Jay Leno on Cars, the Concours & Comedy

Jay Leno with his 1913 Mercer Raceabout

photography by Stephen Busken 

Of course Jay Leno’s affable. Everyone agrees that he’s one of the most amiable, approachable, likeable good guys around. After “knowing” him for all these years, starting with that propitious night, March 2, 1977, when he first appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, we’ve come to regard him as a regular part of our lives. And if you’re into cars, you’ve gotten a double-dose of Jay, as he’s ever-present on the L.A. automotive scene. Leno-driving-sightings in L.A. are almost as plentiful as driving texters, especially since he’s likely to be behind the wheel of an unusual car, which itself attracts attention.

With Jay Leno, what you see is what you get. What are his native habitat and garb? Under a vintage car, wearing blue jeans and a blue work shirt. You don’t get much more “Joe America” than that. His easygoing and extra-pleasant personality make him so comfortable with himself that he’s best-friend-easy to talk with. Not even a little pretentious, he’s probably the best person you’ll ever know to have a beer with, especially while discussing cars.

And “cars” is a subject he knows—no—lives and breathes. Given that his stable of vehicles (well over 100 cars and a similar number of motorcycles) includes the widest array imaginable, there’s a lot to know. Want to talk about a Baker Electric Car (made in 1909 in Cleveland)? Ask away. Interested in the Chrysler Turbine car (a 1963 “Car of the Future”)? He knows all about it. How about the McLaren F1 (the ultimate supercar of the ‘90s, worth a king’s ransom today)? Step on up and have a listen. How does it compare to the P1? Let’s park my F1 and my P1 side by side and take a look.

WHERE MILLIONAIRES CAN COMPETE WITH BILLIONAIRES . . .AND WIN! But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Given that the car world currently is focused on August’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, let’s start there as it’s a venue that Jay knows well and one where he’s been both a participant and a judge. The event started in 1950 (the same year that Jay was born — a coincidence? I think not), and with just a few dozen cars on display back then, and a concurrent road race, it must have been an event to remember. But flash forward 65 years (where did the time go?) and it’s become a somewhat more sedate event, with an optional civilized road rally (a cruise of cars that have been accepted into the Concours) and a few hundred of the most unusual, elegant, sporty and well-cared-for cars on the planet. Jay has attended the event several times and even competed by showing a variety of his cars, including two of his most unusual: the Blastolene Special a.k.a. the Tank Car (more on that later) and his 1927 Duesenberg.

Hollywood is just over 3,000 miles from Andover, Massachusetts (a town of some 12,000 people back when Jay was born) but, to a young Jay, California might just as well have been on the moon. His family of four—mom (Catherine), dad (Angelo), brother (Patrick) and Jay—never thought about a family vacation on the West Coast, and Jay certainly never dreamed that he’d one day attend—much less show cars at—the amazing Concours d’Elegance. Of course, like any red-blooded American male growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, he was well aware of the California car culture—what kid didn’t love those googly-eyed “Moon Equipped” decals?— but even for a car-crazed youth like Jay, it seemed unattainable, a completely foreign land. Little did he know what a major impact he would grow up to have on the region…and the world.

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1937 Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic, 1932 Bugatti Type 49, 1929 Bugatti Type 40, 1989 Ford Festiva SHOgun + 2013 Fiat Abarth

The Concours event itself has drawn enthusiasts from around the globe for over six decades, due to the fact that it’s one of the most beautiful settings for a car show (on the legendary 18th fairway of the fabled Pebble Beach golf course, overlooking Monterey Bay), and it attracts some of the finest machines known to man. Jay loves to say that it’s a place where “millionaires can compete with billionaires…and win!” and he’s right. The owners of these cars can be world-famous themselves. Some spend years (and tens of thousands of Q-tips) making their cars sparkle and shine. But, unless you’re in the preservation class, you’d better be sure that you have the correct parts, as the eagle-eyed judges can spot an incorrect window crank handle, dash knob, air cleaner wing nut, or any other vehicular faux pas from ten feet away. It’s amazing how many details these judges can recite.

Jay is not one to fret over the wayward pollen spore or bird feather besmirching his cars, even when at the Concours, as his main interest in the cars is to use them and to delight in the tales surrounding their creations (and the legends, myths, fables and lies about their prior owners). He also appreciates the changes that have occurred at the event, especially more recently. “Pebble Beach has really matured over the years, to the point where they have a restoration class and it’s not so much taking tweezers and picking grass blades out between the tires anymore; you know, it’s more about authenticity now, and that’s good.”

Unlike some, Jay doesn’t look at his vehicles as an “asset class,” instead seeing himself as a caretaker of his special machines. He feels that it is his duty (and his joy) to know as much about their manufacturers and operations as possible. “I always felt that they should have a written test for the owners at the Concours to see what they really know about the car, because you know [some owners buy their cars] and give it to someone, then you don’t see it for three years and it shows up at Pebble Beach.”

Jay particularly enjoys the story of an entrant who was going to be dinged for not having a working dash clock. The harried owner desperately tried to contact the restorer to find out where the fuse was before the judges came back to finish their inspection, only to learn-apparently for the first time—that the spring-driven clock required manual winding.

The period around the Concours itself (which takes place on a Sunday) has become jam-packed with events. There’s The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering at the tony Quail Lodge; numerous auctions; vintage car races at nearby Laguna Seca Raceway; an Italian car show (Concorso Italiano), and so much more. Then there’s the very special Pebble Beach Tour d’Elegance, during which cars entered into the Concours can be driven on a route around the Monterey area on the Thursday before the event. Those who choose to participate are given a bonus during Sunday’s judging. What a treat to see these cars on the road, with the accompanying sounds and smells that onlookers also experienced when these cars were new, some over a century ago. As all of Jay’s cars are quite roadworthy, he particularly enjoys that event, as do the roadside viewers who get to see him and something special drive by.

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1999 Rocket, 1969 Lotus Elan, 2006 Ariel Atom + 2005 Mercedes-Benz SLR

The week also has become a great time for car companies to showcase their latest and greatest, renting luxurious villas and entertaining invited guests to indulge in fine foods and drinks after sampling some of their best and newest cars (often driving them on local roads, sometimes with company representatives on board). If an invitee wanted to, he or she could be at an auction, a party, a driving event, or a show pretty much from early morning until late evening for almost a week. The smart ones invite Jay to attend, as he’s everyone’s pal at these events.

While he loves the perfect 100-point cars, he likes to use his vehicles, driving each of them often. His guiding principle: buy a car; restore it to 100 points (occasionally adding some modern or fun details to make it more enjoyable to use); drive it until it’s a 50- or even 40-point car, and then restore it again. And while such modern upgrades may cause deductions from the judges, Jay’s whole philosophy is to enjoy what he has, almost like it’s his duty to share that enjoyment. That’s one big reason why he’s a devotee of the Bentley Drivers’ Club (founded in England in 1936), a group that puts serious miles on vintage Bentleys. Jay also sees it as his mission to be a keeper of the flame (figuratively and, with his various steam-driven cars, literally speaking),because owners of these special vintage machines who use them regularly require that people know how to maintain and repair them, which then requires that more people learn how to make the parts, all of which leads to the industry remaining intact and even robust. It’s all about supply and demand so, without a continuing demand, the supply of mechanics and parts will dwindle.

But Jay isn’t just a fan of the perfect historic car. He has been in to “resto-mods” and one-off evocative vehicles for years. One case in point is his “Blastolene Special” (AKA the “Tank Car”), a 9,500-pound behemoth created by Oregon-based glass artist and engineer Randy Grubb to showcase the amazing 810HP, 2,000-pound V-12 engine from a 102,000-pound military tank. Want more proof? How about Jay’s 1930 Bentley, a contemporarily-built car from Bob Petersen Engineering in England, which runs a Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engine boasting some 27 liters (not a typo; that’s about 1,650 cubic inches, or some four times the size of most modern V-8 engines—as Jay likes to say, “There’s no replacement for displacement”). Estimated to weigh about 6,000 pounds, the 700 or so horses can’t exactly make the thing gallop, but it’s great fun and, like the Blastolene Special, it produces an aural aria like none other. (These cars, like most of the others mentioned in this article, figure prominently in many YouTube videos, so check them out if you’re interested in seeing—and hearing—the real deal.)

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Shot on location at Jay’s garage.

Of course, Jay is best known for hosting The Tonight Show from 1992-2009 and again from 2010-2014. But among car aficionados, he’s legendary for his YouTube show, “Jay Leno’s Garage”; a web-only show during which, for some seven years,Jay hosts a new video review of cars and motorcycles every Sunday. You’re as likely to meet something made a hundred years ago as something that’s not yet on the road, because Jay’s tastes are incredibly eclectic. This Emmy award-winning show has introduced his 1,300,000 regular viewers to the entire spectrum of automotive madness—historic motorcycles, cars of the future which never made it into production, cars that delight and, frankly, cars that bewilder.
Jay is taking that idea of bringing the fast, the beautiful, the obscure—basically the wheeled past, present and future—to prime time in his new show, tentatively titled “Jay Leno’s Garage,” premiering this fall on CNBC. Jay is not one to buy into the “end of an era” belief, that cars as we know them will disappear while we will get around in self-driving modules. Pointing to the last great change in personal transportation—horse to vehicle—Jay notes that there now are more horses in America (about ten million, by some counts) than at any time in the past, even during the Civil War, this despite some “futurists” predicting, at the birth of the car era,that the motorized carriage (now called a “car”) meant the end of horses as transportation. While automobiles certainly have overtaken horses in many ways (there now are over 250 million registered passenger vehicles in the U.S.), horse ownership still continues for a variety of pursuits, and Jay predicts the same for the future of cars—perhaps relegated to recreational-use only as roads become limited to the computer-pods but with conventional but special vehicles still beloved by many. Jay’s new show will be a paean to the Enzo Ferraris and Ferruccio Lamborghinis; the Henry Fords; the Preston Tuckers; the Walter Chryslers and the Elon Musks, the dreamers and the pragmatists, some of whom were successful in their days, some who still are, and some who went broke misunderstanding or even over-delivering what America wanted at that time. The show will mostly focus on cars that are located in the U.S., but may venture further in the future. One episode on which he was working when we met involved the HPE750 Mustang from Hennessey Performance Engineering, a sub-$70,000 775HP screamer that hit over 207MPH during the filming (Jay himself took it to 175MPH earlier in the day). However, Jay is equally enamored of electronmotivated vehicles, so expect to see everything from Teslas to BMW i-cars, to Mission or Lightning electric motorcycles on the show, especially after it starts streaming into homes this Fall on CNBC (Jay just can’t seem to get away from the NBC family).

Most gearheads know that Jay has one of the most diverse, interesting, exotic, eclectic and—okay—occasionally weird collections of cars anywhere, housed in what he calls the “Big Dog Garage.” With approximately 135 cars and about 115 motorcycles, it’s certainly prodigious. And adjacent to the series of structures comprising the garage is another huge warehouse, which is devoted to maintaining and even restoring his machines. Lathes turn, drill presses whir, milling machines…well, you get the idea. This is not some “gentleman’s garage” with everything neat and tidy— it’s a working shop, with equipment large and small, new and old as well as historic (a few prominent spots are occupied by gigantic steam-powered machines that ran factories). But lest we forget that Jay is a man of his time, his shop also boasts a 3D scanner and two 3D printers.

Jay is so into the gestalt of machines that he’s taught himself how to operate and do some of the maintenance on his whole fleet. The older vehicles make sense to him just by looking at them, as if his native language is “classic car engineer.” “I always have prided myself on being able to get the thing to do what it’s supposed to without looking at the manual,” he says. “I mean, in a modern car, set the clock by holding the AM button down while putting your foot on the dimmer switch and turn on the left blinker. It’s not intuitive.” But Jay is no Luddite, as attested to by his McLarens, Lamborghinis and other modern pinnacles of technology. Watching him scramble under one of his steam cars—like the 1906 Stanley Steamer, 1907 White, or 1925 Doble—light the pilot and fire up the burner—and then seeing the joy and pride on his face as he gets it to go, you know that this truly is his passion. But what’s the theme of this assemblage of rolling iron?

Walking amongst the dozens and dozens of cars and bikes, all parked neatly on gleaming white floors under spotlights, in a series of interconnecting rooms, it’s hard to discern a pattern. Cars large and small, some really fast, others more pokey. Open top and closed. Foreign and domestic. What ties them all together?

One important commonality is that every one of Jay’s vehicles is ready to be driven or ridden, and he makes good use of them. He’s not tied to a computer-assisted program that determines the exact time when his “stock should be rotated,” as he prefers to choose what’s of interest to him each day, depending on where he’s going. “Everything here is registered on the road, and I drive them all. Everything here runs and runs; most of them start on the button, which is kind of fun. These aren’t kinetic artwork; they’re meant to go down the road.” But to Jay, getting there isn’t half the fun; it’s almost all of it. “How I get there is way more important than where I’m going,” he says. And that’s why he’s seen so often driving around Los Angeles: he wants to be on the road, exercising his stable and feeling the joy of making a decades-old—or even century-old vehicle—strut its stuff, and knowing that he had a part in making that happen.

Year:1947, Make:Bugatti, Model:Type 37A, Style;2 Seat Sports, Owner:Jay Leno, Exhibit Year:2009, Notes:Jay Leno with his Bugatti
Jay Leno with his 1947 Bugatti 37A

Just don’t call Jay’s cars a “collection”: a term that causes him to bristle. He prefers “a garage that got out of hand.” “I just try to avoid ‘The-Lifestyles-of-the-Rich-and-Famous’ kind of thing. I mean, there are cars here that are quite valuable, and then there are just old cars that I like—Model Ts, Corvairs, cars that I thought were interesting in their times.” Jay has been written about so many times, that a “Jay Leno” Google search produces some 18,600,000 results. Often, the theme is something like, “Jay Leno’s Secret Car Lair.” He finds that irritating, even more so when someone sees him with one of his cars and asks its value—not “What is that?” or “When was it made?” or “What’s it running?”, just “What’s it worth?” He really does see himself as some sort of keeper of the flame, and delights in discussing his cars’ provenance, engineering, design and operation.

Not to get all “Benjamin Buttoned” here but let’s step back a bit and see where Jay came from and how he got here. His dad was from a loud Italian family, and his mom emigrated from Scotland with her family when she was eleven. His dad sold insurance, starting door-to-door in Harlem, NY selling policies that cost five cents a week, and part of that job was to walk through the neighborhoods weekly to collect the nickels. Jay’s large and boisterous Italian family gave him major fodder for his stories later in life. Jay’s brother Patrick, ten years older and almost a generation apart, was more similar to their mom—a quiet, intelligent fellow who was a good student and somewhat serious sort of guy. Sent to military school in his teens, he went on to graduate from Yale Law School but eventually returned to his roots, selling insurance like his dad had done. Patrick passed away in 2002 from cancer at the age of 62.

Jay was an okay student but didn’t learn conventionally, though he didn’t know of a big reason for those struggles until he was diagnosed as dyslexic. His mom did what she could, helping him do homework and with whatever else he needed assistance. His mother was smart yet not formally educated, and her strong Scottish brogue made some of their kitchen table sessions comical—for example, her trying to teach young Jay French, giving him exposure to at least two languages that he couldn’t understand. Yet the turning point in his life really came from his English teacher, Mrs. Hawke, who noticed how teenage Jay periodically held court in the school hallways, telling jokes. Presciently she suggested that, for his assignments, he should write out his stories on paper and then read them aloud to the class. Bingo! Jay had never enjoyed homework before, but after that it became a source of great pleasure for him. He was so grateful for her guidance that he created a scholarship in her name at the school.

Jay lived at home until he went to university about thirty miles away, at Boston’s Emerson College, from which he graduated in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in speech therapy. Again presaging what his life would become as the owner of world-class automobiles and motorcycles, Jay got a job at the local Rolls-Royce-Bentley dealer (they typically were the same dealership at that time): “I did new car prep, that’s what I did. I was a kid, you know, putting on license plates, checking the oil. I was a college student at the time so consequently I was a little better equipped to deal with some of the rich customers, as I knew how to talk. They would send me to pick people up and take them around and do whatever; it was primarily…light mechanic work, changing oil and things like that.”

But comedy was in his veins, so he headed west after college to the joke-and- television capital of the world. It wasn’t long before cars started playing a large part in his life. He bought a 1955 Buick Roadmaster in 1972. He paid $350 for that 17-year-old car. It was the car that took him and Mavis—now his wife of 35 years—on their first date, and it was the car that took him to his first gig with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. And, though the Buick went somewhat fallow for many years, he still has it, but since the millennium it now boasts a Corvette engine and a modern chassis setup. So again, we see the ubiquitous themes in Jay’s life—finding something that he likes and then sticking with it, making it better, and then enjoying it for decades and decades. Did I mention that he never sells his cars (though he’s donated several to charitable causes)?

Like many struggling artists, Jay did his share of couch surfing and hanging out and of course, he showed up for the ever-present open casting calls. One memorable day, his agent sent him to try out and he found himself in a room filled with other men, but all much slighter than himself. Each time the casting director came out to call in one more hopeful, he’d cast an odd gaze at Jay. This process repeated itself all day until Jay was the last man standing. The director reluctantly called him in, Jay readied himself for the task at hand, and the director asked “Why do you think that you look like Woody Allen?” It turns out that they were making a show about Woody Allen, and Jay’s agent thought, “You’re funny, so maybe you can make it work.” Another day shot to hell.

Jay’s been oft-quoted saying “I’m a great believer in low self-esteem. So consequently, if you don’t think you’re the smartest person in the room and you think you’re going to have to work a little harder and put a little more time into it to get what everybody else does, you can actually do quite well. And that’s been my approach.” Jay can point to several instances where he has used that philosophy. For example, when he was starting out and going to clubs on open-mic nights, Jay would frequently outlast others who stomped off muttering, “I don’t need this.”

Exhibit Year:2009, Notes:Jay Leno and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
Jay Leno and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger

When he finally did get the host job at The Tonight Show, he proudly told his mom about it and how, following Johnny Carson’s lead, it would be called “The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno,” his Scottish mom, in her inimitable manner, gave him an earful—“Mr. Bigshot, oooh, ‘starring…!’” And that’s how the program came to be known as The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.

Jay knew that he had to work hard to get ahead. He knew that others had some advantages that he didn’t have, so he had to make use of the talents he did have. Work hard. Persevere. Prepare well. Learn more. Outlast the other guy. Perhaps disarm with humor. Those traits—all of which were both exhibited and espoused by his Italian dad and Scottish mom—made Jay who he is today, and have provided him with the resources that he needed to become as successful as he is.

His hard work—coupled with his somewhat self-deprecating demeanor (it’s not just part of some act)—is what makes him so approachable: everyman’s star. Today, he’s busy with cars and comedy, perhaps in that order. His wonderful marriage to his beloved Mavis, who shares some of his petrol passions and joins him at many of his car-related events, continues to flourish.

So what’s it like to no longer host a nightly show after do- ing so for more than two decades? Any sadness or remorse? Well, first, he’s hardly retired. He’s booking about 200 speaking events per year, both public and corporate. And here’s something you probably didn’t see coming—Jay Leno and Colin Powell, conversing about world events. It’s the Jay you may not know, the smart, world-wise and politically-savvy guy, on stage with a former four-star general, National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. That’s just classic Jay: he’s entertained us for years, making us laugh—much of the time at ourselves—and informing us too, all the while with a smile and a funny remark, not needing to show us how cerebral he really is. Now, as he enters the next act of his accomplished and interesting life, he does so with class, aplomb, enthusiasm, while, of course, at the wheel of something really, really interesting.