Every so often, a primordial roar reverberates throughout the parking lot of West Town Mall, stunning the senses anew each time. After its initial impact on your eardrums, you can feel it thrum through your chest and go down to your toes, causing a momentary instinctual panic. It’s a sound that’s both familiar and hard to place—you’ve heard it before, probably at a movie theater, but not out in the wild. You don’t know whether to jump out of the way or seek out its source.
These brutal blasts of unmuffled V8 ferocity have been all but engineered out of contemporary automobiles. But here at Cars & Coffee, a seasonal gathering of motor tribes, they are both a frequent reminder of an era when cars were more than just appliances and a personal proclamation: My car’s a badass.
Car shows are nothing new—owners have wanted to show off their beloved rides since they were invented. But Cars & Coffee is something different. Rather than devoting itself to a particular car model or type like most shows (say, the Corvette Expo or the Street Rod Nationals), it is a democratic assembly of every sort of vehicle: Come one, come all. There are no restrictions or fees or requirements. Just drive in, park your car, and you’re part of the show.
On this bright Sunday morning in April, about 4,000 cars, trucks, and motorcycles have converged in West Town’s parking lot, stretching from the mall’s west entrance off Montvue Road around to its front lot along Kingston Pike. Presented (and paid for) by Harper Auto Square once every spring, summer, and fall, this particular Cars & Coffee event has become a phenomenon in itself—one of the biggest C&C meetups in the U.S., according to the fellow responsible for orchestrating the event, Harper’s marketing manager, Bill Johnson.
“There’s everything—there’s antique cars, there’s street rods, there’s muscle cars, then there’s an absolute cross section of every kind of new or late-model car that’s available today,” Johnson enthuses. “We’ll have Ferraris, Lamborghinis, McClarens. We’ve had a couple of military vehicles. And in the summer of 2014 we actually had a Formula 1 race car, which is of course one of the most exotic cars in the entire world. A gentleman who lives here in Knoxville has a couple of them, and he was kind enough to bring one.”
The origins of Cars & Coffee are difficult to pin down—the name’s original trademark holder claims to have started the first C&C in Atlanta in 2001; meanwhile, the now defunct Irvine (Calif.) Cars and Coffee also claimed to be the first, with weekly meetups that became nationally famous. A trademarked logo currently appears to be owned by a Newport Beach, Calif., company named Cars and Coffee, Inc. Regardless, everyone from car manufacturers to car collectors have glommed onto the name and its self-explanatory invitation: Park your car at a local establishment, drink some coffee, meet some fellow gearheads.
While West Knoxville’s European Auto Garage claims the oldest Cars & Coffee meetup in the area, Harper started its edition in 2012 with about 400 cars. Now it rents West Town’s parking lot from 8 to 11 a.m., before the mall opens on Sunday, for a shock-and-awe invasion of thousands. Within that three-hour span, a mid-sized village suddenly rises out of the morning fog, gathering unique vehicles and their owners, before dissipating with the noon-time sun.
Many of the participants mix and mingle, but others park their cars in tribal circles according to their belief systems. One row contains the Volkswagen GTI faithful, their hot hatches suspiciously low to the ground and adorned with discreet decals of aftermarket parts suppliers; another row unites the original VW Bugs in all their ovoid glory, boxer engines dryly rasping for breath. A couple of rows over, advocates of 1960s muscle cars create a gleaming wall of chrome and metal-flake paint. (And they are most likely the ones who will rev their engines to ear-blasting levels.)
In the middle of one lot, a group of monster trucks confer, their cabs jacked up to the heavens for no particular reason other than the fact that it’s mechanically possible and what the hey. Off to the side, a bevy of rusting rat rods encrusted with odds and ends from a variety of makes huddle together, possibly whispering dark secrets. Near a contingent of British roadsters, the smells of oil and gas perfume the air as ancient SU carburetors flex their pistons, a reminder that cars were once machines with a life of their own.
Harper’s next Cars & Coffee event is July 10, back at West Town Mall, starting at 8 a.m. Who knows who you’ll meet? Until then, here are some dossiers on just a few of the likely characters and their loved ones. For a full gallery of cars and their owners from the April 24 event, go here.
1966 Chevrolet Chevelle SuperSport
“It’s pretty rare. A lot of SS Chevelles are Malibus that people clone and put all the SS stuff on it. So you have to watch out for that if you’re buying one—make sure it’s a matching numbers car. You have to know where to look for the numbers.”
Why Is This the Car for You?
“I looked for this particular car probably for a year. I wanted to find a true SuperSport car with matching numbers, but it was the color I was looking for—the Marina Blue—and the four-speed with bucket seats.
“I had some of these here when I was young. Growing up I probably had two or three of them and let ’em go—didn’t realize they would get to the point where they are now in price.
“I actually bought this from a guy I’ve known 25 years—he deals in them. I put a little bit into it: I put different wheels on it and put a carburetor on it, and done a little exhaust work. Hadn’t done a whole lot to it, but I wanted to make it my own.”
Will You Ever Sell It?
“A lot of people have asked about buying it, and I don’t want to sell it. But everything’s for sale. When people have asked me to put a price on it, one thing I told them was: ‘Put a wheelbarrow next to me and start dumpin’ money in it, and I’ll tell ’em when to quit.’”
1978 MGB Roadster
How Did You Find Yourself in an MGB?
“My husband—right over there in his 1967 MGB GT. When we first met each other and were talking about getting married, we went over to his friend’s house, where he had been working on restoring the MGB. And I told him that when I was younger, I had wanted a car like this when I was in high school but my dad wouldn’t let me have one—where I lived I would’ve gone over a mountain or been run over by a coal truck. So the next thing I knew I came home and he said he’d gotten me something—it was the car. And it came with a ring.”
So, Are Those Stories About British Sports Car Reliability True?
“Yes, there have been a couple of times that I’ve been sitting on the side of the road. Lucas Electrical is known as ‘the prince of darkness’ because all of your electrical stuff stops working. So that’s happened a couple of times. And then just trying to get carbeurators adjusted and everything—it’s sort of a job sometimes, but it’s running great now. You have to stay on top of them.”
Is It Worth It?
“Yeah! It’s fun, it’s something my husband and I do together. We’ve met great people who enjoy it as well—we joined a club and it’s fun just getting together with them, going to shows or just hanging out. It gets lots of smiles. And a lot of people will stop and say, ‘When I was younger, I had one of those.’ I think it brings back a lot of good memories for a lot of people.”
The Owen Family
1965 Ford Country Squire Wagon—towing a Feather Craft speedboat once piloted by a member of Knoxville’s Flying Boatmen
1969 Ford Torino
1968 Mustang convertible
1967 Shelby Mustang
Cobra kit car
How Did You Come to Be a Car Family?
Penny Owen (mom): “We’ve got generations of cars and stories and great friends. Grandad Ted, the original, he had a service station and they just loved cars. They have always loved cars. And my grandchildren, they love the cars. Dogs and cars—that’s what we’re about. We were part of the original Mustang club, the Volunteer Regional Group. We had a national car show at the World’s Fair—we were the first thing the World’s Fair booked.”
What’s Your Go-To Car?
Doug Owen (dad): “My favorite is probably the Shelby. Found it in the Coalfield Times News in Wise, Va., 35 years ago. It was about $4,500. That one right there is now worth about $100,000. The car was actually a friend’s of mine—I was with him when he bought it. And he had some issues at home and he said, ‘I’m afraid somebody’s going to come and get my car. It might get stolen, so do you mind if I put it in your basement?’ And then he passed away. His wife said ‘I wouldn’t want anybody else to have that car because you’ve kept it and maintained it. I want you to have it.’”
Do You Have a Dream Car Not in Your Collection?
Doug Owen (dad): “No, not really. At my age, everything’s fine.”
Why Did You Decide on Getting a Country Squire Wagon Instead of an SUV?
Brad Owen (son): “Because it’s cool. That’s right—it’s the only one here! I had an old truck that the wife and I would ride in, but when you have kids they don’t fit into the truck, so we found the wagon to haul everybody and then we got the boat to go along with it. We try to go out in the fall and spring—it doesn’t have air conditioning, so it’s just better to drive in those two seasons. We go all over—we’ve been as far as Champagne, Ill., but mostly it’s to the mountains or to the lake or the Dogwood Trails.”
Do the Kids Really Like It?
Brad Owen: “Depends on if we have ice cream or not. If we have ice cream, we’re good.”
1989 Nissan Silvia
How Did You Legally Buy a Japanese-Market Nissan With Right-Hand Drive?
“I imported it through Japanese Classics in Richmond, Va. We brought it over October 2014, just after it turned 25 years old, which makes it federally legal—it’s titled with the actual Japanese VIN number. It’s been a real pain in the neck getting and keeping insurance because the VIN number is really, really short—the insurance company kept sending me letters saying ‘Your VIN number is incorrect.’”
So What Makes This Different From the U.S. Version, the 240SX?
“For one thing, in the U.S. market they used the same motor they put in Nissan trucks, a 2.4 liter naturally aspirated engine. In Japan, they most always had a turbocharged motor. This one has a dual-cam 1.8 liter with a turbo on it from the factory. It’s got power folding mirrors—streets are small in Japan so they need the ability to fold the mirrors in—and right-hand drive, obviously.”
It’s Got Rear-Wheel Drive. Have You Done Any Drifting?
“I have—it does get sideways on occasion. I don’t beat it to death because it’s a pretty rare car, still to this day. I don’t drive it much, it stays in the garage most of the time.”
Why Is This Car the One for You?
“It’s often under the radar because it’s kind of subtle and people don’t know what it is. But when you see people who do know what it is, you get a crowd. I really enjoy that—that’s why I got the car and why I bring it out.”
1971 Ford Ranchero Squire
What Kind of Custom Work Have You Done on It?
“Front bumper’s gone, back bumper’s gone, everything’s molded in. Three-inch chop on the top. It’s a ’71 351 Cleveland motor, 671 blower, two 600 Holley carburetors, just built! It gets a lot of attention.”
How Did You Acquire It?
“I’ve owned it 42 years. I traded a ’69 [Mustang] Mach 1 for it. Drove it for five years to work and then decided to put it up and start working on it and showing it. It was originally the Squire model—had woodgrain on it like a station wagon. Had a little wreck in ’97—it had fiberglass trim around the woodgrain, and it was impossible to find so we took it all off.”
Why Did You Trade a Mach 1 for a Ranchero With Fake Wood Paneling?
“I just liked it. They were different—you didn’t see any of them. In fact, in the 42 years I’ve had it, I’ve only seen five or six of them that had woodgrain on them. They only made 5,000 that year, I believe.”
Why Is This Car the One for You?
“When I start something and build it, I’m not one of those sellers—I don’t like to sell. I like to keep. A lot has come and gone. That one has always stayed.”
2010 Dodge Challenger R/T Classic
So Why Did You Go With a Big Retro Hemi Car?
“I’m a muscle car fan, and to me they really captured the feeling, the size, the whole picture of a muscle car. It’s big, it’s bulky, it’s got great power—it feels like a real muscle car. I’ve got many dream cars, but it’s definitely a car I’ve wanted to have ever since it debuted. I finally found my perfect car—I wanted the sunroof, black leather, six-speed, and it fell right into my hands for the right price.”
What’s Your Ultimate Dream Car?
“A ’59 Cadillac Eldorado convertible. A totally different car, but I like everything from lowered trucks to rat rods—no matter what it is, I love it all.”
Why Is This Car the One for You?
“It’s just a thrill to drive. It only gets driven on good days but, man, I love it. It’s like bliss—ultimate enjoyment. I never thought I’d feel that way about a car, but it’s the one, man, it really is. I’ll probably die with it. And I’ve had 60-some cars, a little bit of everything from imports, your Hondas, luxury cars. I don’t have a drug habit, I have a car habit. I’m all about horsepower and speed, that’s what I like: Anything that makes good power is good with me.
Editor Coury Turczyn guided Knoxville's alt weekly, Metro Pulse, through two eras, first as managing editor (and later executive editor) from 1992 to 2000, then as editor-in-chief from 2007 to 2014. He's also worked as a Web editor at CNET, the erstwhile G4 cable network, and HGTV.
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