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Cruising with Jay Leno

Ever notice how many Hollywood celebrities claim to be car enthusiasts? Ask them about their collections or cars that catch their eye, and you’ll likely hear all about the latest Bentley, Ferrari, Hummer or Lamborghini. To a real car enthusiast, hearing things like that is not only disheartening, it’s infuriating – these people aren’t enthusiasts, they’re label junkies.

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Not true of Jay Leno, host of NBC’s very popular late night talk show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Jay is a 100% certified, Grade-A car and motorcycle enthusiast – so much so, that yours truly believes he may bleed 10w-30 motor oil. He often shows footage of some of his unique vehicles during the Tonight Show, and his guests often ask him about his cars and bikes while they’re being interviewed. His Apache helicopter turbine-powered motorcycle brings back fond Tonight Show memories.

Luckily, Jay is not only a successful comedian, television personality and accomplished car collector – he’s also one heckuva nice guy. You hear it from many people – people who’ve bumped into him at the grocery store, people who’ve worked with him and people who’ve seen his comedy club routines. They all say, “Jay is such a great guy,” and we can verify that statement as nothing short of completely accurate.

In fact, he’s more than a great guy. He’s a great guy who loves talking about cars and motorcycles, and he was more than accommodating of our request to sit down and interview him about his life’s passion. We feel very fortunate that Jay was able to take time from his unbelievably busy schedule to field our questions and share his experiences with us. We talked about everything from Austin Healey’s to Zeffer’s, and share excerpts of the interview here. If you dare to consider yourself a car or motorcycle fanatic, you definitely don’t want to miss a single word Jay had to say.

R: When did you first become interested in cars and motorcycles, and who do you hold “responsible” for getting you into the hobby?

Jay Leno: Oh, it seems like I’ve always been in to cars and motorcycles. I grew up in New England, and when I was 12 or 13 I got a go-kart. We had a 300-foot driveway and I’d drive up and down it like every day.

As a kid, I used to work a lot of different jobs, so when I was about 14, I bought a 1934 Ford pick-up truck. My dad and I brought it home and I spent like another 2 years driving up and down the driveway in that. You know, going “reeeer” [makes car noise] and then backing up and then “reeeer” [car noise] driving back and forth, like an idiot – I maybe got into second gear once or twice. I did that like 50 times a day until I got my license. I’ve always liked things that make noise, roll and explode. [chuckles while recalling the memories]

R: Have you always been mechanically inclined? I know that you do a lot of your own work, and that you’re pretty good at working on vehicles of all types.

JL: Well, I think I am…[chuckles] But I don’t think I’m a particularly gifted mechanic. I’m certainly not very good as a machinist or anything like that, but I just enjoy working on things.

I get a perverse pleasure out of things breaking down on the road and then being responsible for trying to get them home again – I guess that’s why modern cars don’t interest me that much, because there’s not a whole lot you can do to them when they break down.

For example, when I first came to California, and I’d drive down the street and I’d see someone broken down with the hood open, so I’d pull over and be like, “Hey, what’s the matter? Oh, here’s your problem – the coil wire came off, or here, let me fix that,” or whatever it might be. Maybe eight times out of ten I could get them going again, without too much drama – it was just something you could do. Nowadays, when cars break down and I pull over to help, I just hand them my cell phone and call the tow truck.

Carrying tools in a modern car like a Honda or Toyota – there’s not much you can do with them. It’s sort of pointless, isn’t it? The days of explaining to someone that the mercury switch (like they had in the mid-80’s Alfa’s that would cut the fuel and ignition if the car got turned on it’s side) is “flipped” are gone. You just call the tow truck and watch it get hauled away.

R: I know you hate it when people ask you about your top-10 favorite cars, but I’m going to do it anyway. What are your favorites?

JL: Oh boy [laughs]. Let’s see, my current favorite is probably the Duesenberg SJ – that’s a solid car and is probably one of the best cars of all time. I like the Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic coupe, the McLaren F1, the 1913 Mercer Raceabout, my Stanley Steamer, the Lamborghini Miura, my 1909 Baker Electric (an electric car from nearly 100 years ago, take that GM!), any big, old eight-liter Bentleys, and of course, the 1960’s 427 Ford AC Cobra. That thing still amazes me.

R: Generally speaking, do you prefer your vehicles to be stock, modified, restored or some combination of all of the above?

JL: [pauses] Well, it depends on what type of car you’re talking about. For example, like right now I have an extremely heavily modified C5 Corvette Z06 – but, would I prefer it if you gave me an all-stock, 1962 Corvette, numbers matching, fuel injected car? Absolutely – then the stock car is much more appealing to me. In 25 years, will I prefer a stock Z06? Probably. It just depends on what it is and what time period you’re living in.

R: What vehicles catch your eye today? Is there any thing that you have your eye on, or anything that you’d really like to own?

JL: The one that I’m really attracted to is the new GT from Ford, you know, the new version of the old GT40. I think they’ve done an excellent job of recreating the car, and since there’s some family history there, it’s not like it’s a replica car. I think it’s a really exciting car.

I’m also really excited about the new SLR Mercedes-Benz. Coincidentally, I’ve got the first one that’s going to be coming into the country, so I’m really looking forward to that – it’s pretty cool. Zero to 60 is, what, 4 seconds? But it’s not only about the horsepower, even though it has over 600 horsepower. I had an EV1 [General Motors Electric Car] for a few weeks, and I actually enjoyed driving it.

But the electric car is dead. It’s a dead idea – I mean, I have a 1909 Baker Electric, and it goes 110 miles on a charge. The EV1 goes 125 miles on a charge, so we’ve gained a whopping 15 miles in 90 years of technology? Come on. You have to think of electricity as a living thing – you put it in a box, and it’s going to escape, or it’ll die trying to escape. You either use it at the point of generation, or you have to go elsewhere.

Eventually, I think a complete fuel-cell vehicle with an electric motor at each wheel will be the final solution, but I think that’s still quite a bit in the future.

R: If an automaker or bike manufacturer were to re-incarnate a vehicle from days gone by, what would you like to see them bring back?

JL: Well, I think the Duesenberg SJ would be an interesting vehicle – that was a car that was ahead of it’s time. I mean, I have a few Duesenbergs, and even today, it’s not a car that you have to apologize for driving.

You know, like you’re driving down the road going, “Oh, pardon me, sorry, just go around – it’s really old, sorry! Sorry! Yeah, just go around!”

A lot of times with old cars, the things are just screaming trying to go forty, fifty miles an hour, but with the Duesy, I pass people at like 75, 80 miles per hour on the freeway, and they’re like “jeesh!” It’s a well-designed car – I mean, it had twin cams, overhead valves, hemi-heads, 4-vales per cylinder, and it was designed and built in 1927. It’s amazing, so that would certainly be an interesting one.

Or, how about the TR3? I mean, Mazda’s Miata has come as close as anyone can to recreating the famous old MG’s, but there’s obviously an interest in these types of cars. The unfortunate thing about the Miata is that many people refer to it as a girl’s car, which is an image-killing moniker to have stuck to your car, especially if you’re a guy driving that car.

Collin Chapman used to say, “You build a car, then add lightness,” and that’s a really great thing to say and do. Mazda did it with the Miata, as did MG and Triumph with the TR3. But we Americans seem to associate light cars with femininity, which is absolutely silly.

The Lotus Elan is about as light a car as you’re going to get, they take out Mustangs and Corvettes on the circuits, but most people under the age of 35 don’t understand the notion of a lightweight car, so they make fun of it.

You know, I have a car that’s called “The Rocket” and it weighs 775-lbs and has 147 horsepower flowing through 12 speeds (6 high, 6 low). Power to weight, there’s nothing that can hang with me when I get on it – nothing and I mean nothing – stays with me. I get 35, 40 miles to the gallon, I stomp on the brakes, lock-up the wheels and my brake pads last forever, because I’m only haulin’ around 775lbs. It’s a wonderful example of how important conserving weight is and the advantages to doing so.

R: Which of your cars or bikes is your rarest vehicle?

JL: Rarest? Hmm, well, I don’t know – I have a lot of odd cars and motorcycles, but I honestly don’t know which is the most rare. I just try to avoid the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous syndrome.” I mean, for me, the challenge of driving something is more fun and more important than what you’re driving.

I have a Morgan 3-wheeler – it’s hysterical! I’ve told the story before, but I’m on Mulholland Drive, and I got the thing cranked up, it’s pop-pop-pop-popping at me, and I come sliding around this corner, doing everything I can do to make the corner, and just as I do that there’s a cop sitting there with his radar gun.

I see him and go “oh crap,” and he sort of looks at me and this steam engined thing and I go, “Hey, officer, how’s it going?” And he goes, “Hey Jay, got the steamer out?” I said, “Yeah, hey – how fast was I going back there?” He goes, “Oh, you’re ok – you were just hitting 35 miles an hour.” I go, “35?! I thought I was going like 70!” He says, “Nope, you’re ok – speed limit here is 45.”

I seriously thought I was going to go to jail, but I was having a blast – the backend is hanging out as I’m coming around the corner, and it’s chuggin’ away, and I’m seriously thinking I’m going like nearly 100, and I’m barely doing 35?! Talk about a fun vehicle to drive.

[At this point we’re all laughing, because Jay is telling the story with such intensity that it seems as though we were riding right along side him. He tells stories perfectly – you really get the feeling like you were there with him.]

R: With such a great collection of cars, how do you decide which vehicle you’re going to drive to work each day?

JL: Well, I feel sort of foolish because I’m sure there are worse problems to have than deciding which car you’re going to drive to work. But, you know how I do it? Sometimes I’ll come home, and I’ll pull out a car book. I’ll be reading through it, and I’ll start reading about something like the 1968 Shelby Mustang GT350, so I’ll go out the garage, fire it up and drive it to work for the next few days. You know, I’m sure you guys do the same thing, right? [We all laugh again]

R: Any plans to write your own book, sort of like a “car guy” book that’s written by a true “car guy?”

JL: No, not really – you know, idiot celebrities sticking their heads in where they don’t belong isn’t anything anyone wants to do or hear about. I’m an enthusiast, and I enjoy it, but I’m no expert. I have no desire to write a “well, here’s what you do…” sort of book.

R: Ready for a hypothetical question?

JL: Let me have it.

R: 3,000-mile road trip. Pick the vehicle and your co-pilot – it can be anyone, from any time or era.

JL: I would probably take the McLaren F1, because that’s the greatest car there is! It’s unbelievable – the top speed is 241 miles per hour and it’s extremely comfortable. The thing that people don’t know about the F1, is that unlike an Enzo or some other exotic, the McLaren F1 is totally drivable. It’s a road car – it was designed to be a road car from the get-go.

I mean, it’s smaller than a Corvette, yet I can hold three people in it and still have room for luggage. It weighs less than a Miata, and it has 627 horsepower. You sit in the center and because you sit in the center, there’s enough legroom for drivers or passengers that are seven feet and taller.

It’s actually one of the only cars that I drive where I find myself moving the seat a little bit forward before I take off. It’s so comfortable, and I find it to be the perfect vehicle because people who know what it is see it and tend to go nuts, and people who don’t know about it just don’t know about it and leave you alone.

It isn’t like the Enzo with a big long nose, where as soon as you’re seen it in, you’re labeled as the middle-aged guy with “that problem” in his life. The car just looks right, and it drives perfectly – everything about it is just right. There’s no wing, there’s no spoilers, it just does what it’s supposed to do. It has normal road clearance, so when you go over a speed bump or come to a driveway, you’re not tearing off half of the spoilers.

You know, I remember someone lent me a new Lamborghini Diablo back in the mid-90s, and I’m leaving my driveway really slowly and I go “scccccrrrrrrrrthhhh” [makes a scraping noise] and I rip off the front spoiler. I’m going, “You know, I’m not supposed to be doing this to people’s cars, I don’t beat them up, I don’t wreck them,” but it was so embarrassing because the thing is so low and the nose is so long that as soon as you hit a pebble, you’re ripping the thing up. That’s not for me.
The only criticism that I have about the McLaren, and it’s not really a fair criticism, but you have to be so darn careful with your speed. I mean, going 100 mph in that thing is like going 30 [mph] in any other car, and if I’m not careful, I’ll look down and be like, “Oh crap, I’m going 175! I’m not an irresponsible idiot!” It’s the exact opposite of the Morgan, where 35 [mph] feels like 100 [mph].

I mean, it sounds dumb, but the thing gathers speed like nothing – you put your foot in it for a second to pass someone and you’re doing 140 miles an hour. It’s ridiculous, but it is an absolute joy to drive, you’re just going, “What the hell am I doing?”

My co-pilot…hmm, that’s a great question. It would have to be someone that was interesting to talk to – I don’t know. I think I’d want to take along a true automotive engineer, someone whom I’d like to ask a lot of questions of, like W.O. Bentley or Mark Birkett [our apologies if this is not the correct spelling], people who know things that I don’t know are very interesting to me. I find designers, engineers, and mechanics to be very interesting.

Phil Hill would be another great guy to take along – he’s an old friend of mine and would be an absolute blast to go on a road trip with.

R: Jay, thank you so much for sharing some time with us and for sharing so many great stories with our readers. We certainly appreciate it.

JL: My pleasure – this was a fun interview, and I wish all of you guys the best.

When Jay isn’t busy with his television show or with his stand-up comedy tours, he can be found at home, tending to one of his cars or motorcycles. It’s no wonder as to why he’s on top of his professional game – he’s great at what he does, and he takes time to “help the little guy.” When was the last time any other celebrity stopped to help a stranded motorist?

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno can be seen Monday through Friday on NBC just after your local 10 o’clock news. If you’re one of the few people who aren’t tuned in to his show every night, we’d urge you to start watching – Jay is a great talk show host, a true car enthusiast and an all around great person.

About Steve Litscher

Steve Lutscher Avatar
Food connoisseur, car guy, tech geek and dog lover.
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