. Outside of America. I'm not even sure my brain knows what to do with this information. There were actually two here — I think one was a parts car, giving of itself to make this battered specimen run again. This was once so common and mundane in the US, and so out of place-looking in Iceland. It's like seeing a horse playing pachinko.
As for that Lada back there, I drove it for two days all over the place. Full write-up coming soon!
Land Rover Defenders are forbidden fruit stateside, so seeing a pickup one with a locally-made camper top just hurts even more.
Remember what I said about there being almost no classics daily driven in Iceland? Someone forgot to tell the owner of this plucky little Mini. True, it could be one of the ones they made up until 2000, but it's still an original-style Mini, braving the Reykjavik winter.
Sorry for the awful photo, but that's a giant, lifted Sprinter van. They had similar Econolpne ones, too, and they prowled around the city late at night like terrifying monsters. Probably looking for prey of some sort.
Euro-spec versions of very, very American cars always intrigue me. Something about adding amber to those rear lights is enough to just twist the look of this New Yorker enough so it feels almost like something Jag could have made during some confused times. The scale of this thing is also odd in a generally European-scaled city.
I've never seen a Renault Captur before, but it caught my eye. Essentially, it's Renault's Juke, and I think the two-tone design scheme and novel cut C-pllar work really well.
A study in two van philosophies: both this VW van and that Renault Trafic were used everywhere. VW's is well designed, handsome, and capable, but there's something about that spaceship-like, fresh-slate look of that Renault that really appeals to me.
I love the jog in the roofline to give more room in the cab, the interior layout is vast and open, and I think it just looks great. One's Teutonic rationality, one's Gallic exuberance, and I think this image of two vans says more about national culture traits than many books on the subject. But I'm biased. I like vans.
A terrible photo, but that's a SsangYong Musso. I've never seen one of those in the wild, either, and certainly never in a place where it could be parked between a Dacia Duster and a Ford truck.
I really like these early-gen Renault Twingos. It's such a clean, fun, distinctive small car design. People still thought I was an idiot to take a picture of it.
Also, this is the first VW Up! I've seen in the metalflesh. It's a really strong design — I'd love to drive one at some point.
Thanks to the Chicken Tax, we Americans rarely get to see European work trucks like these. Why, again, aren't truck beds with fold-down sides more popular in the US? Sure, they just look like a big drawer stuck on the back, but, damn, are they handy.
There's lots more detailed Icelandic car goodness coming, so please stay tuned!