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Cruising in Impalas, Valiants, Bel Airs : Classic U.S. Cars Get New Life in Finland

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Reuters

Old Chevrolets and Plymouths, driven by teen-agers in jeans, cruise down the street in what looks like a scene from the movie “American Graffiti.”

But the classic American cars of the 1950s and 1960s are far from home, clogging the avenues of Helsinki.

Reijo Pyharanta, 25, from Espoo outside Helsinki, owns a 1967 Plymouth Belvedere station wagon that can seat eight.

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“It’s just a feeling about these old cars,” said Reijo.

He pointed at a Japanese sedan parked next to his huge vehicle and said, “Those things are so small, so light.”

Drives an Impala

His car is neither. It has not been registered yet so he drives girlfriend Elina Hamalainen’s 1967 Chevrolet Impala, which cost just $2,250.

His two brothers are both younger than their cars.

Roi, 19, drives a 1964 Chevrolet Bel Air while 27-year old Risto is restoring a 1960 Chevrolet Impala convertible.

But why U.S. cars?

Juhanni Laukkanen, editor of Wheels Magazine, which is devoted to U.S. classic cars, sees their draw for Finns as partly cultural.

“Finland is near to the Soviet Union but culturally I would say it is a western country. Young people like American culture and cars are a part of it,” he said.

Owns 2 Plymouths

Laukkanen, himself the owner of two Plymouths, including a 1965 Valiant, estimated the number of American cars in Finland at around 10,000.

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On summer evenings, the big brash cars ply the downtown boulevards, dwarfing the traffic around them, or edge cautiously along the narrow coastal roads.

Denim-clad drivers gather in seafront parking lots to show off their machines. Some cars have been painstakingly restored and gleam with polished chrome. Others have seen better days.

Imports of old cars from the United States have soared since a change in Finnish law last year.

Since the beginning of 1987, import duty of 30% has been payable on cars at least 25 years old instead of the rate of about 120% for new cars.

Increase in Imports

The change led to a fivefold increase in imports of certain classes of U.S. cars, according to the Finnish Customs Board.

In all, more than 770 cars over 25 years old were brought into Finland last year.

Laukkanen said the most popular cars are convertibles, despite the fact that the Finnish weather permits them to be driven with the top down for only about three months a year.

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“In the winter, not so many people drive American cars because they use a lot of gas and it’s expensive,” he said.

Salt spread on the roads in winter can also damage the cars.

Although some of the cars are cheap and a lower dollar has helped, good models can cost big money. A 1959 Cadillac Eldorado could cost $25,000.

‘Museum Cars’

A transport ministry official said the roots of the craze lie in ministry standards for enthusiasts’ “museum cars.”

Most were old British Jaguars or Bentleys which had been kept in their original form or renovated, he said.

Insurance companies offered special terms for the rarely used cars and the politicians decided that they should be subject to lower import duty.

“Then, someone made an error. We didn’t specify that a museum car could be brought into Finland at a lower tax rate--we only said “cars more than 25 years old.” Now these old American cars, which are not all museum cars, can be brought in,” the official said.

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Not Always Welcomed

The cars are not universally welcomed. The ministry official said they have to comply only with safety and pollution standards in force when they were made.

“There has been quite an increase in traffic safety and pollution control since then,” he said.

“We don’t like them and we hope the fashion goes away.”

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