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How a County Pub in England Became a Car Culture Hub

Jalopnik logo Jalopnik 5/15/2019 Alex Goy
a truck is parked on the side of a road© Photo: Caffeine & Machine

Caffeine and Machine is a little like Cheers... where everybody knows your car. Just outside of the tiny town of Ettington in Warwickshire, UK, this pub is like a permanent cars and coffee event, where people come together to celebrate all kinds of vehicles and, of course, tasty beverages year round.

(Full disclosure: I’ve known Phil McGovern, the man behind C&M, for a while and have spent a fair bit of time at Caffeine and Machine. I asked if he’d like a chat and he said yes. All images (bar one) were provided by Caffeine and Machine because I can’t be there all the time. Even though I’d happily live there.)

Essentially, it’s a country pub that’s always hosting a car show.

a car parked in a grassy field© Photo: Caffeine and Machine

Roll in, park up, grab a coffee and a bite, go see what wild rides are on the grounds. But there’s more to it than simply gawping at cars and asking what’s under the hood. Some weekends are themed, some are a mishmash of everything.

Every day the car park is full of everything from daily beaters to supercars. It’s a pretty special place. Phil McGovern, the man behind the joint, sat down for a chat to explain his creation.

“It’s a safe haven, it’s a comfort zone. It’s a room full of friends you didn’t know you had… It’s Cheers, and everyone knows your car.”

a man standing next to a car: Phil McGovern surveying the land. Often found on the phone making cool stuff happen. © Photo: Si Medlicott Phil McGovern surveying the land. Often found on the phone making cool stuff happen.

On every wall there’s a work by automotive artists–painters, sculptors, photographers, you name it. In the living room there’s usually something special parked up.

On one visit you’ll see a beautifully restored VW Beetle, on another, an F1 car. In the adjoining corridor there’s a motorbike on display. Bar the living room cars (though it does occasionally happen), it’s all for sale. See a picture you like, pop your money down, take it home.

Being a working pub, there is indeed food and drink on offer (the C&M lager is most excellent, as is the Old School Pudding Burger which features lamb meat with Yorkshire Puddings for buns), as well as some wonderfully made coffee. It’s all geared towards gearheads and their perversions.

a boy standing in front of a car: Yes, that’s a Jaguar XJR-15 and you can get that close to the cars in there. © Photo: Jason Dodd Yes, that’s a Jaguar XJR-15 and you can get that close to the cars in there.

There aren’t many house rules, but of those in place there are two that stand out as golden: You aren’t to judge anyone by their ride. If you don’t understand why someone would buy a ratty old Ford, lower it, and a put a massive exhaust on it you don’t dismiss them but go and learn about their particular brand of vodka.

The other, the rule that must always be obeyed, is wonderfully simple: Don’t be a jerk. This extends not only to your general state of being, but your conduct on the grounds. If you leave in a cloud of smoke and out of control you won’t be welcome back–C&M’s Instagram story will shame you into never returning. Unruly behavior will get the place shut down, and that is not a good thing.

a close up of text on a black surface: Obey the commandments and you’re welcome just fine. © Photo: Alex Goy Obey the commandments and you’re welcome just fine.

If you think only supercar types will find the place appealing you’d be wrong–all automotive churches rock up, often on a daily basis. For every sports bike there’s a Harley. For every Lamborghini, an old school VW Beetle. I once saw a Light Car Company Rocket there. Approach anyone and they’ll be down for a chat. After all, they brought their pride and joy to place for people who dig cars.

Research

We’ve all heard of cars and coffee mornings, and I’ll wager a number of us have been to them, but setting up a venue that’s exclusively dedicated to them is brave.

The seed that started it all was planted around a decade ago, while McGovern worked in the Middle East. While working for Jaguar he founded, and later went to work full time on, Crank and Piston, a site all about cars:

“Crank and Piston was dreamscape. I was working full-time at the time for Jaguar and Land Rover. Crank and Piston was a toy. It didn’t cost anything because I was able to produce content as and when I wanted for free… I was documenting life with two [Porsche] RSs, I was documenting the local motorsport scene. I then started to document the cars and the people, specifically people. I did a lot of racers’ faces. I liked faces and people and the stories they told and the backgrounds and the cultures, and the way that they had to operate within their cultures, and how the variants of the car were scene.”

a car parked in a parking lot© Photo: Caffeine and Machine

McGovern was there as the Dubai car scene was exploding. Tastes were made, tastes changed, the likes of MSO, SVR, et al had found a market full of people with wild imaginations and the cash to back it up.

“Over the decade that I was over in the Middle East, that went from ostentatious and gaudy to actually very cool… I thought I’d document it. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Crank and Piston became something quite interesting in the Middle East, and it kind of grew outside of that a little bit. I went into full dreamscape mode, and I always thought Crank and Piston café would’ve been a rad idea, but it would’ve had Hot Wheels on the ceiling and it would’ve just been a different thing, probably in hindsight a bit more Planet Hollywood, a bit TGI Fridays-y.”

McGovern later left Crank and Piston behind moving to a new company: content agency White Space Factory. While working for White Space he started Caffeine and Machine as his own event.

“I’d started working less at an office, and I started holing up at a place called Café Rider, which was very new and very fresh. I was in there one afternoon and I said to Morty [the owner], ‘I’d really like to do something with cars and bikes and art and coffee. Do you mind?’ And he went, ‘Fill your boots,’ and we had our first Caffeine & Machine. ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, I had a car from each decade, I had a bike from each decade, and I put it on on the Thursday night before Yas Marina Formula 1. First night was 500 people. Banging. I thought, ‘Good lord, that was fun.’”

a group of people standing on top of a car© Photo: Si Medlicott

The event grew, venues changed, and eventually McGovern ended up hosting his biggest yet at Dubai’s Port Rashid. 4,000 people turned up in 1,400 cars. It was huge, diverse, and exciting. It was a sign that he was on the right path.

McGovern eventually moved to marketing for a bank, and in 2017 the seed funding that kept it going ran out leaving McGovern in something of a pickle. He had no job, but he had an idea: a permanent Caffeine and Machine.

McGovern and his immediate family were all based in Dubai, but for him it was time to leave. “Mid-May I looked at the diary, the Bike Shed [a biker bar/café/space in London] show was on. I’m dreaming so hard about Caffeine & Machine. I said, ‘I’m getting on an airplane, and I’m gonna go to the Bike Shed, and while I’m at the Bike Shed, I’m gonna go up to Warwick School, and a couple of the local schools, and just enquire, because if we’re gonna do anything, we need to get them [his children] into school for September. This window is so small. Go, go, go, go, go.’”

Not only was the window small, he leapt through it feet first and didn’t look back.

a truck is parked in the dirt© Photo: Caffeine and Machine

“This is end of May, so we’re now 27th of May. We left Dubai July the 23rd, and sold houses. We did all of it. Sold everything, shipped everything. All of a sudden it was ‘we have to go.’ I had loads of requests to go and work for banks. I had numerous interviews, solid money. No, no, no. It was Caffeine & Machine, Caffeine & Machine, Caffeine & Machine, and I was willing to do everything. The support mechanism amazingly was there. I don’t think anybody felt like they had a choice. My dad was like, ‘We’re doing this. Are we doing this? We’re doing this. OK, let’s do this. I don’t like it but let’s do this.’”

McGovern had no plan other than ‘make the thing,’ and neither did his business partner Dan Macken. The original plan was to find somewhere in London, a city that hates cars almost as much as it relies on them to get stuff done. Sadly, the money being asked for was getting silly and London seemed impossible to crack. That is until McGovern’s brother in law, a chef (now head chef at C&M), told the team that “country pubs were dead.”

Not if you fill them with car stuff, they’re not.

“We’d found this place. We were shocked at how affordable it was, and we were like, ‘Christ, do you think we could build this place on the same business plan that we were gonna build a café in a warehouse in Dubai? Is that feasible, Dan? Can we take the same pocket of cash that we allocated for a little café in Dubai, and transpose it to 12 acres, eight bedrooms?’ And you know what? Within reason, we just about scraped through. As a family unit, and as a close friend unit, we stripped this place and rebuilt it top to bottom, with contractors where we needed them, builders where we needed them, plumbers where we needed them.”

a car parked on the side of a road© Photo: Jason Dodd

Venue sorted, word needed to be spread. McGovern got in touch with Top Gear’s Tom Ford to sound him out, Top Gear magazine did a feature on them long before the doors were attached to hinges. And McGovern, a creative content and marketing man, figured out how to talk to everyone in the various automotive churches in the UK. He chose his audience.

Photographers, influencers, craftspeople, writers, you name it, McGovern had them through the door before opening and made sure they knew all they, and their audiences, needed to know. From taking the keys in February 2018 to the eventual opening in October the same year, pretty much everyone who was anyone was talking about this new place for car people. And this was done without a website–just the various social networks and flapping mouths.

McGovern had feared opening weekend to be a bust, wondering if they’d manage to fill the car park at all. Opening was set to be October 27 at midday.

a car parked in a parking lot© Photo: Caffeine and Machine

The car park was full by 11:30. Same went for the next day. And the day after that. Ettington is a long way from civilization, and October in the midlands is cold and miserable. You don’t fill a venue with people around there at that time of year if there isn’t something special about it.

“This is a whirlwind for us as much as it is for everyone else around us, and we’re trying to make people aware of that. We’re trying to make people realize that this is... Literally it’s just come about like that. And it’s been nonstop, everyday nonstop, for hours and hours and hours. We started with seven core staff. We’re now at 26 members of staff. We got to 23 within two months. It was just like, “We need to grow, grow, grow, grow, catch it, catch it.” It feels like I’m a wide receiver and the ball is still in flight. And just as it gets in your hands it jumps out. We built the business plan on 40 burgers a day, which obviously transpires to 40 people a day. We did 400 on Sunday.”

a motorcycle parked in front of a door© Photo: Caffeine and Machine

It’s been a winding road for McGovern, but a good one, and getting the place running smoothly will lead to more things. There are guest rooms upstairs which, when available to the public, will turn the place in to a more accessible destination. There’ll be themed nights as well as weekends. C&M already produces its own content but more will come. Eventually, McGovern plans for more venues, too. And not just in the UK. There are small business popping up on site as well.

For now there’s Caffeine and Machine number one just outside of Ettington, a few miles from Junction 13 of the M40. No matter what time of day it is there’s always something exciting parked outside, and if you want to go on the weekend your best bet is to pre book. It’s a safe space, a haven, a coffee spot, a burger joint, an art gallery, a meeting spot. It’s whatever you make of it.

Above all else though, it’s special. To go there is to love it. To leave can an unwelcome bump back to reality. So, y’know, if you’re near maybe check it out.

a group of people walking down the street© Photo: Caffeine and Machine
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