Every car collector wants to be Jay Leno. Here's a guy who not only has the money to buy anything with wheels but also the smarts (and, as a former mechanic who still gets his hands dirty) the knowledge to know the good ones from the bad ones.
Leno worked at Mercedes and Rolls-Royce dealerships before his comedy career took off. "I loved foreign cars, but didn't think I'd ever be able to afford one," he told me. "Working on them was one way to hang around with them."
I asked Leno how many cars he owned, and he said, "You sound like my wife. It's about 100, plus 90 motorcycles. I'm the Mia Farrow of cars--when I see an unloved vehicle by the side of the road, I'm like, "Oooh, I wonder who owns that?"
He drives 'em, too. "My everyday car is a 1925 Model T," he told me. "It was last painted in 1962, and it's easy to fix--if a fender gets crumpled, a new one costs $175. I contend that holding on to your old car and keeping it in reasonable tune is better for the environment than buying a new one every three or four years just because your lease is up. Modern cars are meant to go at least 200,000 miles--one of my buddies on the Tonight Show staff has a diesel Mercedes with 350,000 miles on it."
But Leno has other reasons for driving a Model T to work: This is a guy who likes cars with brash personalities that make lots of rude noise, and require him to adjust the spark advance and try to keep the plugs from fouling. He's not interested in chilling out to smooth jazz when he's behind the wheel.
The great thing about Leno is that instead of hiding his collection away, he likes to share. With us. On the Internet. Jay Leno's Garage is a labor of love, obviously, and there are more than 300 videos on the site, all great stuff if you care about the more than 100-year history of the automobile. Here's a recent test drive of the 2.5 version of the Tesla Roadster, which 23,000 people have watched:
Leno's collection includes electric cars from their first go-round (a vintage Baker Electric), one of the super-rare Chrysler turbine cars from the 1964 New York World's Fair, the portholed 1955 Buick he bought in 1972 (I photographed it in his spot at the Tonight Show, below), and a whole lot more.
Leno got an iPhone two years ago, as did the rest of the world, and that meant Jay's Garage needed an application. Now he's got one, with most of the content from the website, including the videos, photos and Leno's many articles. "You can go online and find anything you want," Leno said. "Just type in a name and it will bring it up for you -- like people's own stories about their cars, or my piece about the 3D printer that allows us to make our own parts. I just made a set of connecting rods for my 1907 White steam car -- you won't find those in a junkyard."
The Garage will also roll out on Android in the not-too-distant future, and there will soon be a tablet version with high-resolution photos of all the cars in the collection, his people tell me.
Leno's plan going forward is to create more content specifically for the mobile applications. Fans can ask Leno questions that he'll answer on video, but don't bother asking about what Britney and Angelina are really like -- this is about the cars.
I asked Leno if he'd rather read a celebrity magazine or one about cars, but I already knew the answer. Me too. And those girls in bikinis draping themselves over the sculpted metal are just spoiling the view.
It's really fun talking cars with Jay Leno. He's as amusing as one of his monologues, but instead of the day's events we can talk about the great, wide world of the American automobile. Like the fact that car shows invariably feature blaring 1950s rock so loud you can hardly talk to the people in the lawn chairs. What's up with that, since the cars are from every conceivable era? It wasn't the Four Seasons that poured forth from that 1938 Packard's radio. Let's hear it for Bing Crosby and Jack Benny, the Jay Leno of his day.
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