In a sprawling multi-warehouse complex backed up to a runway at the Burbank airport, Jay Leno’s collection of cars and motorcycles sits at the ready, fueled and charged for a cruise at a moment’s notice. After 22 years as host of The Tonight Show, Leno is in the unique position of being a car guy with it all – space, resources, and the drive to buy, restore, and use interesting pieces of automotive history. ACC recently sat down with Jay in his shop to talk about his cars, what drives him as a collector, what’s next for him as a car guy and a TV personality, and where he sees the market going in the future.
ACC: You’re both a household name and an instantly recognizable face. Beyond the show and the stand-up, you’re also America’s favorite car guy. How’d you get started with cars?
Well I used to work at car dealerships when I was a kid. I worked at Wilmington Ford. I was in charge of odometer recalibrations… that was my “area.” That’s what you used to do in the old days. People would come in… I remember one guy came in, traded in a ’64 or ’65 Impala. Had 115,000 miles on it. So I drive it in the back and hook up the electric drill. Reeee! And then the guy… for some reason the deal falls through. “Oh. No, No… give me that Impala back.” Well now it had 15,000 miles on it. Guy went out the door, came around the block with a big smile on his face. And they gave him whatever he wanted [laughs] because he’d seen it… [laughs] the mileage had been “corrected.” Hilarious…
And then I worked at foreign car dealerships. I worked at a place called “Foreign Motors” in Boston, Mass, That shows you how long ago it was… they were FOREIGN motors. We had Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Citroen, Peugeot, Mercedes-Benz… a couple of others. And it was great fun, because I figured that was the only way I was going to be able to get near cars of that caliber, was by working there. And, you know, I got to deliver cars all around the country, and pick up Rolls’… In those days, when a Mercedes 600 came in, or a Rolls-Royce, you went down to New Jersey, went to the dock, and drove it home, which was GREAT fun. It was unbelievable. So that’s kinda how I got started.
ACC: What’s the current status of your collection? How many cars? How many bikes? How many square feet?
There’s about 92 bikes and about, I don’t know, 128 cars… something like that. And they’re not all crazy valuable cars. Some are just cars I like, you know, like the Corvair I got. I found the Corvair up the street. It was $600. I put fifty grand in it. It’s worth $12,500! Boom! [snaps] Just like the stock market.
I’m in show business. If I tell a joke, you might think it’s funny and (another guy) thinks it sucks. You’re both right. But when something’s broken and you fix it, no one can say it’s not running. You can’t say I didn’t fix it. So for me, that’s kind of the fun part.
You know, the funny thing is, if you’re really knowledgeable, and you buy what you like, chances are other people like it too. So they really do sort of go up in value. I mean the classic example of that, it’s not an American car, is the McLaren F1. When I bought it in ’98, I mean, it was crazy money. It was the most money… It was $800,000. And it was a second-hand car. A couple of years old. And the factory had it for sale, and I thought, “well I don’t know.” And then I called the factory back two weeks later… “You still got that? Yeah? I don’t know.” And then finally I said “You know something? You know I’ve always wanted… I’m going to buy it.” And of course now they’re worth… It’s crazy!
A better example might be my Oldsmobile Toronado. I bought that for eight-hundred bucks. It was a blown-out car. We just wanted the shell. And we got Hot Rod of the Year in 2006 from Hot Rod Magazine and stuff, and all of a sudden Toronados started going up in price, and then you get people saying “Man, you ruined the market… ” but I don’t look at it that way. To me, you’re saving the market, because a car that might have been thrown away… like aclassic example is the Aston Martin DB5. In the ’70s and early ’80s, they were $2,500 cars. A lot of them just got junked because they cost more to fix.
I mean, a classic example… I’ve got a Lamborghini Miura there. A yellow one. ’67. Early car. Dean Martin bought it new, and he gave it to his son Dino. Dino cracked the oil pan, the oil leaked out, and the engine seized. Well, my friend, who was a school teacher, got it, went to the dealer. It cost more to fix than it was worth, and the dealer said “you’re better off just junking it.” So he said “Do you want it?” I mean, that’s what the market was in the ’80s. It was just a car that cost more to fix than it was worth, and it was exotic, and it was finicky, you know.
Miuras are great cars to drive as classics. They weren’t good cars to drive as new cars. You know, you get in, and it’s a Sunday, and there’s no traffic, and you go out, and you go through the hills, it’s afun car to drive swiftly, it’s nota car you want to drive FAST. But it’s a great car for hearing noises, and going through the gears, and all that.
So my friend gave it to me, and we fixed the motor, and now, of course, it’s worth crazy money. But, I mean, I see other cars, I see a lot of cars going up, a lot of ’50s and ’60s stuff, as well. So if you buy what you like, chances are you probably won’t lose money.
ACC: You’ve been on the record saying that everything here is ridden and driven. How often do you actually get out and drive all of these?
Everything here is on the button pretty much. They’re all registered. You know, sometimes you read an article in a magazine, and… “Oh I’ve got one of those!” And it inspires you to go out and play with that one. I mean, the fun part is, the way this sort of works is, you work on it for two hours, and then you drive it for a half-hour. And now it’s fixed, and you say “OK, what’s the next broken thing.” And then you move on to the next broken thing. So everything here gets used – obviously with this many vehicles — sometimes two a day. And you know, I try to keep them all on the button.
And that includes the steam cars or the Blastolene?
Oh yeah, the steam cars and all those, yeah.
How much time does it take to fire one of those things up? From dead cold?
Well, the Howard Hughes car, which is American… two minutes. Howard Hughes went 132.5 in that car. In 1925. I mean, steam is really powerful.
Are you driving them as typical transportation, like to the grocery store, or are we talking pure enjoyment – find the best road around?
Well, my interests aren’t such that I go places and park them. I tend to leave here, go in a big circle, make a couple of stops, and come home. If my wife and I go out to eat, if we pull up in front of a restaurant and there’s no space there, well, we’re not eating there, thank you. [laughs] We just don’t eat there. And you NEVER valet. You have to be OUT of your MIND to give your car to a valet. You’d have to be a crazy person. I’m astounded at the people who think that’s impressive, to hand the keys to your new Lamborghini to some sixteen-year-old kid, and “the throttle stuck! It stuck to the floor!” And of course, juries will always believe that it stuck to the floor.
What I’m driving is way more important than where I’m going. I don’t drive them to impress people… you do drive them to impress other car guys. You know, it’s like I say with the Lamborghinis. If you want to pick up a girl, you drive the Miura. If you want to pick up a 12-year old boy, you drive the Countach [laughs]. That’s kinda the way it works. I mean, I’m impressed by people who know what the cars are, and you can have some sort of discussion with them, but the idea that you’re going through some mid-life crisis… I find that annoying. People always think you have some problem. No. You like engineering, and you like mechanical things.
ACC: When we got here, we knew we’d see cars and we knew we’d see bikes. When you have the resources and the space, and an interest, is it inevitable that you’ll end up with a boat, or some planes? Like a P51 Mustang?
Well, that’s a P51 Mustang right there [points behind us at a project], except it’s in a ’32 Rolls chassis that we’re building. It’s pretty impressive.
ACC: Can you tell us about the steam engines you have here?
Yeah, the big one is 1866. Lincoln was president when that one was built. And the brown and white one? I believe that’s the oldest operating steam engine in America still operating on steam. That’s 1832. That was built before oil was discovered. And what they used to do was they’d slaughter pigs and just rub the grease all over everything. Or use whale oil. There’s a coal-gas engine next to it. That made electricity for the island of Malta. In 1900, that was the main powerplant.
ACC: Where did you find that?
On the island of Malta [laughs]. We dragged it back here. And then these are various other ones. Various steam and hit and miss engines and stuff.
ACC: Are there favorites in this group that get used more often than the rest?
You know, I like the steam cars. I’m not an engineer, but when people from Mercedes or General Motors show up, you get to be a big shot because they’re stunned. They don’t have any experience with steam, and it’s the exact opposite of a gas engine.
With a gas engine, you’re trying to get the heat out. With a steam engine, if heat’s escaping, you try to keep it in. A Stanley turns 357 revolutions per MILE. Not per minute. Per mile. With a steam engine, every stroke is a power stroke. Steam pushes a piston up, steam pushes a piston down. So a two-cylinder engine is really the same power strokes as a V8. And a four-cylinder, like the Doble, is like a V16. So you’ve got a thousand foot-pounds of torque at rest. It’s just different. It’s just odd, you know.
If you like cars and things, you always want to keep going back. “What came before my GTO, my Tempest? What came before Pontiac? The Moon. Oh, what came before that.” You know, you just want to keep going back to see what came before that.
ACC: You have everything from early Bugatti race cars to a Hemi-powered Duster here. What sort of criteria do you look for in buying a car? How does a car enter the Big Dog Garage Collection?
A lot of times, you buy the story more than the car. I’ve got a ’67 Imperial over there. I get a call from an old guy. 93 years old. Leo Popkin was his name. And he says “I’ve got a ’67 Imperial. Bought it new. Blah blah blah. I think you should have it. It’s a Custom LeBaron 2-door with dual air conditioners, front and back.” And I said “I’m not really an Imperial guy.” He says “Nah, you gotta come see this car.” I said “Where do you live?” “Beverly Hills,” he says. “Where in Beverly Hills?” I say. “Sunset Blvd.” he says. Well now it’s getting interesting [laughs]. Who lives on Sunset Blvd?
So he gives me the address and it’s not far from my house. So I go to his house. It’s a winding driveway like you’d see in a movie. And he’s standing outside with an ascot and a smoking jacket. Very distinguished 93-year-old guy. There’s a guy, about 70, standing next to him. He goes, “This is my mechanic. He’s serviced the car once a month here at my house since 1967.” And it turns out he’s a movie producer. He produced African-American films for African-American audiences. It was fascinating. He had the black James Bond. The black Laurel and Hardy. When movies were segregated, he did feature films, many of them the same stories, but featuring all-black casts. Herb Jeffries? Remember him? The singing black cowboy? He just died at age 100. He was one of his guys. And, OK, now it’s getting really interesting, you know.
So we go around to the garage. He opens the garage and it’s a brand-new ’67 Chrysler Imperial. And in the next garage, he opens the door… He was so afraid he was going to have an accident, he bought every spare part he would need in case the car was ever damaged. Electric wiper motors, window lifts, I mean, just, everything he thought he’d need if he ever damaged the car. He goes, “You got to take all this crap, too.” Well now I have to buy it. How do you not buy this car? And that’s basically it.
Plus, I hear from a lot of old guys who want their cars to go to a good home. They don’t want to sell it and see it being flipped at an auction. You know, that kind of stuff. And a lot of times, guys’ll leave you a… One guy left me his ’41 Plymouth in his will. I never met the man. But he wanted it to go to a good home, and I, you know. And I always make a donation to a college or something, you know, you don’t just take it. But if it’s got a good story, that’s kind of the key to it.
Sometimes I don’t know what I like until I actually see it. I mean, over there is a ’59 Oldsmobile. Owner was 92. He bought it new in ’59 in Massachusetts. And he garaged it from October ‘til April or May. So it’s an all-original ’59 Rocket 88. It’s a great car and he just wanted it to go to a good home, and he left it to me. And we cleaned it up, and I correspond and send videos, and all this kind of stuff. It’s on the website. I got it from his son. So, that’s how you get a lot of stuff.
ACC: You’re living a car guy fantasy life here with this space, your resources, and your interest. How do you stop yourself from picking up cars on a regular basis? Is there a “too many to use” threshold?
You know, that’s a HUGE… boy, sometimes… I’m on Bring-A-Trailer the other day, and I see a Griffith Series One. It’s a 200. I know they’re HORRIBLE, TERRIBLE cars, but they always fascinated me. When I was a kid at Wilmington Ford, that was a poor man’s Cobra. And I call on it, hoping it will sell before I can put an offer in. And luckily it did. And I went “Ohh, thank god I didn’t have to… ” I’m so glad I didn’t buy it. But I would have bought it had it stayed up there for another day or two.
You know, certain things catch my… I’ve always been fascinated by the eight-lug Pontiac wheel. From the ’60s. The greatest wheel ever, to me. Very imaginative. Most cars had four lugs. Hemis had five lugs. Pontiac had eight lugs. I always thought it was a great wheel with a beautiful finned brake drum, and all. You know, just the beginning of the performance era. Those cars fascinate me.
You do try to stop yourself, because it gets a little stupid.
ACC: Is there a too-many-to-use threshold that you try to stay under?
No, but you know, because sometimes, it’s a bit like, at the age I am now, and going back and dating every girl I couldn’t go out with in High School, and they look the same! They’re not old people! They look the same! [laughs] And that’s kind of the fun part about it. You know, you go “wow!”
It’s like, when you haven’t driven something for a while… it’s amazing to me what a revelation the Corvairs are. I’ve got a Yenko Stinger there, and a ’66 Corvair Turbo. They’re both stock. And I drive the Corvair, and it’s one-finger steering, and kids think it’s some kind of foreign car. They don’t believe it’s a Chevy. They think it’s a Karmann-Ghia. I get that a lot. “Is that a Karmann-Ghia?” “No, it’s a Chevy. The engine’s in the back.” “In the BACK?! Come on!” I’m astounded at people who don’t know what it is. I’m astounded at the fact that they sold 1.8 million Corvairs and it was considered a failure. A failure. You sell 1.8 million of anything now and they make you president of the company. You sell 50,000 of something now… But 1.8 million Corvairs? “Sorry. Not quite good enough.”
ACC: We recently asked our readers if they would rather buy a car in pristine condition or take on a project car built to their own specs. Which would you rather buy?
Most cars that are pristine are project cars. If you restore a car and make money on it, you’ve done it wrong. That’s pretty much the rule. The number of cars that I see, that are, you know, beautiful chrome… they’re not mechanically correct. They’re just not. Nobody has taken the time.
Most people are either restorers or mechanics. To find somebody who does both? Boy, it’s really tricky. Like a Duesenberg? You have to put a couple of thousand miles on that to get it right. Alright, then go back and re-do things. Most people don’t. I get a little disappointed sometimes with people who have Duesenbergs and Packards and things, because they don’t drive them, and consequently, the people who know how to fix them no longer have work. The people who make spare parts go out of business because the cars never get used.
There’s a guy named Jim Schneck who made new cylinder heads for Duesenbergs, and they’re expensive. It was $400,000 for the pattern, and it’s like $50,000 for the head. I bought one because I wanted to support him and he did a good job. But there are plenty of Duesenbergs that need new heads, but they don’t get driven. They just get pushed around. So, to say which would you rather have? You buy a pristine car which you then have to re-do. You usually have to re-do the mechanicals on it, for the most part. That’s not always the case, but rarely do I find one that’s 100% both.
For example, a lady calls me up. ’63 XKE. I’m talking to her on the phone. Bought it new. She’s eighty-something. Told me she once had it up to 80 mph. Had it serviced at the dealer all the time. So, I just bought it sight-unseen. Just talking to this lady… there was something about her. And the car gets here, and it’s perfect. A ’63 XKE Series II. Engine’s never been out of it. Clock and the tach works… those never work.
I mean, it’s got a little bit of wear and tear on it, and it needs a rear main seal, so it’ll leak a little bit going up a hill, but it drives and tracks as straight and true as an original car, and that’s what I like. Something that’s sort of been used, was neglected for a few years during the period when they weren’t worth much, but then recommissioned. That’s kinda what works best. Project cars are tough because when the parts are in a box, you don’t know what’s missing. I like something… “Let me just hear it run… OK fine, shut it off.” And then go back and re-do everything just so I know everything is there.
Sometimes, when you’re dealing with stuff like steam cars, you have to buy the project, because, well, find another one. I’m sorry, this is the only one there is. These are the only parts there are.
ACC: Do you see more gratification from driving your cars or from working on your cars?
It’s sort of what I call the Betty Crocker theory. You know, the Betty Crocker people came out with a cake mix in the ’50s where you just added water and you mixed it up. Couldn’t give it away. And then someone suggested “Why don’t you tell people to break two eggs, then add water, then mix it up.” And they sold a million of them, because people felt like they were baking a cake. And that’s sort of the same thing.
When you take something that’s broken, and you fix it, I think there’s a great deal of satisfaction in that. I mean, I’m in show business. If I tell a joke, you might think it’s funny and he thinks it sucks. You’re both right. But when something’s broken and you fix it, no one can say it’s not running. You can’t say I didn’t fix it. So for me, that’s kind of the fun part.
I like to find cars that were ahead of their time in their time, cars that were just too smart, like the Wills Sainte Claire. You familiar with Wills Sainte Claire? Wills was Ford’s metallurgist. He’s the guy that designed the Ford logo. And he built a car called the Wills Sainte Claire, based on the early Hispano-Suiza overhead cam. 1922. V8, overhead cam. And he built his own city: St Claire, outside Detroit. And he had healthcare and daycare and so on. But the car was just too advanced. Nobody cared about overhead cams. It cost too much and he went broke.
It’s like when the Mustang was designed originally, I believe it had independent suspension. And Lee Iacocca said “nobody cares about that crap. Use the Falcon platform, make it look sexy, and put a 4-speed in it.” And he was right. I mean, up until last year, people wouldn’t pay for independent suspension in a Ford Mustang [laughs]. I mean, it took 50 years to get it. They came out with it in the early 2000s… People said, “Nah.”
But I like those people that over-engineer stuff to the point where they go out of business, because the car is just better than it needed to be.
ACC: We’ve been seeing a lot of growth in the collector car marketplace since the crash of ’08 – blue-chip cars seem to be on a never-ending ride up the value scale, and we’re seeing prices on everything else hold steady or rise up in their wake. Do you think these trends will continue?
Most of these cars were built in a time when labor was cheap and technology was expensive. Now it’s just flipped. I remember a buddy of mine bought a Pulsar watch in 1968 for $2,200. Which was crazy money. Next year, Texas Instruments, $14.95. Basically the same thing. And he was devastated [laughs].
You know, when you look at the water jackets on a Bentley or Duesenberg, and there’s like 96 little… because you pay the guy 10 cents an hour, you’re not paying health care, and he can sit there and tighten those all day. To have somebody do that now would cost you a fortune. So, the blue-chip stuff, the stuff that was restored when restoration fees were $20 an hour, are obviously worth it. Because now it’s $100 an hour? $150 an hour? I don’t know what it is. It’s pretty crazy. So, obviously, the blue-chip stuff will continue to expand.
I must admit, I get somewhat amazed at cars that go for huge prices that could be recreated. Because I like to drive the stuff. For example, you could make yourself a Hemi ’Cuda that’s as good as the original for $200,000. Yet they go for $3 million or something. You couldn’t make a Duesenberg that’s as good as the original. You couldn’t recreate that block and all that other stuff. So that’s always kinda odd to me.
And there’s the fairly recent phenomenon of this numbers-matching nonsense. I mean, this, to me, is just way for rich guys to one-up another rich guy. All Chevy 327s are pretty similar. You’ve got a ’65 Corvette but it’s got a ’66 block? And really, it’s worth $25,000 less? Really? Because of a stamp? I don’t get it. It just seems… you know, a little date code on the windshield?
There are people that, you know… This is like every appraiser’s nightmare now… that they won’t spot that the S has a little chink in the end where the thing was stamped on the block. I like to drive my stuff. I could make a Hemi Road Runner that’s as good as a real Hemi Road Runner. I could even fool people, I suppose, for a reasonable amount of money. So it’s weird to me to pay big money for something… I mean, I appreciate the originality of it, don’t get me wrong, but when you can recreate it for less and have just as much fun with it, it seems weird to me.
ACC: I’m just imagining some of our readers throwing their magazines across the room after reading that…
I have original cars too. By that I just mean, if you can recreate it, what are you paying for? For example, to make a Packard V12… it’ll cost you $50,000 to rebuild a Packard V12 easy. To cast the block and do all this, it would cost you a fortune. So I see why that would be worth millions. Or at least hundreds of thousands of dollars. Other cars? It’s really easy to take a Tempest and turn it into a GTO. And even fool some people in the club.
That’s not to put it down, I just mean… I would tend to put my money into cars that can’t be cloned. That can’t be recreated. And it doesn’t have to be Duesenbergs. You can go to, like, a Yenko Stinger Corvair. They built 100 of those. Every single one of them is documented. You can’t fake one, because you can go right to it. Shelby GT350. What is it? 521 the first year. Every one is documented. I see a lot of cloned cars around, but it’s easy to call them out. You know, I always feel sorry for someone that bought something they thought was real, and of course it turns out to be just a clone car.
ACC: 60 Minutes did an interview with you about “The Changing of the Guard” at The Tonight Show a few months back. One of the most prominent themes in that interview was the notion of a new demographic taking hold around the country – call them the “twitter generation,” a younger subset of America with different interests and values than their Boomer parents. With younger performers now taking the reins of institutions like The Tonight Show, we’re starting to see their influence change the TV world – do you think we’ll also see the car world change as well?
Oh sure, yeah, I think you’ll see big changes.
You know, it’s funny. We had an intern at The Tonight Show when I was there. And he’s like 21. He said, “Oh you like cars?” And I said, “Yeah, yeah.” I said “You got any old cars?” He goes “Yeah.” I said “What do ya got?” “’91 Miata.” And I just smiled, because, well he’s 21, so the car is actually older than he is. That’s an antique to him. You know what I mean? It’s a bit like rock n’ roll and rap. It’s all music.
When I go to car shows, I go to Pebble Beach, which is fun. And then I go to one here occasionally called The Blessing of the Cars. It’s usually Hispanic, low-rider, lots of people barbequing, food, music, kind of loose. Totally different cars, totally different mindset. But the engineering and the design of the cars and the paint is unbelievable. Whether you like it or not is not the issue. It’s just a different variation on the same thing. I mean, I see young people that don’t really have interest in hot rods but are fascinated by hybrids, and their thing is miles-per-gallon… What can you do to hyper-mile. OK, it’s not the same as burning up the quarter-mile, but it’s transportation. It’s hot-rodding in a different form.
You know, I bought a 1914 Detroit Electric that sat out in a field there. I only paid $3,500 for it. Powertrain and everything was gone. But we’re going to hot rod it with a modern electric powertrain from a Ford EV. So it’ll have air conditioning and everything. And the fascinating thing is the modern Ford electric engine, with ten times the power, is a lot smaller than the engine that was in there. So it’ll be fun to do kind of electric hot-rodding of an old car. It’s like taking a Chevy in a ’32 Ford. Taking a modern EV from a Ford and putting it in a 1914 Detroit Electric. All right, it’s all hot rodding.
Peter Egan wrote a great story once. A buddy of his built a hot rod for his kid, so his kid could drive to high school. One day, his dad has to take a detour, and he sees the hot rod parked at a neighbor’s house ten blocks away. He finally asks his son, and the son was so embarrassed to drive this hot rod to school that he’d leave it at the neighbor’s house, and then he and the neighbor would take his souped-up Honda Civic to school. The kid didn’t want to drive a ’32 Ford with a Chevy engine. He felt stupid, but he didn’t want to hurt his dad’s feelings. You know what I mean? It’s just different.
I think the hot rods for the next 20 years will be the Taurus SHO, I think those will be seen as… Wow, a stick, front-wheel drive, high performance, oval window. The Miata will be the Mustang, because they’re simple to work on. Easy, twin-cam, light weight, has all those kind of things. I think you’ll see first-generation Priuses being restored as “cute” cars that can’t get out of their own way.
The demographic changes but the interest doesn’t. Although I find young people not as interested in cars, the ones that are interested are WAY more interested. When I was a kid, kids had a cursory interest. You know, it’s like “That’s kind of cool.” But they weren’t REALLY interested in it. The number of young people I hear from here… we have some scholarship programs going and stuff, you know they show up with unbelievable ideas. Sketches and this kind of stuff, and it’s fascinating. They embrace the hybrid technology, and now you see hybrid being used not for fuel economy, like the McLaren P1. The hybrid technology is being used to enhance the performance, oh, and per chance, the miles per gallon just happen to increase. But it’s a by-product of performance. It’s not the main goal.
I think the hobby is fairly safe. You know, it’s funny. Model Ts have not changed in price. When I was a kid, in the ’70s, a Model T was $5,500. Maybe $6,000. They’re still $8,000. $9,000. They’re still the same. That hasn’t changed. They just never caught on for some reason. Maybe because they’re tricky to drive.
ACC: That third pedal isn’t what they expect…
Have you ever driven one? Oh, it is the greatest car. It is the only antique car that starts on-the-button. You can climb any hill, and the three pedal thing is hilarious. I mean, it’s a fantastic car to drive. It really was the iPhone of the day. It just revolutionized life on Earth. It was an amazing vehicle.
ACC: If the Boomers are still driving values in the classic car market, do you think we’ll see a slip in traditional classic car values — like Tri-Five Chevys — as they either sell off their cars or pass them on to their children? What do you think the next big thing will be in old cars?
I see the ’55 Chevy thing sort of dropping already. By the time the ’60s came, when I was in high school, you could pick up tri-five Chevys for almost nothing because they were just used cars. And then guys built them up. I think the probably peaked mid-’90s, when guys in their 50s got all the money in the world. Now they’re 70 and they don’t want to drive it. I’ve seen it drop down already. It just moves up every ten years, you know.
Early Brass will always hold, but teens? 1915 to 1925? You can get those cars for nothing. And they’re great cars. Bronze crankcases, all kinds of stuff like that. It tends to move in ten-year increments. Cars from the ’90s now… you know, early Hondas, the Civics, all that kind of stuff, those seem to be rising in value, and they seem to be interesting.
ACC: What projects are you currently working on here in your shop?
We got the Merlin-powered Rolls right there, we have a Daimler Dart SP250 that we’re restoring there. It’s almost done. I’ve got a Frazier-Nash chain gang. Waiting on that one. A ’22 Revere, which had a Duesenberg Rochester racing engine in it. And some assorted motorcycle projects.
ACC: What’s been the most difficult project you’ve taken on?
Well, the most difficult was probably the jet car. Because that uses a Honeywell LT101 jet engine out of one of the big attack helicopters, and we mated that with a step-down gear to a 4-speed Corvette transaxle.
ACC: A few years ago, TLC’s Rides did a show on the Model X Duesie you found in a garage not far from here. Word was you’d heard about something in that garage and chased it for 20 years before actually getting to see what it was. Are there any other interesting cars you’re currently chasing?
Oh, let me see. There’s nothing I’m chasing right now. No. That Duesenberg was interesting. A guy named Harry Johnson – he was a mechanic in the ’30s – he bought that Model X. It was the last Duesenberg built before the Duesenberg brothers built the Model J. And he bought it in ’43 and stuck it in his garage. And his daughter, who was born in the house, had never been in the garage. That’s what a fanatic the guy was. And there’d been an earthquake, and the garage had shifted, so the door couldn’t open. So consequently, it was sealed from ’43 to, what, 2005, when we pulled it out.
So when we opened the door, I mean, there were headlines, you know, you had those racist headlines like “Japs attack again,” and that kind of stuff. Newspapers. Six-pack of Orange Crush, all original. And since there were no windows in the garage, nothing had really deteriorated too bad. It was an old car – the car was 20 years old when it went into the garage, so it wasn’t like it was some pristine thing. But it was an interesting thing, And then we did a funny… we pulled it out of the garage, brought back here, rebuilt the engine, and then we put it back in the garage, and did one of those where you turn the key and IT STARTS! And you drive it out. You know, they always do that in these shows, like a car sits for 20 years and IT STARTS!
ACC: Can you tell us about any cars that have escaped you despite your best efforts to buy them?
The one that escaped me was, it’s interesting, Voisin. I always like Voisin, which is a French car. Oddball aeordynamic. Voisin lived until the ’70s. He and the Wright brothers used to throw rocks at each other, because he was the first guy to stand next to a plane, spin the prop, start the plane, get in, take off, fly, and then land in the same place. The Wright brothers? A bunch of guys threw the plane, and it went 153 feet or something and then landed. He didn’t consider that flying. So he would say “We invented it.” And they’d say “We invented it.”
But [with his cars] he used a sleeve-valve engine. It was American – it was the Willys-Knight. And they’re awful. They’re quiet, but they smoke. I went and drove one, and I fell in love with the styling, and they’re sort of ponderous… but it was like “Hey Asshole!” yelling at you when you drive it. I mean, reams of smoke come out the back, and people literally chase you. You know, it’s not like in the ’60s or something, people are very… And I thought, “Well… ”
They’re not nice to drive. They’re good to look at, and aerodynamic. Really interesting. They’re just not fun to drive, with a weird transmission. When they were less than $100 grand, I just… now they’re millions, and I realize I should have bought one of those. But then I said to myself, “No, not really,” because I wouldn’t enjoy driving it. They weren’t fun to drive. They have all kinds of idiosyncrasies and oddball things and interesting hinges. Really well put together, but he stuck with this sleeve-valve engine that just didn’t sound good – this kind of chuffing noise – and they blow smoke. So that was one I passed up.
ACC: Your web series – Jay Leno’s Garage – is very popular, with millions of hits on YouTube. It joins a host of other web-only programming that’s very popular right now: shows like Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars getting Coffee, Chris Harris on the /DRIVE network, and Hot Rod Magazine’s Roadkill. These shows are all serving their audiences well – audiences that are trained to go to the web and seek out exactly what they want. At the same time, channels like History and Velocity have successful automotive-themed content that’s thriving in a traditional mass market. For those of us on the outside, it seems like it would be a smart move for you to combine those two facets of your life: television and cars. Would you like to see Jay Leno’s Garage come to Television?
Well, we’re probably going to do that.
I’d like to do that, and then show it on the web later. Because how many people watch TV at 10 am on a Saturday morning when it’s on? With the web, you can go to it whenever you want. When I look at the comments that come from Singapore, China, Saudi Arabia, India, you know, places where they never see cars like this on the street, you realize how many followers you have out there, and how limiting TV is. So we’ll do more of it.
I try to avoid the shows where the people throw tools at each other, and I try to avoid any one where they use the word brother… “Say BROTHER! We’re going to put a 52-inch TV in the middle here, and big giant speakers… ” you know. And you really can’t restore a car in ten days. I don’t want to watch a race where people have to restore it in a week. It’s not going to drive, and those cars never work. In real life, it takes years to get it right.
So what we try to do is give people some technical knowledge – never anything too deep – but just explain the history, show how it works, some of the idiosyncrasies of the car, interesting anorak facts about the car. We try to keep it reasonably intelligent and reasonably educational. And people seem to like that.
You know, when I was a kid I used to read show biz biographies. “Well, I was born here and I was broke. After I became a movie star… ” Whoa whoa, wait! They never explain how that part happened. And a lot of the car shows don’t do that. They find something in a field and drag it home, and you see guys with wrenches flying and people yelling, And then it’s finished. Well, what problems did you overcome? What did you have to do? I like the ones that are a little more educational. Like I said, I don’t like the yelling at your family members and throwing tools kind of shows. Those don’t work for me.
ACC: I really like seeing Jay Leno being overcome with emotion over a car. Not teary-eyed, but when you’re talking about the Chrysler Imperial, it’s like you can see Jay Leno’s cracking up at this thing here.
Yeah, that’s fun. That’s what we try to do. We try to have a little bit of emotional connection with the stuff.
The nice thing is since most vehicles are mine… You know, I’ve seen a lot of these shows, like “300 cars you must drive before you die,” and all this stuff, but for the most part, they have to drive in a little circle, around a pre-arranged track, with armed guards, you know, and it just makes me laugh because they can’t take them out.
My friend, Alonzo Bodden, he did a show like this. And he had the Chrysler Turbine car. He went to Chrysler, and he goes “This is the Chrysler Turbine car.” And he drove it around a little track, and then he said, “This is the one car Jay Leno doesn’t have.” You know, he’s needling me. So I call him up and say “Go to my website.” And he’s like “D’ah!” That was a car I lusted after as a kid. [Points to the corner of the shop] We can take it out if you want to go for a ride.
ACC: One of the things you’ve mentioned in other interviews post-Tonight Show is spending more time with your wife, Mavis. Does she enjoy your cars as much as you do?
As much as I do? No. Of course not. But I never liked those… Do you ever go to car shows and the husband and wife have matching Mustang outfits on? And I go, boy that’s real annoying.
She likes English Literature and I like cars. And I can sound intelligent hearing her speak, and quote her, and when she’s with her girlfriends, she can say “Oh no, that car’s no good, because my husband… ” Opposites attract. I mean, she enjoys the old cars, and likes to go for rides… “Ow my hair,” you get some of that, you know, with the top down and whatnot. Does she enjoy wrenching on them and being a mechanic? No. That’s like “honey, will you hold this wrench?” “No, I don’t want to.” That’s kind of funny. But that’s OK. It’s fine.
There’s nothing funnier to me… I meet guys who are getting married, and I ask “does your wife like… ?” “Oh, she LOVES motorcycles. She thinks it’s the greatest.” And I’m like “Really? Really? Are you married yet?” “No.” Two years later, “Where’s your bike?” “Oh I sold it.” “What happened?” “Oh, she didn’t like it.” You know [laughs]. So find somebody that gets it, or at least tolerates it. You know, if you don’t cheat on them and do stuff like that, they’re actually very tolerant.
ACC: If you had to pick one, which would it be: ’69 Mustang Boss 429, ’70 Chevelle SS 454 LS6, or ’70 Hemi ’Cuda?
The Boss 429 never really reached its potential. It sounds like a great motor, and I guess it is, but it never really did anything. I mean the front end sort of plowed on them. And they never had the horsepower. They were, what, 375 horse? Something like that. They never really reached their potential. They were fascinating, but that was a motor that was done just so they could go racing. I think Kar Kraft built them. So, they don’t really drive all that well. I mean, they’re fascinating to drive as a curio, but I think you’d have more fun with a K-code 289 with a 4-speed in it. That would be a much nicer car.
LS6 Chevelles are OK. Most of the ones I’ve seen have the automatic, and I hate that horseshoe [shifter] thing.
I’d probably go with the Hemi ’Cuda, because it has the provenance. It has the ridiculous myth. When you read the road tests of the period, they’re HORRIBLE. Car and Driver hated that thing. The 440 was a better engine, but it’s like going out with a supermodel’s sister. She’s probably prettier, but the supermodel’s got the name. “I’m going out with Suzie Klum.” You know, it’s not the same as Heidi.
So I’d probably go with the Hemi ’Cuda, only because of that big goofy agricultural gear shift lever and the big Hemi engine – the engine itself is entertaining, and it’s got the hood shake and all that stuff. I’d probably go with the Hemi Cuda, and I think the value shows in that.
ACC: Let’s talk about some of your higher-profile projects like the ’55 Buick and the Olds Toronado. What was it about these cars that made you want to deviate from stock in their restos?
I always start with a car that’s too far gone anyway. I never want to take a car that’s pristine and butcher it. This is why we bought a Toronado for $800. And I always thought the Toronado was a great looking car. It was a revolutionary car when it came out, you know. The Italians used to say you couldn’t put more than 200 horsepower through the front wheels. And here’s a car with 375 horsepower. And when you look at a Toronado, it looks like an American car. It just made a statement. Big, bold, just didn’t look like anything else on the road. I love the rear haunches – the way it’s styled. Mark North did the design on that. And I always thought it was a great-looking car, and I thought that would make an interesting hot rod. Nobody’s done that – converted one to rear-wheel drive. I just want to avoid the usual ones.
I like the ’55 Buick better than the ’55 Chevy, because although it’s a very similar body style, it’s a little bigger, and looks just different enough to be something unusual. I hate when I go to car shows and it’s all the same car with basically the same engine and a modern drivetrain. We like to do stuff that’s a bit different. You know, my Ford 7-Liter, same thing.
ACC: Do you have one true favorite car here? Which one is it?
It’s hard to have a favorite. I like the steam cars because they need me. Most of the other cars you can get in and drive. The steam ones you have to sort of pilot. And, like that Betty Crocker theory we talked about, I like that fact that not everyone could drive it. You could park it somewhere and no one could steal it. They’d have no idea how to make a getaway in the thing. It’s just different. Just odd. The opposite of every other kind of engineering.
ACC: If you could imagine your life or your collection any other way, would you change anything?
No, I don’t think I’d change anything. It’s worked out pretty good. I love being out here at the [Burbank] airport, because we have fantastic security up against the runway.
All the stuff I have here is stuff I like. I don’t buy anything because I think they’ll go up. I buy it because I like it. And that way, if you like it, if it doesn’t go up, well, at least you like it.
Like Lamborghini Espadas. I paid $27,000 for my Lamborghini Espada in ’86. It’s worth $28,000? Maybe it’s $40,000 or $50,000. But certainly not the $100,000s like other cars of the period. I remember I had a choice between a 365 Ferrari, which was $30,000, or the Lamborghini Espada, which was $27,000. I bought the Espada. Well, the Ferrari is a million-something now. But I don’t regret that, because I liked it better at the time.
ACC: Have there been turning points in your collection and your relationship to it?
I never liked the term “Collector,” because it always had a sort of stagnant… and I drive all my stuff. And then I realized, you know, it is a collection, really. Because of the fact that you do use it. It’s a kinetic collection. It moves.
It’s fun to see cars being appreciated as art. If Andy Warhol can paint a soup can and a picture of The Scream can go for $120 million dollars, why can’t something that’s artistic looking but actually rolls and moves and makes noise? It’s fun to see that being appreciated now. I like that aspect of it.
I get a little disappointed sometimes with people who have Duesenbergs and Packards and things, because they don’t drive them, and consequently, the people who know how to fix them no longer have work.
The other change is the fact that I keep going further back. Most people that get into cars, it’s muscle cars. And the more you get into it, you begin to appreciate the finer points. Like, when I was a kid, in the ’60s, I used to feel sorry for the guys that grew up in the ’20s and ’30s because they drove big old slow cars. And we had fast cars. But then you go back and you drive them, and, like I never thought I’d appreciate 45 mph. But it’s a very relaxing speed to drive. When you get something like a ’53 Hudson Hornet – this is a car that was built before power steering and power brakes. So everything is nicely weighted. You drive it, and it has a real mechanical feel to it.
You know, I had an old guy on The Tonight Show once. Named Victor Christian. He was 106 years old. And he was the world’s oldest car salesman. He worked at Arcadia Ford. So he comes to the show, and I drive my ’32 Packard, you know, to show him. And he comes out and says “What’s that?” And I go “It’s a ’32.” And he says “’32? After ’15, they were nothing but shit.” And I thought, alright, just the ramblings of a crazy old man. Then I got a 1911 Packard over there. And you drive it – every gear is hand-lapped in on ‘em. And it drives and handles so nicely. It’s like winding the mainspring of a really expensive old watch – you hear each tick. And I guess this is what Victor was talking about. I mean, it’s obviously not a fast car, but at 35 or 40 miles an hour, it’s just ticking along – smooth, efficient.
It’s just interesting to watch the different phases of the automobile. They were cars that were hand built. You just pulled the crank and [snaps] it fires. Just one little pull [snaps], and it fires off. That’s sort of the biggest revelation. I really appreciate the older stuff. And you realize that everything you have now, you really had in the first decade of the automobile. It was just too expensive. I mean, 1913 Peugeot. Overhead cam, hemi heads, all this kind of stuff. But nobody needed it or wanted it because the speed limit was 18. And the roads weren’t paved. There was no need for it. But all the technology existed, and they had it. That’s probably the biggest change — that I go back and appreciate what a lot of these older guys were able to do.
ACC: Have you always owned classic cars? What about when you were a young guy trying to make it as a stand-up comic?
Well, that was my ’55 Buick. 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 the ’55 Buick. Transportation is everything in LA.
ACC: Was there a moment, when you got your first big check or contract, where you said “Ah hah. I’m going to go buy a car as a present to myself”?
Well, that would be the McLaren F1. That would be the classic example of that. Yeah, that would be it. Because I don’t really do a lot of… I’m not a vacation guy. I don’t go to Hawaii. I don’t have a beach house. This [shop] is my beach house. I don’t like to do those kind of things, so yeah, the McLaren F1. That would be the most ridiculous example of that. But it turned out to be the best investment I ever made. The last one went for $11 million dollars!
ACC: Have you been influenced as a collector by other collectors out there?
No, I don’t know about that. I just buy what I like, so there’s no rhyme or reason to this. Jerry Seinfeld is one of my closest friends, but he does just Porsches. And his is one of the great Porsche collections in the world. And he’s certainly very knowledgeable on them. I just like all sorts of different… it’s fun to go from one extreme to the next. To go from steam to gas to whatever it might be, you know, just to see the difference in it.
You know, the Corvair – the most European American car ever built. The most underappreciated American car ever built – I mean, a great car. It really is a poor man’s 911. The Yenko Stinger, even the Turbo one, 180 horsepower flat six, well before Porsche… I mean, obviously the build quality is not the same. But, wonderful driving cars. It’s amazing. You just have a smile on your face. It’s just fun to drive. I like cars where the fun part is not necessarily in the acceleration. It’s just going through the gears and hearing it do what it does. You know, feeling the automobile. Those are the most fun. That’s what I like.
ACC: The biggest question: What’s next?
Oh I don’t know. I’m just trying to finish the projects that I have here.
You know, when you’re dealing with automobiles that are 100 years old, things just wear out and break. The 3D printer’s been a godsend. We can make parts for steam cars. You can make connecting rods and everything here now.
The sad part is the loss of machine shops and mechanical knowledge. I had to have gears cut for a Duesenberg, because they had big 4.56s and I wanted to get some 3.55s or so, and you gotta go to India now. You can find it – I mean, I did find a guy in Chicago — 80 years old – and he cut me a set of gears. But he’s 80. He’s probably gone now. That was ten years ago. All that equipment’s been sold off. I mean, a crankshaft for that Merlin over there? I don’t think there’s anyone in America that can make one that big. You’ve got to go to Europe now. It’s like our space program. You want to go to space, you’ve got to hitch a ride with the Chinese or the Russians.
It’s like… we didn’t win WWII just because we had the best soldiers. We also won because we had the best infrastructure. Henry Ford made a Liberator every HOUR. We literally made planes faster than the Germans could shoot them down. EVERY HOUR a four-engine Liberator came out of Willow Run. Think about that. Every hour. A finished plane. I don’t think we could do that now. In one day there were 24 new planes. It’s crazy. Over 100 planes a week. That’s pretty amazing. And I hate to see the loss of that.
You know, it’s funny, when you read about the ’20s and the ’30s, because a lot of parts came from as far away as South Bend, Indiana. That was like a foreign car, you know, as opposed to just Detroit. But now, I sort of miss that. You talk to a lot of the old guys, and it’s just… if your dad doesn’t know how to work a screwdriver, you don’t. The number of kids that’ll say to me, “Mr Leno, what’s a turbo, anyway?” They know Lamborghinis, you know, but they don’t know what it does. Nobody explains how it works. They don’t teach shop anymore.
I have a friend –– he runs a transmission shop. And he makes hundreds of thousands of dollars because he’s good at what he does and nobody else knows how to do it.
When I was a kid, every town had an old guy… “Well let me take a look at that for you Billy… alright, there you go.” And he’d fix it for you. It was pretty cool. But those guys are all sorta gone. Working with your hands is like… somehow [typing] is preferable to fixing something that is broken.
ACC: Do you ever sell cars once they’ve come into your garage?
No. No. Sell cars? What kind of talk is that? [laughs].
No, I can’t bring myself to sell. I bought them for a particular reason that I liked. I mean, sometimes, like a guy called me up, and he had a ’60 Lincoln Premiere, and he wanted to give it to me. He couldn’t afford it. OK, so I sent a truck down, and we got it back here, and it was just too far gone. I didn’t want to sell it, so I gave it to a Lincoln collector. “Oh, I’m gonna restore this… it’s too far gone.” It’s now in Poland. It just went to Poland last week. So, there’s a lot of that. I mean, I will pass a car on, or give it to somebody, but I can’t bring myself to sell them.