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Gone But Never Forgotten: Cars & Coffee Irvine

After working in automotive media for nearly a decade, I've had the chance to cover some amazing events — from the SEMA Show and its thousands of customized vehicles, to prestigious concours car shows and late night drift sessions in the mountains of Japan.

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But with all of the great automotive gatherings I've been to, I'm not sure if anything can top the original Cars & Coffee in Irvine, California — an event that was sadly shut down in December 2014 after eight years of Saturday morning magic. It's an event that has been covered numerous times here on Driving Line, and as I sit here now it's strange to think it's been gone for well over two years.

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The roots of Cars & Coffee Irvine go back quite far — back when it was held at Crystal Cove in Newport Beach, a location it eventually outgrew before settling into the parking lot of the Mazda/Ford building right beside the 5 Freeway.

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This was when the event truly came into its own, with the mystique spreading across Southern California and eventually the entire country. Soon Cars & Coffee events began appearing all over the United States, all inspired by the success of the original.

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Unlike other big automotive events, Cars & Coffee Irvine was as casual as can be. There were no entry fees, no registration, no trophies awarded, no DJs spinning tunes — it was all about the cars. And that's why I loved it so much.

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Southern California's car culture is known worldwide, and there was never a better place to experience this than Cars & Coffee. It was where all of the area's automotive subcultures came together — a place where you'd regularly see a pristine vintage Ferrari parked beside a flat black hot rod with a heavily modified tuner car right across the row.

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The rules may have been relaxed, but that didn't mean the cars were run of the mill. Yes, there were plenty of Porsches and Corvettes, but you'd also see rare vehicles that even the most hardcore automotive geeks were unfamiliar with. Couple that with some super cool home-built project cars, and there was always something for everyone.

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If that wasn't enough, it was also common for automotive manufacturers to bring out concept cars and prototype vehicles to gauge the reaction from everyday enthusiasts. It was stuff like that which elevated the event from a simple car meet to something much bigger. It had become an institution.

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Best of all, you never knew what you were going to find in the parking lot on a given Saturday. You could attend the event 40 times a year and see something completely different every week.

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It was never easy to wake up at 5 or 6 in the morning on a Saturday in order to get to the event on time, but as soon as you got some caffeine in your system and started taking in the great machinery, you'd know it was all worth it. And when the cars started rolling out around 9 to head home, it always felt like it was too soon to end.

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Lately, Cars & Coffee events have become infamous thanks to a rash of mishaps and accidents involving drivers trying to show off while leaving, but I don't really recall that kind of stuff happening in Irvine. I guess the Irvine PD patrol car posted up at the exit helped keep things calm and under control.

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Just like the cars, the people that came out were as diverse as it gets. Men and women of all ages and backgrounds would come out to enjoy the festivities, and attendees included both local regulars and those who traveled from across the world to experience the legendary meet.

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A typical Saturday would see over 1,000 cars, and as the years went on, the event seemed to get bigger and bigger with more cars and more spectators each time. Soon the adjacent spectator parking lots became just as packed as the main area itself. It was a lot of fun, but had Cars & Coffee Irvine become too big for its own good?

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They say all good things must come to an end, and in December 2014, it was announced that Cars & Coffee Irvine would be no more. Complaints from nearby landowners and residents over the noise and crowds caused the event organizers to bring the weekly gathering to an end. Once the news was announced, the crowds got even bigger, forcing the "final" event to be cancelled due to fear of overcrowding.

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For those who had spent so many of their Saturday mornings in Irvine, the news was tough to swallow. It marked the end of an iconic and influential event — one that launched a new style of automotive gathering that could be repeated the world over. The question for people in the area was, "What next?"

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With the Irvine event gone, other Cars & Coffee events began to spring up in Orange County and other parts of SoCal. I've gone to a few of these, and the new events are plenty of fun, but most would agree there hasn't been another meet that can match the scope and spectacle of the original.  

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While there may never be a true replacement for the original Cars & Coffee Irvine, those who were fortunate enough to have experienced it will never forget the good times, amazing cars and great conversation that used to fill the parking lot every Saturday morning. For us, its legend will live on forever.

What's your favorite car event? Read up on recent coverage from the Driving Line team.

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