Interstate 5 from Los Angeles is six lanes wide and, at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, nearly empty; it has a nervous quality. Everyone knows the emptiness won't last. So people speed and weave and dodge and don't signal.
Los Angeles, and Southern California, is the heart of car culture. Its highways, the arteries. Red, white and black metal cells carrying people in every direction, flying above each other on intricate overpasses in the sky. Millions of tiny pistons pumping to move machines in infinite directions.
The reason for being on the I-5 so early is to get to Cars and Coffee in Irvine, 45 minutes – without traffic – down the coast from L.A. The meet in Irvine is the original, but has spawned at least 19 similar events in the United States, Europe and Canada. I'm not the only one making this pilgrimage.
A million-dollar Porsche 918 Spyder comes up fast in the rear-view, speeding in the HOV lane.
My rental car is out-gunned by 742 horsepower but hangs with the Porsche and it leads us straight to the parking lot where Cars and Coffee is held every Saturday. The setting is a corporate complex, home to Ford, Mazda and Taco Bell. The companies donate their parking lots. A handful of volunteers, all in matching red hats, do what little organizing is necessary.
The crowd is mostly male, an even mix of young and old. Many of them encircle the 918, using cellphones and DSLRs to document the fact they once stood this close to a unicorn. And … that's it. Cars and Coffee is that simple: look at cars, take pictures of cars, talk about cars. People get up early on a Saturday just for this. By 7:30 a.m., all the spots in the main parking lot are taken.
This will seem strange to people for whom cars are just an expense, a type of transportation, or worse, a blight on the environment and cities. It feels strange to like cars in 2014. Admitting this in regular company feels embarrassing.
And so, even though Cars and Coffee is overflowing, it feels small. Or rather, it feels like a small sub-culture, far from the mainstream. It's a bit like Comic-Con without the cosplay.
Dan Gurney is sitting in a golf kart, not far from the 918 crowd, signing autographs. For the uninitiated, he's a retired race car legend and team owner. He's in my top three or four American race drivers of all time.
The crowd is eclectic, ranging from Skinny Videographer to Accidentally Normcore to Big Sports Fan. It's the one place where grown men are encouraged to wear T-shirts with cars on them. It's a safe space. I'm home. These are my people.
In the 1950s and 1960s it must have been so easy, so natural to like cars. They must have felt fast, modern, full of promise. In the postwar years, cars transformed the way we lived. They let middle-class families move to the suburbs to grab their own piece of land. Cities built mega-highways as wide as football fields, monuments to a new, faster, more convenient way of life.
Part of Interstate 5 that carried me southeast to Irvine was built in the 1950s. Sections of it are known as the Golden State Freeway, a name shining with hope. It cut right through a low-income Mexican-American neighbourhood.
In the United States, greasers, rock 'n' roll and hot rods were cool. So were Steve McQueen and James Dean – in part, because they were gearheads – not despite it. Now the biggest celebrities car culture can muster are Jay Leno and Frankie Muniz.
Culture has changed. Cities have changed. Gridlock has set in. Los Angeles feels stuck in a state of perpetual rush hour.
Everything in Los Angeles moves faster than cars. You sit, you wait, you're trapped, you're bored, you only have so many podcasts on your phone and you're running low, and you try to resist the urge to send a text or check your e-mail and you think about all this by which time maybe you've crawled a bit closer to your destination. Insects buzz past you out the side window.
If Los Angeles is the heart of car culture, its arteries are fatally clogged.
And it's the same in every major city. In Toronto, snow moves faster than cars on a winter day. It doesn't matter if you're in a 900-horsepower hybrid or a 140-horsepower rental. The average speed on my daily commute is 17 km/h. Cars have become slow.
Not only are cars slow, they're also doing great violence to our environment. They are one of the engines of climate change, chugging out so many grams of CO2 for every kilometre. Little wonder being into cars has gone so far out of fashion.
In 2011, the portion of Americans aged 16-24 who have driver's licences dropped to 67 per cent, the lowest point in nearly 50 years, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.
Those left liking cars can get behind the Fast and Furious franchise, even though it's dumber than a lug nut because it's the only part of pop culture that acknowledges us. We have references in Kanye West songs that make us feel relevant – something about bumper stickers on a Maybach – and Lorde, too, when she sings "Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece." But they're singing about status, not about how great individual throttle bodies are. We even watch webisodes of Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee – though they're not that funny.
Being there in that suburban parking lot, so early on a Saturday, for Cars and Coffee, only reinforced just how far gearheads have travelled from the mainstream.
The drive back to my hotel, northbound on Interstate 5, takes an hour and a half. Traffic is terrible.
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