The saying goes, if you want to be an entertainer but can’t sing, dance, or play a musical instrument, you can always be a chat show host.
James Douglas Muir ‘Jay’ Leno is one of America’s most successful chat show hosts. Witty, sharp, satirical, well, to be truthful, not really, but often very funny especially when he’s making fun of what people write and say. He’s also a car nut.
Leno is half-Italian, and half-Scots on the distaff side, but unlike me he’s the one with a ton of money in the bank. He spends it collecting and renovating rare cars and motorbikes. In the process he puts them up for all to enjoy on what is arguably the best car site on the web. He claims to drive every single car he has, and I believe him.
If you want to know about a specific car from any era go there for detailed information presented in an entertaining format. Leno talks to you as a friend, not down at you. The site is a perfect mix of automotive erudition and petrolhead camaraderie.
Leno loves European cars, including British marques, Ferraris too but he doesn’t collect them. “If I collected Ferraris I’d have to collect every book written about them, and there’s millions of those!”
Ferraris or not, he attends to at least three warehouses full of cars and motorbikes on a site near Burbank Airport. He showed me an empty forth, probably filled by now.
Just a nice guy
Out of his chat show role and serge blue suits, you find the genial Leno always in the same attire, a blue denim shirt and a pair of blue jeans. He’s extremely approachable. Drive up next to him at the traffic lights and he’ll happily engage you in discussion. He carries that laid-back Italian air, a smile, a quip, a wave, never knowingly irascible. Moreover, he sports that much envied male attribute, a full head of hair, although I can’t guarantee he doesn’t wear contact lenses.
Rich men have big garages of five or six cars, extraordinary wealthy men have collections, but they are in the main, high-end vehicles, and always shown in a museum. The cars Leno collects are anything from the rare to the downright quirky. A good many were gifts, some rust buckets he bought, and together with his dedicated team of mechanics and engineers he employs, brought back to health again.
The car salesman
Leno began his professional life as a car salesman. He recalls the day he got imprinted on automobiles. As a lad he saw a man cleaning his Jaguar XK140. Impressed by his curiosity the Jaguar owner allowed him to sit inside the car at the driving wheel. Ever since Leno has offered that same generosity to the curious and the respectful, and to visitors like me.
I first met him at an open-air veteran car show. Immediately recognisable, he never dismissed a request for an autograph or a photograph from those around. He treated people with grace and respect; no shades, no bodyguard, no VIP place to hide.
“I have no idea why I’m here” he quipped. “I’m an entertainer, not a racing driver or a mechanic. Then I remembered – somebody has to buy these cars. That’s where I come in.”
I arrived in my beat up three-door RAV4. (A Toyota dealer described it as a “girls car” to my face.) Leno growled into the paddock in his half million dollar McLaren. (It’s worth a lot more now.) “I took the McLaren to get its first service, wheel check, oil change, replace the wipers. The wipers cost me £1,500 dollars!” That was the total cost of my RAV4.
Back in his garage, a group of modern airport hangers, a large well stocked kitchen for staff and visitors to use, Leno waxed lyrical about the McLaren. “A sports car should look timeless. People ask me where I got my ‘new’ car. There’s not a single piece of extruded plastic on it. Gordon Murray wanted to design a car you could recreate if you found it in a barn in fifty years time.”
“I’m amazed there are people who buy expensive supercars and brag they don’t drive them. They are build to be driven, and driven hard” he says.
If it’s innovative Leno has one
His garage is home to a few supercars, but ask him politely and he’ll show you his late brother’s modest Mazda MX5 which he keeps in a corner, next to a Triumph, and a Rocket, the topless mini-jet designed by God’s own automotive engineer, Gordon Murray.
In the main, what Leno does best is find rare and forgotten cars that were innovative in their day, and bring them back to life. Most were cheap to buy back in the day, everyday people carriers. There is something in the design that catches his attention, the engine, gearing, styling, that was ahead of its time, even if the car itself was not a sales success.
A good example is the Citroen DS. The list of new ideas incorporated in the car were revolutionary for their day: air suspension to vary ride height – you can change the tyre without jacking up the car; pillar-less windows; high level rear brake light; power steering; headlights that swivel with the wheel in the direction the car is travelling; no brake pedal only a simple foot button; body panels that you can unscrew and lift off; a single spoke steering wheel so you can see the dash instruments; the spare tyre fitted behind the front bumper for crash safety, and lots more.
Leno explains all those design pluses in a relaxed informative manner. He tells us the car’s only flaw was Citroen’s forced choice of putting their own aged four valve engine under the bonnet, where they wanted a more power straight six. But the engine can sustain high speeds for long journeys and does the job well enough.
Sometimes he gets roached cars back to their original state, better than when they left the factory, making only those parts no longer in production. Occasionally he upgrades them, ‘resto-mods’ they’re called. A good example of the genre is his many months of work on an old Lotus Elan, a clever little British sports car when it first appeared (sales boosted by Emma Peel) but completely unreliable. British manufacturers were famous in the sixties and seventies for leaving development of their vehicles to the buyer.
With his engineer colleague the Elan is redesigned nut and bolt, wire loom and engine, from top to bottom, to make it a useable car for modern roads. You can follow the rebuild video by video, step by step and learn a great deal about the car than you’ll ever learn reading it from a handbook or magazine. The only disappointment for me was he painted it dark green, and stuck a roll bar on top. But that’s Leno’s prerogative.
The man and his machines
When the moment was right, or I thought the moment was right, I ventured the question that was bugging me. What was to happen to his collection when he went to that Great Chat Show in the sky?
It seemed a reasonable enquiry. Storing any car any length of time requires an oil tray left under the engine sump, batteries go flat, tyres lose air, brakes bind, and shock absorbers leak from lack of use. Being practically minded, rarely flush with cash, I’m a natural worrier about avoiding potential problems. All the vehicles, what will happen to them?
In an otherwise memorable day spent with an entertainer of little ego, I encountered the one moment his eyes narrowed. There was a long silence. I squirmed and filled the pause.
“I mean, it’s essentially a museum, isn’t it?”
There was another long silence.
“No, it’s not! I drive them all when I can. It’s a living workshop.”
That’s true. It is a car workshop, a busy workshop, almost a university of the automobile. Cars are taken apart, studied, notes made and archived, the car put together again and made to run as new. When books on marques or brands are published he interviews the authors. When a new driver’s aid is invented he gets the designers onto his website to record how it works and where it can be bought.
I just can’t air brush from my head how it’s a massive indulgence. I guess he knew what I was getting at. Leno would see it as a hobby turned into a second career. Admirers might add, “And why not?” I keep thinking, how many is too much?
Tucked away in a corner I noticed a 1936 Fiat 500 ‘Topolino’. (Topolino is Italian for mouse.) Fiat made over half-a-million of them, a cheap and cheerful four-seat diminutive of great character, and a stonking 14 horsepower.
With the wind behind you, and going downhill, the speedometer might reach 50 miles per hour. It did everything a car owner wanted for its day. It had as many variants as today’s modern reincarnation: coupe, cabriolet, van, or estate.
The hobby to beat all hobbies
Leno is as enthusiastic about that car as any other. Like our own original Mini, it’s dwarfed next to today’s popular SUVs. You could slide it easily into the rear hatch, but it has bags of presence. Expensive doesn’t guarantee individuality. Can you tell a Lexus from a Nissan SUV?
The Topolino’s bonnet is up and the engine is in bits. “We’re combing Italy’s back street garages trying to find original parts for it, but we might have to fabricate them ourselves.”
A meeting of minds. We like simple, uncomplicated cars of distinction. Leno smiles lovingly at the car, and slides a hand across the roof as if to show it affection. “There’s no electronics, no computer, no electric seat adjuster, no gizmos at all. The gearstick goes straight into the transmission, the road felt through the steering wheel. It’s decent fun and its honest.”
That’s how you think of Leno, fun to be around, decent and honest. Like all successful people I’m sure he guards his reputation carefully, and when it matters he’s as ambitious as the next entertainer. But seeing that Topolino adjusted my assessment of warehouses full of glossy parked cars. It tells me it isn’t the monetary value that motivates or excites Leno, it’s the vehicles historical place in the pantheon of automotive design.
We can put his love of cars down to his Italian heritage, and his mechanical inquisitiveness down to his Scottish genes. Calling him a petrolhead is faintly derogatory. He’s a godfather to automotive craft and engineering. And I had a great time.
Post Script Video: Leno discusses his Citroen DS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzW_ERSgFRY