When we think of Öhlins it is easy to attribute the utter domination of two and four wheel motorsport, plus OE arrangements with major manufacturers, to a massive global corporation like Ford, however the reality is very different. Employing just over 200 staff and located in a sleepy province away from Stockholm, the factory creates the most precise, technologically advanced suspension in the world, yet manages to exude a warm, almost 'small family business' mentality. It is essentially Swedish...
This charming, unspoilt and sparsely populated nation (it has 21 inhabitants per km2 v 229 per km2 for Germany) is home to huge forests (65% of its surface), lakes and arctic tundra to the north. Its main industries are timber, iron ore and high end technology. Interestingly, as a percentage of its Gross Domestic Product, the Swedish government spends the most of any nation on research and development, a philosophy wholeheartedly embraced by a certain suspension manufacturer in Upplands Vasby near Stockholm.
Sweden has never had F1 or MotoGP champions in its heritage but its racers have dug their own furrow, in the most earthy sense of the word….. Maybe because of its vast trails, adventurous inhabitants and easy access to land, Sweden has always been passionate for both Rallying and Motocross disciplines.
Home to legendary off-road bike manufacturer Husqvarna, Swedish riders were prodigious in World Motocross through the 60-70's with riders such as Bill Nilsson, Bengt Åberg, Torsten Hallman and 'our' own Thorleif Hansen.
In the 'hardman' events of Enduro, Anders Eriksson took the World crown an incredible seven times. It was in this backdrop of competitive spirit and pioneering engineering that Kenth Öhlin first rode then plied his trade, to lay the foundations that were later to come. Speedway and ice speedway are incredibly popular in Sweden and rank only behind football and ice hockey for viewing numbers.
On four wheels Stig Blomqvist, Per Eklund, Björn Waldegård and many others showed the world that Swedish Rally drivers were a force to be reckoned with.
The legendary Rally Sweden has now run since 1950 and is seen by many as the ultimate test of winter driving and is part of the prestigious WRC series.
Sweden has of course had success on the tarmac most notably with two time F1 runner-up Ronnie Peterson, who was taken before his time at Monza in 1978 and is still considered one of the all time greats with massive unfulfilled potential. Kenny Bräck took on the Yanks at their own game winning the Indy500 and Indycar championship whilst Rickard Rydell was a BTCC superstar in the 90's..On two wheels double World 125cc Champion Kent Andersson flew the blue and yellow flag in the eight litre GP class.
So that touches on the Motorsport heritage of Sweden but there is definitely something else that makes up the essence of the 'Öhlins spirit'...
WORD ASSOCIATION… LIVING THE STEREOTYPE?
We ran a 'Performance' test and asked 100 'foreigners' what words they associated with Sweden and these were the top results; healthy living, modern, clean, design lead, blondes, forests, Midnight Sun, Vikings, Volvo and of course, Abba!
As a visitor to the Öhlins factory this writer can confirm many of these stereotypes to be true and maybe, just maybe, are attributable in part of the DNA of this unique, worldwide brand.
The factory is indeed incredibly clean, efficient, modern and functional as you would expect, even to the extent that the staff canteen was a pleasurable experience!
There does seem to be a very high number of blonde employees at the factory, albeit mostly with moustaches and of the male variety. We also misjudged each interviewee's age by at least a decade, a nod to that healthy living, 'swimming up an icy river' image that we may have of the Swedes.
Every employee we spoke to seemed driven by a warm enthusiasm and pride for their job and for the company itself, a rare quality in any workforce.
Many of the team had spent time in the racetracks of the world assigned to two and four wheel squads or as R+D technicians. There is a sense of constant exploration and a desire to pioneer in new lands, perhaps part of the Viking bloodline but of course without the pillaging.
Obviously these are mere anecdotes and as we have said National stereotypes but you get the feeling that the Öhlins phenomenon has been created by the geography, history and people of Sweden.
SOME INTERESTING SWEDISH FACTS...
• Sweden boasts one of the highest life expectancies and one of the lowest birth rates in the world.
• Right hand driving was adopted in Sweden in 1967. One day at 4.50am everyone had to change from the left over to the right hand side of the road, in a perfectly executed logistical operation!
• All the Tsars of Russia till the last one, Nicholas II, were of Swedish Viking descent.
• On an average, Swedish women have their first child at 30 years.
• Some of the greatest pop bands and singers are Swedish, viz. Abba, Roxette, Ace of Base, A*Teens, The Cardigans, Robyn, etc.
• Sweden has the highest number of McDonald restaurants, per capita, in Europe.
• Sweden has the highest number of nuclear plants, per capita.
• Sweden was the first country to grant suffrage for (married) women in local elections.
• The first ice hotel of the world was built near the village of Jukkasjärvi, in Kiruna district of Sweden.
• The largest hemispherical building in the world, 'The Stockholm Globe Arena', is in Sweden. It is also the 'largest scale model of the Solar System' and hosts Ice hockey, sports and concerts.
• The proportion of personal computers, per capita, in Sweden is the highest in Europe.
• Swedes have been known for a number of inventions, including astronomical lens, zipper, marine propeller, refrigerator, computer mouse and pace-maker.
• Some of the biggest industrial companies registered in Sweden are Ikea, Volvo, Sandvik, Sony Ericsson, Scania and SKF
• The Nobel Prizes were founded by Alfred Nobel, a Swede who invented dynamite in 1866.
• The favourite dish of Swedes usually comprises of meatballs, with potatoes and lingonberry sauce.
• A popular souvenir in Sweden is the road sign for moose-crossing. Surprisingly, a large number of these signs are stolen from Swedish roads every year, mostly by tourists!