Car talk: High octane inside and outside Fulton coffee shop

Louis Helms, Shahid Safiq and Bernie Seneway (left to right) chat and sip coffee in front of a line of cars at Sidamo Coffee.
Louis Helms, Shahid Safiq and Bernie Seneway (left to right) chat and sip coffee in front of a line of cars at Sidamo Coffee. (Noah Scialom, Patuxent Publishing)

Early on a wintry Saturday morning, Phil Mitchell stood watch over his pride and joy: a black and orange 1989 Lotus Esprit.

Like any well-versed car buff, he proceeded to reel off bullet points regarding his handcrafted machine from England — precision engineered, small turbo engine, lightweight, "phenomenal handling and road-holding."


Mitchell, 53, of Brookeville, said he bought the car — which cost $60,000 new — on Ebay. His insurance is reasonable, about $450 a year. "I don't drive it every day."

He doesn't take it to his job as a safety engineer at Goddard Space Flight Center. Of course, he must use it to get to one of the car shows he enjoys being a part of.


"It's a weekend car. I put less than 6,000 miles a year on it."

Mitchell was one of about 25 guys who, since the event kicked off last summer, have been faithfully assembling at Sidamo Coffee and Tea in Maple Lawn to talk about the triumphs and the tragedies associated with the internal-combustion engine and their devotion to it.

While revving up on Sidamo's Ethiopian organic, shade-grown, fair-trade brew, they go on and on about fuel economy. And, the advantages of powering their dream machines with the use of timing belts instead of rubber belts.

How do their spouses and significant others feel about their shared avocation? There must be a support group out there somewhere.

What does Mitchell's wife think about his sidelight?

"I'm single," he said. "I was married. Now I don't have to ask permission anymore. My last girlfriend liked it. Well, that's what she said."

"My wife knows where I'm at," said Bob Pecker. "This works out good."

Pecker, from North Laurel, used to drag race as far away as Indiana, "but it just got too expensive."

At other car shows, like the one held Sundays in nearby Burtonsville, Pecker said he often runs into friends he hasn't seen in decades. "I see guys who are goofier now than they were 30 years ago. They've aged. I've gotten fatter."

Similar cars and coffee klatches pop up around the region, said Stan Bailey, who likes to join in the fun at Sidamo whenever possible.

The biggest, he noted, is at a coffee shop in Great Falls, Va., in Fairfax County. Bailey's been, and he said he's learned how to speak the language.

"There's more Lamborghinis, Ferraris and an occasional Bentley," he said. "They say `Porsche-aah.' The laymen say `Porsch.' You've gotta have the 'a' on the end. I've ... been corrected."

The weekly confab, said Sidamo's co-owner, Kenfe Bellay, "is not only good for our business, it is good for so many other businesses" in Maple Lawn.

"People are coming together and talking together. It's opened another community, like the farmers market."

Just listen

Then there are those models that seem to slip the bonds of earth. One is a 2004 Lamborghini, and it belongs to "Steve" from Hickory Ridge, who indicated he has a love-hate thing going with the local police.

He said he's always owned BMWs, but this time around, he "wanted something different. I wanted a true driving car."

He said just 200 of the model were made that year. His was number 141 on the handcrafted list.

The 36-year-old former Marine, now a technology consultant, said that, along with the bucks he plunked down for the car, there's another price he has to pay.

"I don't like that it draws a lot of attention," he said, opening the rear trunk to reveal the engine compartment. "People ask, 'How fast have I gotten it to?' or, `Are you Batman?' "

The strangest episode, he said, occurrred when he met a woman who taught school for 35 years.

"She put my back against the wall and asked, `Please take me for a ride. My lifelong dream is to ride in one.' "

Steve did what any red-blooded American male would do in a similar situation: "I said no. I didn't know who she was."

When Steve finally bid farewell, he fired up the engine. That was the cue for all conversation to stop.

The decibels were formidable. The sound was was part NASA rocket launch, part hard rock.

As Steve set a course for points unknown, Chris Koehler thought: There goes the classic chick magnet.

"I think," observed the Fulton resident, who runs a kennel, "it's an anybody magnet. It got my attention."

Meanwhile, Loay Oweis said that he liked the vibe at Sidamo, outside and inside. Mimi Desta, Bellay's wife, is usually there to meet and greet the car enthusiasts, dishing up popular breakfast items such as blueberry muffins and ham and cheese on croissant.

He said his car is a '90 Honda Civic hatchback with an Acura Integra power plant.

"By nature, Hondas have a peppy personality," he said. "They have a racing pedigree."

He said he once raced his car at a track in West Virginia and determined early on that what counts most is "handling, balance and reduced weight. That's what will get you around the track."

Then Oweis, a Columbia resident, switched gears. The RPMs slowed as he politely excused himself. It was time to take his children to their music lessons.

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