In a wide, grassy meadow where the road to Húsavík breaks off from the Ring Road, you’ll encounter a rather incongruous sight: a tomato red tank truck proclaiming “Over 100 Cars” in bold white letters on its side. An arrow just below points in the general direction of the middle of nowhere. Driving past this spectacle after a day tooling around Mývatn in North Iceland, my partner and I—neither one a car enthusiast—were charmed enough to welcome an unexpected detour. Less than ten kilometres later, we found ourselves at the Ystafell Transportation Museum: a former farm turned countryside garage turned “car graveyard,” which today is a living record of Icelandic history, retold one car at a time.
Waste not, want not
The Ystafell Transportation Museum sits rather quaintly among rolling green pastures, its closest neighbours being a few laconic farms and a smattering of sheep. It doesn’t seem terribly well-situated to become one of the country’s largest vehicle collections, but it came into this role quite organically when its founder, Ingólfur Lars Kristjánsson, moved to join his wife Kristbjörg Jónsdóttir at her family’s homestead.
Ingólfur began rebuilding cars and tractors on the farm starting in 1946, and, living by the motto “Never throw anything away—you’ll need it the very next day,” amassed a menagerie of spare parts, automobilia, and, of course, the aforementioned hundred-plus cars (and tractors, trucks, tanks, fire engines, ambulances, snowmobiles…) quicker than you can say “Jón’s your uncle.” The fledgling collection, beached and languishing around the farm, was long considered an eyesore by many in the area. But it earned some gravitas in 1998, when a spacious, indoor facility was built to house the majority of the collection and the museum officially opened. Today, it’s maintained by Ingólfur’s son Sverrir, a skilled mechanic and auto enthusiast who jokes that he was “born in a garage.”
A snowmobile school bus, a turn-crank tractor
After passing through a cosy sitting room where Sverrir always keeps a pot of coffee hot for guests, you enter the main showroom, its walls decorated with steering wheels, vintage car advertisements, and old Icelandic license plates, its floor space tightly packed with everything from turncrank tractors and chrome-wheeled baby buggies to US military Jeeps, and Sverrir’s own first car—a mirror-polished, cherryred ’69 Mustang coupe. On one end of the room, a life-size display garage has been erected, complete with two boiler-suited legs sticking out from under the front of the car.
Then there’s a blunt-nosed, treadfitted, gunmetal 1951 Bombardier Snowmobile dotted with circular submarine-ish windows. The founder used to use this whale to drive local children to school in the winter. And a lovingly restored 1959 Moskvitch which, besides being a representative example of a once exceedingly popular leisure car in Iceland—“many people have memories of summer vacations in a Moskvitch”—was also used in Icelandic director Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s 1994 film ‘Bíódagar’ (“Movie Days”). There’s another gem in the elegant convertible 1919 Dixie Flyer, a Kentucky-made car that was only manufactured from 1916 to 1923. Just three of these cars still exist worldwide: one’s in Texas, one’s in Australia, and the last is at Ystafell.
The personal is historical
Such fun factoids, stats, and miniature histories are recounted on modest, typed sheets of paper, which have been tucked carefully into laminated sleeves and placed on the windshields and hoods of each piece in the museum. Sometimes, these histories are poignantly brief: “1966 Toyota Crown: Steindór Bjarnason of Neskaupstaðir gave the museum this car in 2004. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to dig up the history of the car, but hopefully, we’ll work this out later.” And sometimes, such as in the case of an Austin A90 Westminster first used by British naval officers in Bermuda and then sold to American soldiers based in Keflavík, these provenances are far more granular:
The first owner in Iceland was Gunnlaugur Þórbjarnarson—he bought the car at the end of the summer in 1962…Gunnlaugur restored the car and used it until August 28, 1979, when he sold it.
Hilmir Arnórsson bought the car on October 28, 1991 and was its seventh owner. When he bought it, the car wasn’t drivable— it had no engine and was very rusty. Hilmir restored the car and now it’s in very good condition.
1. Gunnlaugur Þórbjarnarson: 1962 – 1979
2. Jón Guðmundsson: August 28, 1979 – October 10, 1988
3. Guðrún Arnórsdóttir: October 10, 1988 – January 14, 1991
4. Sævar Guðmundsson: January 14, 1991 – June 18, 1991
5. Þórgils Björgvinsson: June 18, 1991 – October 28, 1991
6. Hilmir Arnórsson: October 28, 1991 –
It’s not unlike reading a Saga genealogy, if perhaps a rather dull one. And yet, this miniature history seems significant. This pretty normal car, owned by seven pretty normal Icelanders, has now become part of a much broader, richer story.
Relics of the Not-So-Cold War
Moving into the next showroom, we encounter what looks like a diagonally sliced oversized Playmobile car, but is actually a 1991 Kewet El-Jet electric car from Denmark. It has two seats, four gears, a horsepower of ten, and a box of Cuban cigars in the window. There are, we realize, a number of Eastern Bloc cars and license plates around the museum—such as the first Trabant ever imported to Iceland—which is interesting for us, having grown up in the anti-Communist states. Sverrir laughs about this—Iceland, he says, “is the only place other than Havana you would see Soviet and American cars side by side.”
Icelanders, he explains, “bought cars from all over… except maybe Australia” but there were special incentives for buying cars from Russia, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “We made a deal—Iceland would get cars and gasoline and they would get fish.” He nods. “The cars were very cheap and very popular— Russian cars had great heaters.”
We find another relic of the Cold War era, and perhaps our favourite car of the collection, parked unassumingly under a painting of a flamingo in the back corner of the second showroom. Flanked on one side by a bubble-fronted 1955 Chevy 3600 truck that the town of Akureyri had converted into an ornately be-crucifixed hearse, and on the other by a Vespa, there is a black 1982 Cadillac Brougham d’Elegance, license plate: 1. It’s the car that was used by President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the world’s first democratically elected female head of state. “Without a doubt, many important world leaders travelled with Vigdís in this car,” says the informational sheet. “It’s not impossible that both American President Ronald Reagan and leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev sat in the backseat while traveling to the Rekjavík Summit in 1986.”
But even a presidential Caddy—even one that was maybe, possibly even minutely involved in landmark nuclear disarmament talks—can be repurposed and written into the nation’s more quotidian history. Following its presidential appointment, the car was sold to a fancy hotel to be used for weddings and special events, after which it was owned by one Eiríkur Óskarsson, from 2001 to 2008. “Never throw anything away!”
The Ystafell transportation Museum is open from 10:00 – 20:00 every day from May 18 – September 30. During the winter, guests can call ahead to view the collection via (+354) 464-311. Check out their website here.