Big or small, automotive museums are always interesting places. While the largest and best funded ones are usually filled with impossibly perfect cars and unusual automobilia, the smaller, more out of the way museums sometimes display more variety and charm.
Such is the case for the Espoon Automuseo, located in Backby in Espoo, about 30 kilometers from the heart of Helsinki in Finland. Finland has seven or eight car museums scattered around the country, but the Espoo museum claims to be the oldest and the largest in the country. Owned and administered by a Helsinki automotive club with more than 150 members, the museum occupies a series of barns near scenic Bodom Lake.
Like most car museums, this one started with the collections of one man. Rafael Huhta started collecting vintage Saabs during the 1960s. He kept them in an old building and would frequently drive them and show them off. Soon other people began giving him other cars to add to the collection. In 1979, a club was formed to take care of the cars and provide an opportunity for the public to view them. Meanwhile, as Huhta had amassed the best collection of Saabs in all of Finland, he was invited to show his cars at a small museum that was being established at the Saab plant in Uusikaupunki, Finland. So all of the Saabs went to the factory museum, and the club was left with a large variety of other cars that have been important to Finland over the years.
Finland has a practical relationship with the automobile. Until recently most of the roads were unpaved and impassable during the long, harsh winters. Rugged designs have always done well here, and before the war American cars were extremely popular. Essex, Nash, Plymouth, Dodge, Chevrolet and Ford all built rugged and inexpensive cars that fit the needs of the Finns perfectly. Pre-war Volvos were also ruggedly built; a 1939 PV56 at the museum looks similar to most American cars of the period. After the war, robust little Saabs joined DKWs and a variety of other Eastern European and Russian cars like the Moskovich, Wartburg, Volga and Skoda. Simple and strong, these cars remained popular in Finland through the 1960s. It is not unusual to see a distinctive Saab 96 or the rounded shape of a Volvo 122 on the highway as you drive around Finland. And behind nearly every barn is the familiar shape of an old Saab or Volvo put to pasture.
Today the classic car movement is flourishing in Finland, mostly among younger people. American cars from the 1950s and 1960s have become wonderfully popular as have Volkswagen Beetles and Karmann Ghias from the 1960s. Cruise nights in Helsinki bring out garishly colored Chrysler New Yorkers, Chevy IIs and Ford Falcons. MGs, Truimphs, Jaguars and post-war Rolls-Royce and Bentleys are also seen cruising the waterfront on weekends. All of this automotive diversity is also represented by the 110 cars on display at the Espoon museum.
The first floor of the main barn at the museum is the only one that is heated in the wintertime and therefore has the best cars. My guide was Krister Ahlfords, a twenty-something club member with a passion for '60s American cars. His own mid '60s light-blue Chrysler New Yorker is parked in a back barn that club members use for storage of their own project vehicles. The cars on the first floor include mostly large American cars from the 1930s through the '50s and include such diverse examples as a Model A Ford and a 1955 Dodge Custom Royale. Most are in sound but unrestored condition.
Here and there, another car like a 1949 Mercedes-Benz 170Va sedan or a '60s Mini sedan are also on display. There's also a Russian Chaika limousine, but the stars of the first floor are a white Jaguar E-type and a 1964 Chevrolet Corvette. The Corvette's owner is a Helsinki businessman working in New York right now, explained Ahlfords. He is keeping the car at the museum until he returns from his business assignment. On the walls are large black and white photographs of Ferraris, Porsches and Mercedes gullwings from sports car racing that took place at a now defunct circuit in Helsinki during the 1950s and '60s.