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Jay Leno on cars, motorcycles and the next generation

Jay Leno on cars, motorcycles and the next generation

And why it’s time to change the music being played at car shows

Jay Leno was born and raised in Andover, Massachusetts, and was only 14 years old when he restored, by himself, a 1934 Ford truck.

His success in the entertainment business has allowed him to nurture his life-long automotive and motorcycle passion. He owns more than 170 classic cars and 150 motorcycles. Two of his motorcycles were featured in the movie Batman and Robin in 1997.

Whenever possible, he takes a “hands on” approach to the hobby and 20 years later is still thrilled to have been the pace car driver for the 83rd Indianapolis 500. He is host of Jay Leno’s Garage, a popular American web and television series.

ClassicCars.com caught up with Leno as he was preparing to visit the 2019 SEMA show in Las Vegas. Our time was brief, but his answers ranged from interesting and humorous to surprising.

In the beginning

How did you become such a passionate car guy?

Well, I grew up in a very rural area of Massachusetts on the New Hampshire border and there were always abandoned cars in fields, mini bikes, snowmobiles and stuff like that around.  It was the era when young boys wanted to do that kind of stuff.  There were such things as junkyards and you could find old engines to take a part and learn about.  That’s what I did. But times have changed.  

I was talking to a reporter from New York.  They always ask me the same questions.  I said to him a lot of kids today don’t know how to change a tire.  He pauses and says, “You said change a tire, change it to what?  What do you mean?”  I said, “You know when you get a flat you take the wheel off.”  He said, “Right, sure, sure.”  He didn’t even know the term “change a tire” and that made me laugh.

Leno and his 1937 Bugattiay Leno with 1937 Bugatti | NBC photo by Paul Drinkwater

Rich man, poor man

At the very beginning of my career the revered automotive journalist Leon Mandel explained an interesting theory.  He felt that automobiles were the ultimate common denominator.  Rich guys are happy to chat with average guys about cars.  This breaks down class barriers if only for a moment.  What are your thoughts regarding that topic?

For sure I think that’s true.  I mean, a lot of times you’ll find the rich guy knows about the car, but doesn’t know how to work on it and the regular guy knows how to work on it, but can’t afford it.  So, you work out some sort of a deal.  

When I meet rich guys I tell them to find an older guy, 55 or older.  Or maybe find a former service representative from a dealership.  Find someone who just enjoys being around cars.  I mean, those are the best guys to get because they don’t want to joy ride and they’re not out trying to impress girls.  They’re not burning rubber with your car.  They just like being around cars and working on them.  And that’s what I did.  Almost everyone I hired is over 60 when I hired them.  

It’s because they appreciate the idea of working on stuff on their own time.  You know, I don’t have anything that has to be done tomorrow.  It’s not like I have nothing to drive.  I tell them take it easy, have fun and enjoy yourself.  And just make sure batteries are charged and disconnect switches are disconnected and the fire extinguishers are loaded.  I mean so many guys that have cars and they all have dead batteries (laughs)!  

For the price of one car you can hire yourself an older guy who might be a good friend. He may know way more than you about the vehicle than you and it’s just a good way to go, that is, if you can afford it.

Blue ovals, Bow ties and Mopar madness

Are you a Ford guy?  Chevy?  Mopar?  Tesla?  Foreign cars?

I like American manufacturing.  I like the fact that Ford, Chevrolet and Chrysler can make high-performance vehicles with European-level performance, braking and handling for reasonable prices.  

I find the new $60,000 C8 incredible!  Not just in the design and engineering of the vehicle, but that they are able to do it for a 60 thousand dollar price tag.  I thought for sure it would be $180,000 and the C7 would be the standard bearer for $70,000 or $80,000. I don’t know how they do it for the price.  

I mean when you figure most good paints run $500 to $600 a pint.  I’m astounded that they can do it.  

It’s the classic example of American manufacturing to me. A few years ago a wheel company came to my garage.  They brought some sort of carbon fiber wheel and they were $20,000 apiece!  They were looking for Lamborghini and Ferrari guys. We tested the wheels and they were nice wheels, lightweight and you could feel the difference. OK, but at $20,000 who can afford that? I remember the owner of the company telling me they were working with an original manufacturer.  A couple years later those wheels turned up on a 350R Mustang and I have one.  And just the fact that I got the whole Mustang for less than the price of what the four wheels would have been five years ago just shows you how American efficiency in manufacturing can really work.  

I thought for sure General Motors would say, “Well we put a torque converter transmission in the new Corvette because it’s lighter, all the usual excuses, but they didn’t.  They have a custom-made dual clutch gear box in that C8 which is amazing that they can do it for $60,000. I have an NSX Honda which is $205,000 and it’s a V6 not even a V8! 

You know it takes a long time for a bad reputation to wear off.  During the ‘70s, ’80s and ‘90s there were a lot of cars that were produced with ghost-stripe packages on them, racing wheels, crazy decals and cute cartoon figures, but they didn’t DO anything.  Now when you go to Ford, GM, and Chrysler everybody is an engineer.  Like Mark Reuss, he is the president of GM yet he is at the Nurburgring all the time testing the cars.  

I mean they’re not selling tufted upholstery like they used to.  The most fun thing about going to the C8 introduction was the fact that everybody was an engineer, hardly any marketing guys.  Usually at those types of events the marketing guy is standing behind the engineer correcting him. 

I’m a huge fan of all types of American manufactures.  Even Tesla, you know, Tesla too.  There’s an American company using American workers using locally sourced material and producing a car.  I don’t get what all the hate is about.

Grease monkey or wall flower?

Do you still work on any cars or has that ship sailed?

Yeah, I do, but I don’t get as much chance as I used to.  You know the trouble is when you hire people that are way better than you, it’s like, “Oh, what am I doing here?”  

You know, I’ll work on it until it’s broken!  

I mean I just don’t have as much time because it’s pretty crazy now. But yeah, I like it. I like being involved.  I would rather buy a project than a finished vehicle.  I just bought, and I have no idea why, a 1958 Lincoln Continental Mark III. It was parked in 1990!  It was buried in a garage and we pulled it out.  It’s just great fun.

Gaze into your crystal ball

What do you see for the future of the collector car hobby?

It’s very funny because nobody can really predict. When I was a kid they said the Mustang would never be a collectible car because they made a million of them of the first year and a half.  So there are so many of them nobody will collect them.  Well that’s precisely the reason they did because everybody has a memory of them.  

You know, we Americans are odd.  When things come out we gotta have it, we get tired of it quickly, we throw it away and then 20 years later we scream,  “Oh, oh, I need one of those,” and then we pay ten times the price (laughs).  

I will always remember the time I was in England, I was visiting some of my mom’s relatives. The local vicar came over and said, “Oh, you are a motor enthusiast.  You know I have a 1962 Honda 125 motorcycle ( a rare model).  I said,  “Are you a collector?”  He looked at me oddly and said, “No, I bought it new…” and it’s still his transportation to get around to his congregation. He bought it in 1962!  

And few in America would do that!  We would have it for three or four years then throw it away. Or it would rot in the garage so it’s just a different way of looking at it!  

I think Mazda Miata’s will be hugely collectible.  They already are!  It’s inexpensive and you have a lot of fun with it. It has a manual gearbox and overhead cam.  It’s reliable.  You can fix it yourself.  You can race it. 

Youth movement or stagnation?

Are today’s youngsters in interested in cars?  Will the love die with the current car owners?

When you look at the young tuner-car craze sweeping the nation, cars from the ‘90s, turbo Celicas, the Supra and certainly the NSX — a most collectible Japanese car from the ‘90s right now — Mazda Cosmo, RX7 maybe.  When I talk to young people today it’s interesting. 

You see, it’s hard for me to believe when I was 16 that a Duesenberg from the 1930s was just like a car from the 1990s now.  I can’t make that correlation in my head.  It sorta makes me laugh.  

When I was doing the Tonight Show I had an intern who said,  “I understand you collect cars. I’m a big car fan.”  I said, “Do you have any collector cars?”  He said, “Oh yeah, sure.”  I said,  “So what do you have?”  He said, “I have a ’91 Miata.” And I realized that was the year he was born.  That’s like me having a 1950 Plymouth station wagon, which I have!  It makes you laugh. 

You have to have perspective.  What is desirable to one group is not always desirable for another.  I remember reading a story about a kid whose father gave him a 1932 Ford and the father was all excited, he had the car all done up.  One day the father is going to work and he had to take a detour because the road was closed. He went down a side street and he saw the Ford parked in a driveway and he assumed that his kid was skipping school.  

So he waited for the kid to come home and he asked him where he was and the kid said, “ At school.”  And the dad said, “No you weren’t I saw your car parked in somebody’s driveway.” and the kid admitted that he was sooooo embarrassed to drive this 1932 Ford to school that he would go to his friend’s house and they would take his pal’s slammed Honda.  

But he just didn’t want to tell his dad because he knew his dad put a lot of time and effort into the Ford, but he was too embarrassed to drive it. His friends thought it was stupid!  It’s like rock and roll and rap, they are both music, we just happen to like one more than the other.  To me, a lot of things deflect young guys at these car shows.  Every time I go to a car show I hear Jan and Dean and Fun Fun Fun by the Beach Boys until it drives me crazy.  It just sounds crazy to the young people.  You gotta change with the times!

We did something on my TV show.  We took a 1966 GTO with all the options, Tri-Power, four speed, mag wheels. It looked great and we raced it against a totally stock Nissan Altima V6 four door. The Altima blew the GTO’s doors off! 

The term “muscle car” means something if you are my age, but it may mean something totally different to a young person.  

I remember picking up Car and Driver magazine when they tested the Hemi Satellite Belvedere with the 426 and it went 0-60 in 6.3 seconds and I said, “What, nothing could be that fast!”  Well, now you have cars that do it in 3.5 or 4 seconds  and they aren’t even out and out real sports cars.  Today the term “muscle car” is like walking around with a rolled up sock in your pants, it looks impressive, but…

The more youth the merrier

How do we attract and retain the next generation of automotive enthusiasts to the hobby?  

I just did a concours in Rhode Island, Audrain’s. They had in Rhode Island. It was a big success. It was a Pebble Beach-grade concours, but we had a class called 30 under 30. The class was created for people 30 years or younger who spent no more than 30 thousand dollars restoring their car.  We had a huge turnout and these kids were so excited.  One guy was actually in tears that his car was on the same field as Bugattis.  These are the guys with Corvairs and 2002 BMWs. One had a C-10 Chevy truck.  One kid brought his parents and his mom and dad were stunned that their son Tommy was invited to this upscale, fancy event. So it gets young people interested.  

That’s the biggest thing about our hobby is that it seems to be getting more and more about rich guys.  And this 30/30 class wasn’t. I would like to see more car shows incorporated. Seeing a 26-year-old kid who did all the work in his garage get treated the same way you see a millionaire who had his Bugatti restored in Europe was great. That’s the way to grow the hobby.

Creative cruising

You’re invited on a cruise with a few car guys, living or deceased.  Who would you invite and what would you drive?

I like cars that were one man’s vision.  Fred Duesenberg, Bentley, Henry Ford maybe. Any one of these guys would be fascinating.  Because they built what they liked in hopes that other people would like it too. 

Now it seems like every car is designed by a committee.  I remember when the Dodge Viper came out, talking to Bob Lutz about it and half the people hated it and thought it looked like a cartoon. The other half loved it and thought it was great. Bob said, “We aren’t selling it to the people that hate it.”  A Toyota Corolla is an excellent automobile because it does all things for all people.  It’s hard to get passionate about it unless your passion is reliability. A Dodge Viper does one or two things great and the rest are just adequate. The Ford GT is desirable because it does exactly what it’s supposed to do and nothing else.  

I might take my NSX. You have to look at the times in which things were built.  A lot of people make fun of old cars because of the big wheels, and then you realize the big wheels are there because the roads were so rough.  In the day, Duesenburgs were fast, but 0 to 60 was not something anyone counted on, it wasn’t a measure.  I always like cars that were ahead of their time, cars that were, like the Duesenberg.  Nobody needed that much power at the time.  When the speed limit is 45, a car that can do 116 is really the speed-demon as my day would say.  He would say, “Slow down, you’re going a mile a minute.!” Ok dad, ok.

One for the money

You have 30k budget? What do you buy and why?

A 1966 Corvair, turbo with a four speed. You’re getting Porsche-like style.  In 1966 Don Yenko actually beat Porsche in SCCA racing that year with a Corvair and to call the Corvair the poor man’s Porsche is not that big of a stretch. Because with a little bit of modification, you could make it handle, they are easy to work on and you can get a really good one for that money. In fact you can get it for a lot less than 30 thousand dollars and you could put the rest of the money into restoring it. 

Four wheels vs. two

The name of the website is ClassicCars.com.  But, you own lots of sweet motorcycles. Are vintage motorcycle collectors and vintage car lovers the same guy?

It’s two different things.  It’s a bit like steam guys and internal combustion guys.  They are two totally different things. With steam cars, most of the guys have the knowledge, but can’t afford it.  With gas cars, a lot of the guys can afford it, but don’t have the knowledge.  

Steam cars require a tremendous amount of effort from the operator.  With gas cars you just get in and go.  And it’s the same thing with the motorcycle.  What happens with motorcycles is, by the time you can afford them, you are older and consequently I find falling off at age 69 is horrible, it hurts too much.  When your old Model T throws a rod you just get out.  I drive 100-year-old motorcycles all the time in Los Angeles and its tricky.  I love it, but you have to use accident-avoidance technology just to try not to run into somebody.  

Again, it’s a bit like rap and rock and roll.  They are both music, but different.  A motorcycle tends to wear its mechanicals on the outside, where as a car wears it on the inside. So with a motorcycle you are exposed, the engine is exposed and you can’t really worry about what you are wearing, you are going to get dirty.  Nobody goes to a motorcycle concours in white pants.  I got into bikes because when I started out I could put half a dozen motorcycles in the space of one car.  That made real sense to me at the time. But car guy and motorcycle guys are two different guys.

Leno and his recently restored Ford Bronco

Joy riding with Jay

You want to shut your brain off for a minute and take a road trip to a car show.  Any advice?

I never take a motorcycle when I have to be somewhere.  That’s a big mistake if I’m in a hurry.  And the real trick to not getting into an accident with an old vehicle is patience. If your wife is having a baby and you have to get to the hospital you don’t want to take a 1956 Nomad. 

I would take something interesting to a show that would garner questions.  That’s the fun part.  A car that I am not afraid to let people sit in is good.  When I go to those things there is always some wide-eyed youngster. Maybe I take my Countach.  Like if I take my Countach I always let them hold the steering wheel and take a picture because that’s where the next generation of enthusiasts are coming from.  

I meet guys now in their 40s who come to me and say, “You won’t remember me, but I want to show you a picture”, and in the picture they are like 9 and its this guy sitting in my Countach!  

When I was a kid it made an impression on me.  It’s why I have a XK 120 Jaguar because when I was 9 a man let me sit in it. That was before the internet. You just never saw that kind of stuff in the town I was from. It might as well have been a rocket ship!  He let me sit in it and that stayed with me until I was able to afford one in my 30s.

Restored or rental?

How do you decide which cars to keep in Rhode Island and which cars in LA?

I keep all my cars in California. I don’t keep anything back East because I don’t have tools back East. The weather is horrible.  My house is near the ocean and there is salt.  Whenever I go back East I rent a car.  And my wife likes it because I’m not dragging grease and stuff into the house.  I just look at other people’s cars there.  

That’s what I love about California.  When I drive down the street I see a 1965 Buick Special.  I see it everyday. It’s parked on the street. I see tons of 1965-67 Mustangs that are kind of ratty looking, but they are everyday cars.  It’s the kind of car that if you found it in Boston it would be a treasure.

Collecting for keeps

Do you like to buy and sell? 

I’ve never sold a car.  Once a year we will donate a car to Wounded Warriors, firefighters, Make a Wish Foundation or something like that… But I really don’t feel the need to sell any.  

You can have the shiny thing that makes noise or you can have a bag of green paper.  I would rather have the shiny thing that makes noise.

Jay invites the automotive passionate to visit his Facebook page.

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Tom Trace
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11 Comments

  • Dave Luce
    November 28, 2019, 6:28 AM

    Great article with Jay Leno, I really enjoyed it Tom. Jay’s a down to earth guy.
    I am 79 now and still fondly remember my first car, a 1935 Studebaker Dictator
    that I lovingly refurbished and drove daily in the early ’60’s.

    REPLY
  • Martin Cunningham
    November 28, 2019, 3:52 PM

    Love your passion Jay. Recently Bought a 1954 Packard Convertible from NJ to Ireland! All because my dad one day picked me up from school in his friends MG Midget in about 1975 and have been a car and motorcycle head since!

    REPLY
  • Arthur Klaiber
    November 28, 2019, 5:56 PM

    For Tom Trace In this article a 1958 Lincoln Mark 3 is mentioned. The Mark 3 if I recall came out in April 1968 and was titled as a 1969. The Mark 1 was 1939 Mark 2 1956 or 57 and the Mark 3 1968/69. See if you agree. I am going by my memory. I worked for Lincoln-Mercury from 67 to 72 Thank YOU

    REPLY
    • Steven Simon@Arthur Klaiber
      November 30, 2019, 3:57 PM

      Lincoln produced two timeless classics in the 1939 and 1956 Continentals. But, following the end of Mk II production, Ford committed the cardinal sin of marketing desperation by attempting to cash-in on the caché of the Continental by applying the name to the top models of its regular Lincoln line, in 1958. In fact, they further diminished the name by calling similar 1959 models, "Mark IV" and 1960 models, "Mk V". In 1968, as is often the case with large manufacturers, Ford wagered that no one would remember they had done that, and christened their stand-alone, premium model the "Mark III". Diluting the value of an iconic model name is SOP. GM did that with the ’74 GTO (a tarted-up Chevy Nova) and Plymouth did that with the ’76-’80 Road Runner, which was a feeble effort to draw interest to their horrible Volare. I was in love with the original 1967 Maserati Ghibli, a true classic. But, in 1992, when Maserati resurrected the name for an evolution of its conservatively styled Biturbo sedan, I was very disappointed.

      REPLY
  • Mark Bartlett
    November 28, 2019, 6:12 PM

    What about the history on the Duesenberg Jays driving and what body is he putting on it. did you know that every chassis Duesenberg built was broke in on the Indianapolis 500 track.

    REPLY
  • Malcolm Graham
    November 28, 2019, 8:44 PM

    Jay Leno, you’ve worked hard for a long time and you’ve taken full advantage of your opportinities. The result is you’re now on a position to indulge your fantasies.
    You’re living every car guy’s dream – and may you continue to do so for many, many years to come.

    REPLY