Nisse Häggblom is the dynamo of the Finnish outboard motor museum in Porvoo. The museum is an homage to outboards, the company he served for 50 years, and for a boy that grew to be a man.
I can’t see Nisse. In fact, I’ve never seen Nisse, but I have talked to him on the phone several times in the past few days. And even before I see him, I have created this mental image of a real Helsinkian kind of guy that has a Finnish equivalent to the American Southern drawl, and the confident but friendly attitude of an excellent salesman.
Even now, when I’m standing outside the almost 200-year-old wooden red house on the banks of the Porvoo river in the city of Porvoo, some 30 miles east of Helsinki, Finland, where I have come to meet him, I still can’t see him. But I can hear him. I still have that fast-talking, joke-cracking image in my mind. For some weird reason, the man in my head is wearing a blue captain’s hat. I can hear Nisse, coming down the stairs, under the huge wooden sign that says “Outboard museum”.
He’s talking, and I can only hear bits and pieces, some fragments of sentences, but my mental image still holds.
“Oh, oh, you’re already here, good, good, I thought … didn’t we say five, what time is it now … well, well, let’s go down here … watch your step, hi, hi, good, good, welcome, yes, it was good that we got it all set up so easily, yes, so, yes, here we are…” he says as he guides me past the red building, to the river bank.
He’s nothing like my mental image. No hat. Nisse’s tall and fit, and the red Johnson Motors jump suit he’s wearing, and the silver moustache under his nose remind me more of a retired astronaut than anything else. Nisse waves at the river and says:
“This is the thing. To be here, and to think that 150 years ago, there was somebody here with his boat, doing things.”
He pauses for a second. I sit down.
“Yeah, well, let’s go here,” he says and disappears through a door.
The Outboard museum is Nisse’s latest creation. Over the years, he’s been a boat racer in the off shore class, the owner of Finland’s fastest boat, a go-cart Dad, and wind surfer in the World Championships.
Nisse’s come a long way to go back to where it all began.
When he was 15, he took a job as an outboard motor repairman’s apprentice at Telva, a Helsinki family-owned company. The year was 1952 and Helsinki was the host of the Summer Olympics.
Nisse was born on Suomenlinna, a fortress on the islands just off Helsinki, making sea a natural element in his life element. Currently he has several boats, and his latest crush are 18th century traditional sailboats, but he says that the motors came first.
Nisse’s museum has several pockets, each one just as interesting to anybody who’s ever been interested in boats or motors. But what Nisse is most proud of, the corner he calls “The Thing,” is a replica of the motor shop he walked in back in 1952.
“This was my work place over 50 years ago,” he says, and points to motor parts, and old boxes containing spare parts from the 1930s and 1940s. A gas bill has been posted on the wall, a letter from a customer as well. “And this is a museum where you are definitely allowed to touch things,” he says, laughing.
And one thing is for sure. Everybody – no matter if you just happen to stumble into the museum on your way to somewhere else or if you’re an outboard motor expert – learns something during a visit at Nisse’s.
He turns around and points at a big, round, green outboard engine.
“This is good, this is good,” he chuckles. “Electric start motors were invented in the 1930s, but it took thirty years for them to find the right shape. This dynastart was manufactured in 1930, and you can still see these somewhere. The problem was that it wasn’t right for an outboard motor, so they vanished, but here, everybody can see how they worked. It’s a start and a generator in one. It was just too heavy, and probably overheated.”
Three steps closer to the door, Nisse stops again. He likes to have a theme for each summer, and this year’s theme is going to be engines from the 1950s and 1960s. Beautifully designed outboards and logotypes fill about one quarter of the room.
On the far side, where Nisse leaps in long steps, is the first industrially manufactured outboard, an Evinrude from 1911. And on the other side, there are photos of various events in Telva’s 70-year history, including the little red wooden house where Nisse lived for a while, in the early days.
It was there that Nisse saw an engine that he desperately wanted.
“There was a boat that had been hit by shrapnel during the war, and the owner had just left it there. But the outboard motor … I wanted it. I told my employer that I wanted it and that they could take the price out of my salary as long as they wanted, as long as they would tell me when it was mine,” Nisse says.
“And now, lo and behold, that one is the most incredible engine in the world: it’s a 1927 five cylinder star engine, with 50 horsepower. That’s unreal, the biggest ones at that time used to be 25 hp. I got that in 1954, when I was 17, and I still have it.”
And soon, that one engine got company. Nisse went from apprentice to a repairman, and to sales and marketing, all the while collecting – or, “putting aside” – outboards.
When he retired from Telva “in 2002, or so, I’m still there a couple of times a week,” something had to be done to all the engines, put aside. Nisse and Telva’s owner, third-generation boss for Nisse sat down to think.
“He became a mesenate for this museum,” Nisse says. “Now we have formed a real supporting association with him, myself and my son, and we’ve got all the major outboard brands to support the museum, too.”
At 69, Nisse has a five-year-plan for the museum and its future. Meanwhile, he has his own spread to fill in a Finnish boating magazine every month, his sail boats, and finding new outboards for the museum that will also – according to Nisse’s plans – include a boating library, a special treasury for vintage outboards for serious fans, and a room where the collectors can sit and read.
Nisse’s simply having a time of his life.
“I’ve worked for a long time so everybody seems to wish me well. I’m sure I am in a better position than a lot of other collectors because people seem to like me,” he says.
“I get about 30 to 40 donations each year, and by the way, I haven’t bought one since the first one. They’re all donations. I take them all, even if I can see that the engine in question is nothing special. Often it is such a big thrill for other person to be able to give me something,” he says.
As far as the five-year plan is concerned, Nisse’s taking it easy. His son would seem like a natural choice to carry on the museum, but Nisse says he doesn’t want his son to go crazy with outboards.
“Although, I’m not crazy about motors, not all motors. I’m not into cars or motorcycles. Well, Telva sells other kinds of boat engines as well, but I’ve said I don’t know anything about them, even though I do. The outboards are enough for me,” Nisse says.
He’s quiet for a second, looking into the distance. The distance is only two meters – the room is not that big – and the silence is short.
“Hey, there’s a wind surfing trophy,” he says and leaps up. “Wind Surfing Finnish Grandmaster,” he reads.
“There was a time when wind surfing was everything for me. I took part in five World Championships on five continents, the last one in Australia in 1986. I didn’t win anything. I was probably too old when that sport came to Finland.”
“But it’s always nice to come up with something cool.”
Published in Twentyfour7 in 2006.