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Coffee, cars and a parking lot: These informal gatherings are pushing past the barriers of traditional car shows

For those who partake in the low-commitment Cars and Coffee movement, it doesn’t matter what you’ve brought – only that you bothered to show up.

brendan mcaleer/The Globe and Mail

The jumble of cars sitting at the Universal Studios parking lot might as well be a child’s random assortment of Hot Wheels.

A last-of-breed air-cooled 911. A battered old 1950s Chevrolet pickup truck. A pair of Datsun 240Zs, one flawless, one weathered. A Nash Metropolitan with a Corvette engine. A perfect 2000 Honda Civic Si.

No car show would ever offer up such a hodgepodge, heterogeneous mix. But this isn’t a car show: there are no judges, no trophies, no placards. There aren’t even any gates to go through. Instead, owners mill around, talking shop for an hour or two, and then climb in to fire up their cars and drive off, seemingly at random.

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Some stay 15 minutes, others an hour. By mid-morning, the parking lot’s empty. For those who partake in the Cars and Coffee movement, the rest of the weekend is for chores, family time or driving. This is just the coffee break.

Thousands of kilometres north, the same sort of thing takes place atop a North Vancouver mountain. A Ferrari 308 noses in between a VW Bus and a slammed Toyota Cressida drift car. A prewar Invicta pulls up alongside a row of BMW M2s. Once again, there doesn’t seem to be rhyme or reason to the mix – someone’s even brought out a beige 1990s Corolla with a roof rack.

But if you look closer, there’s a pretty obvious commonality. There are no barriers here, no specific allegiances to brand, era or country of origin. Showing up with a Mustang at Camaro-con might get you tarred and feathered; here, it doesn’t matter what you’ve brought, only that you bothered to show up.

Today, you can find events such as these all across North America. In smaller towns, it might be a handful of cars. In larger cities, finding large enough parking lots is a constant problem. As with so many movements in popular car culture, everything can be traced back to sunny Southern California.

The epicentre was the Adams Avenue Donuts parking lot in Huntington Beach; the first meet, held in the early 1980s, was just a handful of old hot-rodders, looking to take a break from wrenching to flap their gums about new projects.

SoCal is constantly saturated in car culture of all types. Donut Derelicts, as the show became known, was just the particle to crystallize everything out of solution. Soon, the big names of hot-rodding were showing up with their latest projects, and the lot was regularly packed by just after 6 a.m.

With space at a premium, a couple of regulars broke off to hold another event at the Crystal Cove mall, and this would adopt the Cars and Coffee moniker in 2003.

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Eventually, this too would reach a critical mass, and fracture into any number of meet-ups, held early on weekend mornings all across L.A.

For Geoff Peterson, who organizes the Cars and Coffee series of events in Vancouver, capturing the all-makes magic of the original Californian events was the ultimate goal. “I loved that you could see a steam-powered car parked next to the latest McLaren,” he said. “It’s a melting pot of everything automotive.”

“The aim is to keep it open to everyone, with a real family atmosphere. We like to have our events on short notice, so it spreads by word of mouth. Then, we’re out of there early, so we don’t disturb business or neighbours.”

Peterson and his partner Loren Freeman have seen a huge recent growth in attendance, which makes finding space challenging. However, the crowd is mostly self-policing: There are no burnouts, no wildly revving engines. There’s a level of respect here, even though attendees are all-ages.

It’s the same story at Engineered Automotive’s huge facility in Concord, Ont. Probably the largest Cars and Coffee event in Canada, the first Sunday of every month sees as many as 2,000 attendees spilling into neighbouring lots. However, the atmosphere is primarily one of respect.

EA has been running their Cars and Coffee for a dozen years now, but service manager Dave Tomassetti can’t put his finger on a single standout vehicle. “We’re all huge car nuts here,” he said. “It’s more a thrill to see all the mix of cars here from old school to new school. We’ve even had manufacturers show up with new models before they’re released to the public. We want it to be open to everyone.”

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Formal car shows and swap meets aren’t likely to fall out of favour any time soon. Focusing on particular marques or countries has the kind of appeal that will pull in cars from all across a large region. For those with something a little rare in the garage, a show is a great way to make the long-distance connections you might need for spare parts, or to find a good home for a beloved project car. Yet the laid-back, low-commitment vibe of the Cars and Coffee movement has changed automotive enthusiasm forever, and for the better.

It provides an excuse to get a rarely driven machine out of the garage to blast the cobwebs off. It broadens the minds of those who might find themselves obsessing over the minutiae of their favourite brand, to the exclusion of other breeds. And, lastly, it breaks down the barriers between generations.

While many traditional show events inadvertently place participants into boxes, either by overarching theme or just group parking, Cars and Coffee doesn’t come with rules.

It’s just a morning in a parking lot, blowing the steam off a cup of joe and shaking hands with someone you’ve never met before. Like back when you were a kid, bringing a pocketful of wheeled wonders to school and making friends at recess. It’s only a morning, but it’s the kind of quality time the world could use a little more of.

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