REYKJAVÍK, Iceland -- Icelanders' jeep thrills are endangered by the global financial crisis.
What Icelanders call "jeeps" are actually massive, tricked-out pickups, armed with 4-foot-high wheels studded with steel cleats that allow them to climb mountains of snow and volcanic rock with earsplitting power.
Years of economic boom and a legacy of American consumerism have turned such gas-guzzling behemoths into the favorite toys of thousands of people living in the land of pop star Björk.
But the good times are beginning to fade in the rearview mirror. Ballooning debt payments, punishing fuel prices and a cratering currency are killing a good buzz.
Every weekend, normally placid Icelanders go wild in the volcanic highlands. Their heavily modified trucks sometimes fall into crevasses or break through ice and need winching out. Tailgate parties are mandatory.
Many 4x4 enthusiasts wield their own blowtorches, rebuilding big American and Japanese 4-wheel-drive off-roaders to suit their taste. Local innovations include exhaust-fed balloons that can lift cars out of snowdrifts, and the "bumper dumper" -- a flip-down toilet seat on trucks' rear end for use in the wild.
Sveinbjörn Halldórsson, a 44-year-old real-estate agent from Reykjavík, drives a Chevy S10 pickup with a souped-up engine, 44-inch tires with spikes, and four kinds of radios and phones on the dashboard. Filling up the truck's 240-liter tank (about 63 gallons) for the weekend costs him nearly $500, with gas costing $7.84 a gallon. He rolls with one of many so-called gangs on Iceland's highly competitive 4x4 off-road vehicle scene.
Deep in Debt
A roaring economy since the 1990s has turned Iceland into one of the world's richest countries per capita. Today, its people are deep in debt. The cost of living is high and rising. The krona has fallen by 27% against the dollar since November, no small feat given the dollar's own nose dive. The krona's downfall has a silver lining for American tourists contemplating summer jaunts to Iceland. At least there's somewhere in Europe where dollars buy more than they did last year. But it is putting a strain on Icelanders who took out foreign-currency loans for cars or homes to avoid Iceland's high interest rates.
A once-booming real-estate market is now in free-fall. Last year, Mr. Halldórsson's company sold 30 apartments a month. Last month it sold three. "When the phone rings now, the noise shocks everybody," he says. As his payments balloon and times get tougher, he's having to skip jeep trips, including his gang's annual five-day glacier expedition later this month.
Sales of new trucks are plunging, dealers say. Emil Grímsson, whose company, Arctic Trucks, modifies Toyota and other Japanese off-roaders, says new orders are down to two to four a week, from 10 to 20 in January. He has sold just one bumper dumper all year.
The falling krona means gasoline prices have risen even faster in Iceland than they have elsewhere. Young jeep drivers are taking to the streets of Reykjavík to protest.
|Sometimes it's hard to tell what lies beneath the snow. On this occasion, it's a lake. Two trucks break the snow and ice covering the water.|
Samúel "Wolf" Thór Gudjónsson, a lanky 21-year-old electrician with long blond rocker's hair, joined with dozens of other jeep fans earlier this month to protest climbing fuel prices, blocking oil companies' depots. Others drove their jeeps through the city's streets at 5 miles an hour to demand cuts in fuel taxes.
Demonstrations are rare in stoical Iceland, a country of only 300,000 people. But the threat to jeep habits is just too much. Alfred "Spotti" Bergisson, a 26-year-old plumber who drives a beefed-up Toyota Land Cruiser, is willing to fight for his right to party. "I just want to go where I want to go," he says. "I get energy in the mountains. I think there."
Reykjavík's 6,000-strong 4x4 Club has clout. It previously talked the government into letting its once-outlaw trucks pass inspections, despite supersized wheels with studs that rip up roads. Many of the trucks wouldn't be street-legal elsewhere in Europe.
Icelanders take fun seriously, maybe because they didn't have much of it in the past. Life on this cold, windy island, with its fish-based economy and dark winters, was "dismal," says Thráinn Bertelsson, a movie director and author from Reykjavík. When American troops arrived during World War II, it was the first thing there had been to talk about for several centuries, he says.
"In the 1960s, there was nothing to do here except go see three-year-old American movies or have a fistfight with your neighbor," he says.
But prosperity took off in the 1990s and Icelanders discovered the pleasures of conspicuous consumption, paid for with plastic. The latest cars, mobile phones and widescreen TVs became de rigueur. The nation borrowed all it could, especially from foreigners.
"We used to believe in hidden people," says Mr. Bertelsson, referring to the huldufólk, or invisible elves some Icelanders still believe live among the rocks. "Now, we believe in money wizards who make money appear from nowhere."
Valgeir Gislason, a banker, borrowed in Swiss francs and yen to buy his big but unmodified Ford Expedition. He didn't think the krona would fall so far. "Some you win, some you lose," he says.
Heading for the Hills
On a recent weekend, Mr. Gislason pooh-poohed talk of economic crisis and headed for the hills with Mr. Halldórsson and his posse.
Fortune didn't smile on the trip. Mr. Halldórsson lost power steering on his Chevy while fighting with deep snow and had to abandon ship. When he picked it up later, an April blizzard had filled the inside with snow since he had left the sunroof ajar.
A rivalry between two other drivers -- retired pharmacist Jón Yngvarsson and his son, Örn Yngvir Jónsson -- led to further trouble. Both father and son drove giant Ford F-350 Super Duty pickups. Both have handheld devices with power-boost buttons that propel their cars up hillsides in a cloud of black smoke. Both cars broke through the ice covering a lake.
Mr. Jónsson's truck lay perilously on its side, wedged in snow above the water. It took three other trucks to pull it out.
Back on terra firma, Mr. Jónsson blasted up a steep hill that his father couldn't make. Eight miles past the hill, where no one else could reach him, Mr. Jónsson's car broke down.
"I really hate this sport," said Kerstin Langenberger, who runs the hut where Mr. Halldórsson's gang stopped for nighttime beers and barbecue. "Middle-aged men turn into 4-year-old boys. Unfortunately they have drivers' licenses."
The next day, the group towed Mr. Jónsson's car into a lava rock, smashing its steering. The group had to leave the car and hurry back to Reykjavík, where their wives awaited them impatiently at a confirmation party for the children of some friends.
That night, the gang drove back into the mountains, fixed the broken Ford in a snowstorm, and returned to Reykjavík at dawn, in time for work on Monday morning.
Between gas prices and the rising cost of food, beer and repairs, "these trips are getting very expensive," says a rueful Rúnar Sigurjónsson, a member of the gang. "It can add up to the cost of a weekend in London. And a weekend in London is not as much fun."
Write to Marcus Walker at email@example.com