October 22, 2014 10:59 PM EDT – Post columnist John Kelly takes his Datsun Roadster to Katie’s Cars & Coffee in Great Falls, Va., where every Saturday morning car lovers gather. (Casey Capachi / The Washington Post)
Like exotic animals at a watering hole, cars are drawn to Katie’s.
The rumor going around the car show last Saturday morning was that Jay Leno was coming. Like medieval fathers with marriage-age daughters, some of us were hopeful a deal might be struck.
We were at Katie’s Cars & Coffee, a mouthwatering assemblage of interesting automobiles that blossoms every week in the meandering parking lots of the Great Falls Village Centre.
We were all of us car guys (and gals), and Jay is America’s No. 1 Car Guy, owner of a 130-car collection. We knew he was going to be at the Kennedy Center the next day to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, so we figured there was a pretty good chance he’d be here, walking past our cars.
Mr. Leno, you own a 1915 Hispano-Suiza, a 1937 Bugatti Atlantic and a 1967 Lamborghini Miura, but do you have a 1968 Datsun roadster? I do, and I cherish it. Still, everyone has a price. . . .
As we waited for the denim-clad King of Late Night we feasted on the cars: Ferraris, Maseratis, Aston Martins, Porsches, Corvettes, but also hand-built hot rods and a VW Beetle that burbled around in search of a parking spot.
The air was pungent with the heady aroma of gasoline.
And coffee. Katie’s is named for Mike Kearney’s coffee shop on Walker Road. Four years ago, a customer and friend named Bob Morris thought that the coffee shop would be the perfect nucleus for the sort of informal early morning gathering that is popular in California.
“The roads are period correct out this way,” Bob said. “I just like driving old cars in Great Falls.”
And since Great Falls is an affluent place, some pretty special cars started showing up, a different crop every week.
“Last year, we had two Bugatti Veyrons here on two different days,” Mike said. “Three months ago — and they didn’t even know each other — we had two F-40 Ferraris here. Where can you see that, especially in this area?”
What makes Katie’s so special, Mike said, is that “it doesn’t matter what the car is. If it’s unique and it’s a love of yours, I can guarantee that somebody else here will love it. You just bring what you have and show it to other enthusiasts.”
Eric Zausner drove over from Potomac in one of his custom hot rods, a magnificent inky-black, boat-tailed creation made to his specifications and called the Zephyr. The interior — seats, door panels — is swathed in alligator hide, stained red.
“Eleven alligators had a career change,” Eric said of the toothy beasts that wound up upholstering his hot rod. “I tell people these are now extinct. Red alligators were easiest to find in the Everglades, so now they’re all gone.”
Eric was coy when I asked how much it costs to build a car like his.
“Let me put it this way,” he said. “I gave the guy an unlimited budget, and he exceeded it.”
Sitting next to the Zephyr was the yang to its yin: an alarmingly haphazard 1940 Ford pickup truck known as a rat rod.
“It’s just a tongue-in-cheek slap in the face of the $200,000 custom hot rods,” said owner Ron Sturges, looking at Eric’s car with a smile. The fact is, Ron’s car doubtless cost a fortune, too, what with its custom-built Ford 427 V8 race motor, artfully distressed welds and faux-rusty paint job. It’s an amazing simulacrum of an old car found in a farmer’s field that happens to have been built from an old car found in a farmer’s field.
“Beauty’s in the eyes of the beholder” is how Bob Morris described the impulse that makes a person prefer one type of car over another — while simultaneously loving all cars. Being a “car guy,” he said, “kind of transcends the economic barriers, so you have a $3,000 Volkswagen here, and there’s two McLarens parked up the street that are million-dollar cars. But the common bond is everybody’s here because of their enjoyment of cars.”
(Bob is partial to British cars, including the canary yellow 1953 Allard J2 he brought.)
On a sunny Saturday morning, up to 400 cars show up to Katie’s. Mike schedules 10 baristas starting at 5 a.m. to serve the crowd. He’ll sell more than 1,000 cups of coffee.
The show starts early — some owners start pulling in around 5 a.m. to snag the best spots — and is pretty much over by 9:30, when the shopping center wakes up. It’s like getting a glimpse of an African watering hole where exotic animals come together briefly then disperse to their native habitats.
In the end, Jay Leno was a no-show, but I’m sure he won’t be able to stay away for long.
To see a video of Katie’s Cars & Coffee, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.