Regional Car Culture Explained: The History Of The Swedish A-Traktor

(first posted 5/11/2011)    Necessity really is the mother of all invention. And the history of this peculiar kind of truck was born during wartime shortage. In Sweden before and during the second world war, there was a shortage of tractors and farm equipment. So, what did the farmers do? They had to make with what they had, and what they had was trucks. Tractors were made out of anything resembling a vehicle, most of them had Ford A or AA origin. The trucks were used in a similar fashion to the original Jeep and the English Land Rover, working on fields or hauling stuff around the farm.  In modern times, the truck has evolved into something not that different from the Australian “Ute”.

The trucks were colloquially called Epa-traktors, named after a chain of low-priced commodities.  Figuratively translated to something like the Sears & Roebuck of tractors. As a side note, the Epa brand of stores gained a notorious reputation for cheap and bad products, and the brand name fell out of fashion so fast the entire chain had to rebrand itself in the early sixties.

After the war, the government almost regulated the Epa out of existence, because god forbid, we can’t let people have too much fun now, can we? The rules called for a body on frame, a maximal wheelbase of 225 cm or about 7 feet, an unsprung rear axle, and a 10:1 gear ratio.

Almost the only car suitable for those conditions during post war society and available in any kind of large quantity was the Volvo PV445, the “Duett”. And even for the Volvo, that meant the frame had to be shortened accordingly. That’s also the usual tell-tale between old school Epa’s and the newer A-traktors, the shortened wheelbase. As most of the Epa’s were Volvo based, Volvo are an almost mandatory brand in these circles. Virtually every flavor of every Volvo model ever made, someone somewhere has made into an Epa.

In the middle seventies, the government wanted to phase out the Epa-traktors entirely, but public uproar made the phenomena stay. Seen as a wartime necessity, the thought was that the demand could now be provided for by “real” tractors and trucks. The thing was, in the meantime people had discovered how handy these vehicles could be, and public demand made the government change the regulations in favor of the builders.

The trucks were now called A-traktors, registered as farm equipments. There was no wheelbase requisite, the rear axles didn’t have to be unsprung, and there was no set axle ratio. Above all, the requisite for building on separate frames only was done away with, enabling the use of more suitable unibody donor vehicles. However, top speed was regulated to 30 km/h (18 mph), and there had to be a token truck bed out back that couldn’t be larger than 1.25 square meter, or about thirteen and a half square feet.  Also mandatory was the triangular slow vehicle sign in the back.

And there was a kind of flexibly-interpreted regulation, stipulating that the intended use should not be for personal transport, nor for the transport of goods. If the intended conversion seated three abreast from the beginning, that was okay, which suited the use of larger truck bodies. But a second row of passengers were against the rules, making crew cabs unsuitable. If larger cars or vans were converted, the dead space behind the driver and passenger could not be usable in any sort of way, not for people or goods. In most cases, that meant shortening the body of the passenger compartment or cutting off the entire cargo hold of the vans.

As the truck is officially made for hauling stuff, a tow hitch is mandatory. The token truck bed is officially made for taking ballast when towing large cargo. If a pickup truck was converted, that meant the bed had to be made smaller than originally intended, and the boxed in sections of the bed had to be permanent and inaccessible, making the unused dead space unavailable. All to make it as unattractive as possible to make an A-traktor conversion in the first place. And what happens when those young at heart meet stiff government regulations? Where others meet limitations they see endless possibilities for artistic output and creative use of cutting and welding. The seemingly tough rules makes for a great playing field.

So, what really is the purpose of this truck? In essence, it’s a loophole vehicle. In Sweden, the minimum age for taking a drivers license is 18 years of age. As the A-traktor is officially registered as a farm tractor, a license for those can be had at the age of 16. Essentially, it’s a car for kids not old enough to drive a real car. It’s a convenient truck for people out in the country to cruise the town and making the neighborhood unsafe for the common man. In essence, it’s a hick town phenomenon, with farm kids cruising the nearest mall or main street come Saturday night.

Other users include old farmers and those that’ve had their licenses revoked for things like drunk driving and such. The taxes and insurances are almost irrelevantly low, so the car makes for a great free for all. And rest assure, though the cars are mechanically restricted not to go over 30 km/h, I have never ever seen one that is not capable of at least 50. People goes through James Bondian measures to make the trucks officially legit while in real life they almost certainly never are.

Also, the making of A-traktors really is the stepping stone into the car customizing scene in Sweden. It’s an easy way in to learn the craft, and the stakes are really not that high. Many builders have gone to larger tasks after having made one, and many hotrodders have their origins in this scene. The great irony is that the time for finishing a project in many cases takes so long the owners have become old enough to drive a real car in the progress, so the trucks usually change hands pretty fast from the older to younger generations.

Some A-traktors have been rebuilt and reborn endless of times, with people adding or changing the cars in the process. This also makes for a great litmus test on current trends. With a fifty year span on regulations, the scene has seen virtually every trend come and go, from apple candy flakes to slamming and ratrodding. Prices range from perhaps a thousand dollars up to ten grand and up for concourse editions.