Jim’s Blog: Kicking Tires with Jay Leno

Last Tuesday, ACC Auction Editor Tony Piff and I were at the Burbank airport. It was 9 a.m. We’d just flown in from ACC HQ in Portland and were standing in the sun, waiting for a pickup at the arrivals curb. Five minutes later, around the bend comes a beautiful ’55 Buick Roadmaster and the unmistakable rumble of a big-block Chevy engine. At the wheel was none other than Jay Leno — Comedian, Tonight Show host of 22 years, all-around nice guy, and one of America’s most well-known car collectors.

I’d set up an interview with Leno for ACC, and rather than conduct it over the phone, Tony and I had made the trip down to see his shop first-hand, snap some photos of his collection, and maybe take a few of his cars out for rides.

“It’s a 572 big-block,” said Jay as he throttled the Buick away from the terminal. “The first one.” The car was immaculate from top to bottom, and come to find out, it was a pretty significant car for Leno. This was the first thing he bought when he came to Los Angeles. “When I landed in California, before you have a place to live, you get a car. That’s sort of the way it works. And if you get a big enough car, you can live in it, so that worked out OK. So that’s why I had [this] ’55 Buick. Transportation is everything in L.A.”

Leno’s shop sits in a sprawling two-warehouse complex backing up to one of the runways of the Burbank airport. His collection currently consists of 128 cars and 92 motorcycles, as well as a number of old steam engines and vintage car diagrams, advertisements, and more. It’s a gearhead’s paradise — the kind of fully-capable shop you could disappear into for weeks at a time. There’s even a kitchen in the corner, next to a drive-on lift, a waterjet machine, and a 3D printer, all used by Leno and his full-time mechanics for making parts for his fleet of rare vehicles.

Unlike a lot of collections, Leno’s cars all get driven, including everything from a Model T, several Corvairs, and the more technically challenging ones like Stanley Steamers. He has one of the two still fully functional Chrysler Turbine cars from the 1960s, Howard Hughes’ Doble steam car, and of course, a stable of Duesenbergs.

And you better believe we hit the road in some of his cars. “When you drive an old car and you can forget you’re driving an old car, that’s what I like,” said Jay as we merged onto the freeway in Hughes’ steam-powered Doble. He cranked open the column-mounted throttle and we steamed up to 55 mph in a whoosh. “This thing makes steam faster than you can use it. Hughes went 132.5 in this car. In 1925.” Ten minutes later, we’re tooling along a backroad, discussing where some modern car makers have gone wrong in today’s marketplace, having almost forgotten the fact that we’re riding in a car that uses technology that would baffle today’s engineers. He’s right about those easy-driving old cars. And I like ’em too.

Stay tuned for more. The full interview will run in the next print edition of American Car Collector magazine, which will be out in early August. If you’re not a subscriber, you can get it here.