It's a few hours before dawn on Dec. 20--a Saturday--and the 405 and 5 freeways around Irvine are slammed. Porsches and Lamborghinis and other exotic cars are clipping along, some at speeds and RPMs normally reserved for a racetrack, until they hit the gridlock, all headed toward the same Alton Parkway, Irvine Center Drive and 133 exits lit up red on Waze and Google Maps.
As the clock clicks closer to 7 a.m., the traffic gets heavier, briefly forming a solid row of cars stretching to a large parking lot just north of the El Toro Y that's shared by Ford's California design team and Mazda's corporate offices. As the cars idle while waiting to get in, their engines produce a symphony of roars, purrs, putters, growls and zooms. These are special cars--restored bombs, gleaming land yachts, Italian sports coupes, Asian imports, Beamers, school projects, a military troop carrier, a collection of Volkswagen buses and beetles, and dozens of other pretties for weekend warriors to gawk at and praise.
They all eventually pull single file into the Ford/Mazda lot, slowly crawling as the drivers follow signs and volunteers to empty spots. Drivers and passengers--older white men wearing bomber jackets; wealthy foreign-born Asians, Asian Americans and Middle Eastern men; and a handful of women, children and dogs--get out of their cars and start to wander, walking the lot and literally kicking the tires of the cars that have gathered.
Hundreds of people wield professional-grade cameras and bend, crouch and click to get a perfect shot of tens of millions of dollars' worth of cars. At least three different video crews are present, each working on a personal passion project. Proud owners stand next to their vehicles, ready to explain any detail of the body or engine or upholstery. Some of the cars display for-sale signs, while others advertise race teams or smaller meet-ups. Spectators sit on the sidewalks flanking the exit, hoping to see some of the cars burn out as they leave (nearly none do, thanks to an overwhelming police presence).
And that's what everyone does for the next two hours. They're at the largest unofficial car show in Orange County: Cars and Coffee Irvine, a weekly showcase going on for eight years. The inspiration for more than 100 other such events across the world, it's a get-together so popular that people travel from China, South Africa and Sweden to attend; this edition is the largest ever. Despite the early call time and the traffic, everyone is in high spirits.
But what the attendees don't know is that in a few hours, once they get back into their cars and drive off to brunch, the most popular, influential car cruise in Orange County history will close possibly forever, too popular for its own good.
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Cars and Coffee Irvine calls itself a cruise, but that's a bit of a misnomer. Other than filing in and (very occasionally) peeling out, there's no actual parade of cars. For enthusiasts, a "car cruise" refers to a specific type of event: a semi-impromptu, mostly spontaneous meet-up for which drivers pick a day to show off their wheels at a public space to anyone who shows up. The events can be one-offs or recurring. Then, just as quickly as they appear, everyone takes off until the next one.
The cruises stand apart from regular car shows and competitions with their lack of structure and formality. It helps if you know your CCs from your NOS, but no one will look down on you if you don't. There's no formal competition, no assigned parking, no club, no drama. For a weekly event, it's the kind of low-pressure, high-reward get-together that's perfect to foster a mini-society of fans and participants who show up when it's easy for them and who fall in love with the event all over again each time they attend.
It's a phenomenon that has existed in some form or another since cars themselves were invented, and its strongest roots can be found in Southern California, birthplace of basically every American car-culture trend ever. Orange County hosts multiple well-known cruises, with alliteration-loving names such as Donut Derelicts in Huntington Beach (for muscle cars and hot rods) and Bimmers and Bagels in Yorba Linda (BMWs). But the most famous one is Cars and Coffee Irvine, which ran nearly every Saturday from 7 to 9 in the morning since 2006. It became not only the largest--during the past year, around 1,000 cars showed up every week--but also the one that drew the most attention, getting coverage in all the major car magazines and blogs.
The support from major car companies and its central location near multiple freeways played huge roles in Cars and Coffee's success, sure. But also key was the dedicated team of half a dozen unpaid volunteers who put each show on, people who loved their cars and wanted to show them off to other fanatics. That passion drew a caliber of vehicles and people that allowed Cars and Coffee to create an environment that embraced all makes and models
And now, it's no more.
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"I'm surprised it lasted eight years, honestly," says 67-year-old John Clinard, special-events manager at Ford. As one of the primary organizers of the event, he's a recognizable face in a bright-red Cars and Coffee hat. On Saturdays, he and his wife, Linda, arrive around 5 a.m. to prep the location; he often directs traffic. On Fridays before the event, he gets an early start by putting up signs.
"An advantage we had was that we were very remote, away from residential areas," he continues. "But we had to end the event because we've outgrown our lot size. It's gotten unwieldy, and we've had to turn people away."
Combine that with planned housing developments across the street and a newly built hotel, and Cars and Coffee's organizers saw the end coming and decided to finish on top.
Clinard and the other organizers determined the Dec. 27 meet-up would be the last at that location and Dec. 20 the penultimate, making the announcement through a press release sent to several websites and distributed through message boards and Facebook. The car culture recoiled in shock almost immediately. National and international publications eulogized the event using phrases such as "the big one," "the original" and "legendary." The Daily Pilot and Orange County Register published articles, though the event had always shunned local media in an effort to extend its longevity.
Unsurprisingly, the announcement sparked even more interest.
"Cars and Coffee had always been seen as a 500-car, 1,000-car-guy Saturday-morning event," says 72-year-old Barry Meguiar, the quick-to-smile host of the Velocity Channel's Car Crazy and president of Meguiar's Inc., a company that sells car-care products. "But the thing was, it was always 500 different cars and 1,000 different guys. When people heard they were the last two events, they decided they had to come to 'their' event."
And they did. More than 2,000 cars arrived on Dec. 20, quickly filling the exhibition and spectator lots. Overflow parking spilled into an unaffiliated Marriott parking lot, which became flush with so many rare cars that dozens of spectators wandered there to browse. Some late first-time visitors didn't realize that lot wasn't the main event until they saw crowds crossing the street. The Irvine Police Department, which routinely attends to make sure the event stays well-behaved, needed to direct pedestrian traffic, occasionally stopping cars in the middle of the road so hordes of people could cross and single-file their way through a hedge.
It was orderly chaos, but too much for the organizers, who decided to cancel the final Dec. 27 meet.
"Regrettably, due to overcrowding on Dec. 20 beyond our designated property, plus safety concerns associated with vehicle and pedestrian traffic, Cars and Coffee is canceled for Dec. 27," reads the official announcement delivered to a few choice websites and by word of mouth.
"How anti-climactic that we didn't even have a last day," Meguiar says. "But what a tribute."
What's left are the event's final numbers: eight years; 410 Saturdays; 185,000 cars exhibited; 450,000 visitors from across the world. Yet, legendary as Cars and Coffee Irvine might be, it hasn't always been "Cars and Coffee." And truth be told, this isn't even the first time it has been forced from its venue. Cars and Coffee started as a migration of another event, which ran from 2003 to 2006 at Newport Beach's Crystal Cove Promenade.
"We had no name, and it was informal," Clinard says. "Just 'Hey, drive to Crystal Cove.'" The Crystal Cove event was itself an offshoot of Donut Derelicts in Huntington Beach, one of the oldest active cruises in the United States, dating back to 1986. A group of attendees splintered off because of the Derelicts' focus on hot rods and muscle cars, bringing their European makes to Newport Coast and taking over a parking lot between Mastro's Steakhouse and Javier's.
After three years and ever-increasing crowds, the event drew the ire of the Irvine Co., Crystal Cove Promenade's owners. There was never any rent paid to or permission asked of the company; people just showed up one day, and the Irvine Co. tolerated them. But the landlord eventually asked the group to leave--not because of noise or even the crowds, but because it feared that the plaza would lose some of its tenants.
Looking for a new location, a group of regulars met at Ford during the final week of the Crystal Cove event to strategize. "We had to decide on a location that day so we could put fliers in everyone's cars on that last Saturday," says Meguiar. "Absent an obvious choice, [Clinard and Ford Director of Strategic Design Freeman Thomas] offered their parking lot as a temporary location until we could find a permanent place to move the cruise. The rest is history."
It was supposed to be a temporary spot, but the Ford/Mazda parking lot quickly became a permanent home, a perfect host. It could easily fit more than 500 display cars, and its placement near a secondary parking structure meant spectators who didn't want to show off could park without getting car-shamed. No residential neighborhoods were located nearby, meaning few people could make noise complaints--an issue that many early-morning car cruises inevitably face.
The first event in 2006 attracted 350 cars, and it grew from there. There was never any kind of marketing--a Facebook page exists, but it's not run by any of Cars and Coffee Irvine's core volunteers. Rather, most of the event's buzz came from message postings and social media.
"I found out about it by Googling," says Mike Clark, a late-twentysomething who used to take his modified 1987 Buick Grand National to Cars and Coffee Irvine regularly for a year. "I tried some of the smaller meet-ups, but they turned out to be kind of boring--either small turnouts or teens who wanted to show off their shiny muffler on their Honda. Cars and Coffee popped up a lot on forums, but I didn't think a car show would ever be worth waking up at 6 a.m. [for] until a friend told me I had to go. Once there, I realized it was a pretty cool show."
By the beginning of 2014, Clinard and the volunteers prepared for 1,000 cars each weekend. During the last few events, they attracted more than double that. "The official hours were always from 7 to 9 on a Saturday morning, and at first that's what people adhered to," Clinard says. "But as attendance grew to crowd the lot, people started coming earlier to make sure they got a spot. In recent months, it's been more like 5 to 9."
"It got to the point to where I thought I needed to get there around 4 o'clock," adds Meguiar.
"Once we moved to Ford, it became more of a cross-section of all cars," says Larry Alderson, general manager of Crevier Classic Cars. "It's become more American. It used to be a lot of Ferraris, but now there's a lot of Porsches, too. There's also a huge group of Asian men who drive GT-Rs and Audis, all with turbos. We're talking thousands of horsepower. That group has their own area. I think it was because we were at the Ford performance design center. The connotation brought the muscle-car guys, the Ford guys."
Cars and Coffee developed its own notoriety, becoming a mecca for car-lovers and attracting personalities including Jay Leno and racing legend Dan Gurney. Leading up to and immediately after the LA Car Show, car companies showed unreleased cars and concepts at the event--surprises once reserved for auto-trade insiders. The 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata was displayed there, as well as the Toyota FT-1 (an unreleased concept car). The BAC Mono, a one-seater, street-legal race car, made its United States debut in the parking lot. Each year, cruise organizers got at least one or two requests for car companies to participate.
"You can go to car shows such as the LA Car Show, and I belong to so many car clubs, but that's a bunch of small campfires of enthusiasts," says David Wilhelm, of Newport Beach.
He grew up admiring the cars of the '50s and developed a love for Ferraris while in dental school in the 1960s. "Cars and Coffee is what happens when you get all of these campfires together. The great thing was it didn't matter how successful you were, whether you owned your business or where the decimal point was in your bank account. It was about the love of cars. In fact, some of the lesser expensive cars like rat rods showed more creativity, more enthusiasm for the hobby than the $100,000 Ferraris did.
"The attraction was that it didn't matter what you owned. What mattered was the enthusiasm."
Halfway through the Dec. 20 finale, a nasty car accident interrupted the festivities. A blue Miata, attempting to turn left at the corner of Gateway and Irvine Center Drive, collided with a Ford F-150 driving straight forward. The entire front of the Miata was totaled, but its frame stood strong, protecting the occupants.
Crushed, the coupe lay in the center of the intersection, unable to move. The truck was also gravely wounded, the lower part of its front grill smashed in, but it managed to be brought to the side of the road, leaking fluids with its last lurches forward.
The Irvine Police Department arrived a minute after receiving a call and were soon joined by the Orange County Fire Authority. They sprayed the Miata down with fire retardant; one person was taken to the hospital as a precaution. A crowd gathered around the accident, sticking to the sidewalks and crossing the crosswalks to get a better look.
"What's a bad way to start your weekend?" one man wearing a fading baseball cap remarked to the eye rolls of nearly everyone within earshot.
"I hope no one got hurt," a woman announced to no one in particular.
"I wonder what happened," remarked a teenager a few feet away to two companions.
"Well, I think that guy was turning, and that guy kept going," another teen said.
"Yeah, that makes sense," responded a third. "I almost did the same thing during driver's ed, but they had one of those cars with two sets of pedals."
Confident with their version of the events, the teens quieted as they and others watched police officers measure off distances. Just a few yards away, a BMW M6, a $110,000 sports car, inched its way out of a parking lot, no one noticing except for the people directly in front of it, blocking its path to the exit.
And that's the kind of place and event Cars and Coffee is. Accidents come, and high-priced cars go, but the focus is on the community; you can talk about any aspect of car culture, no matter how mundane, and find an audience more than happy to talk shop. The showcase vehicles are the initial draw, but you can go to a dealer or online forums for that. People stay for the camaraderie.
And there's still hope for it to continue. Rumors of a new venue began popping up immediately after the closure notice became public. People speculated the event could move to the vast asphalt stretches of the old El Toro Marine Base (which hosts several invite-only track days and is used as the test track for the American version of Top Gear) or the Orange County Fairgrounds.
Some attendees are returning to Donut Derelicts, which takes place at roughly the same time, or a Tustin meet organized by OC Xotics, a Lamborghini-loving crew. Roughly 100 cars have peeled off to the District at Tustin Legacy along with several of Cars and Coffee's long-term organizers. They hope to find a new home there, with a deal in ink hopefully soon.
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Meanwhile, Aliso Viejo officials are courting the meet-up, seeing the event as a possible boon to both the residents and the businesses in the city. "The guys in town and their kids would love it," says Mayor Pro Tem Mike Munzing, who attended the last event with incoming mayor Bill Phillips. "It's successful, high-wealth people with real passion."
But whatever happens, something will fill the void. Something always does.
"We don't know what's going to happen yet," Clinard says. "There is no Cars and Coffee organization; there's no one in charge, per se. . . . What generally happens is these things morph into other get-togethers--large, small or both.
"They pop up whenever people get together and say, 'Let's do it,'" he continues. "In Orange County, I'm sure something will happen because people want it to."